Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Indifference, or It Came From Lake Pontchartrain!

First, history fans, I must warn you of the heaviness of this post. My study of Katrina has taken a turn from dealing with race and class to focusing on the mishandling of the rescue efforts that followed the storm.
Secondly, I want to thank Paul Harris for taking an interest in this blog. He was kind enough to send me a book of his own account of being trapped in the Superdome during late August 2005. I look forward to reading it, and I feel that it will be a good addition to our discussion here on History Books. I also have been listening to Dan Carlin's podcast, Hardcore History, and have some exciting posts brewing about the Punic Wars and the activities on the eastern front during World War 2. But! Before I get swept up in these tangents, let's get back to the eye of the storm. See what I did there?

I was hoping to have Dyson's book Hell or Highwater finished before the end of Black History Month, but March sneaked up on me. The book has been pretty startling. I had heard prior to reading the book about how FEMA failed tremendously and how the government dropped the ball. As I began reading through it, however, it seemed that the local government, not the federal government, blundered big time. But as I continued reading, I realized it was a joint effort between local, state, and federal governments in the late and inefficient response to the devastation that Katrina wrought. Everybody messed up. The federal government, however, was trusted in the end to take control of rescue efforts, clean up, and rebuild, and it was they who delivered the knock out punch to the beaten victims of the New Orleans.

Where do you start to assign the blame? Does it lie with Bush? Can we hold Mayor Nagin accountable? What about Governor Blanco? To figure out how this disaster could have been avoided, you might have to go back hundreds of years. But for the sake of a subject that I know little to nothing about, we'll just go back about ten years when articles, documentaries, and editorials began popping up not only in Louisiana but all over the country that pointed out the poor shape that the levees were in and how a rough storm could spell a disaster for the city of New Orleans. Ten years ago! And for ten years, the army corp of engineers looked at the 17th street canal with an awful feeling in their stomachs. They told the government how much money they needed to fix the deteriorating levees. But there were more important things to do than to protect the poor citizens of the Lower 9th and Jefferson Parish.

The money that could have been used to prevent some of Katrina's wrath traveled across the Atlantic ocean, through the Mediterranean, and into the desert, where it pledged its allegiance to the lies of rich men. The engineers had estimated $1 billion could have secured the crumbling walls that embraced Lake Pontchartrain. Instead that money was sent to Iraq and to Afghanistan. Along with the state's money, Bush sent thousands of Louisiana's finest to fight and to die in the desert. And so the stage was set. The prediction was widely acknowledged: soon a storm would power through the sad defenses and fill up the Crescent City with water. Sadly, the warnings fell on deaf ears.

Tackling natural disasters is tough. There is only so much you can do to prepare for them. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and even hurricanes can happen quickly, without warning, and take the lives of unsuspecting citizens. Very rarely do we get an adequate heads up that something like that is coming so we can get ready. A tornado siren can go off five minutes before the cyclone rips through a town. We can now track hurricanes when they are forming beyond the Caribbean and can prepare for impact a few days before. How then do we excuse ourselves for getting ten years of constant warnings and no action was taken? The blame can be tossed from mayor to governor to president, but in the end, not one person in charge thought it necessary to rebuild the deteriorating levees in New Orleans.

The next big misstep fell into the hands of Mayor Nagin. As Katrina blew through Cuba and gained momentum, Nagin was told how serious the situation was. He stalled. And lives were lost. Giving the go for a mandatory evacuation is a tough decision. It's expensive and dangerous. I know that Nagin wanted to be sure that this was the storm they had all feared before he gave the order. Yet, even when his worst fear was confirmed, the mayor again hesitated. I can't wrap my head around why. A voluntary evacuation was issued. This meant that the folks who had access to vehicles could get out of harms way. The thousands of poor folk who were dependent on the city for transportation were out of luck. Not until Katrina was knocking on the door of New Orleans did Nagin tell everyone to get out. The official plan to evacuate the poor folk of New Orleans involved commandeering the city and school buses, picking up the citizens, and booking it down both sides of the interstate. Here is the result of Nagin's hesitation:

The mayor acted too late. The baton was then passed to Governor Blanco, who I think tried her best to deal with the situation. Again, she waited too late to act, but when she did, it was decisive and prudent. She contacted the federal government, told them things were out of control, told them what they needed, and waited. I discussed in the last post about President Bush's indifference towards the cries for help from the South, how he seemed to treat it casually as though it were something egregious on a list of things to do. As the commander-in-chief, Bush has to take a chunk of the blame no matter what, and with good reason. I've made it clear that I believe all levels of government were to blame for the poor response. But if I were to ask who is to blame for turning a disaster into a catastrophe, the answer would be FEMA.

Michael Eric Dyson does an absolutely fantastic job of covering the background of FEMA, how it originated, how it grew to be obsolete, and how it led to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Created in 1979 to deal with response, rescue, and rebuilding in the midst of natural disasters, FEMA balanced on the edge of bankruptcy and tumbled through mismanagement until Clinton took office in 1993. President Clinton, who happens to be one of my heroes, whipped FEMA into shape and during the Midwest floods of the early '90s, got the agency to help with rescue and redistribution. It bought out much of the ruined land and helped the citizens settle into new communities and lives. Through hurricanes and earthquakes, FEMA, though not entirely faultless, thrived and knew its purpose. However, near the end of Clinton's term, especially in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, FEMA began to turn its attention to something much more exciting than natural disasters: terrorism.

Soon after the attacks on September 11, newly elected President Bush became obsessed with fighting terror. He directed much of this endless, exhausting task to FEMA, which he had demoted from a cabinet-ranked agency to a small piece of the Department of Homeland Security. Because of its intense focus on terrorism, FEMA lost touch with the natural disaster part of the job. It still responded, but as we see in New Orleans during Katrina, the agency was weak and built to do only so much, its chain of command and protocol getting lost somewhere in a muddled bureaucracy and ill-defined job descriptions.

Aside from its late response, its inadequate supplies and troops, and the Bush administration's attitude of indifference, FEMA surely did all that it could to save lives and to protect those survivors living in squalor in the Superdome and in the Convention Center. Wrong. Dyson points out a dozen unbelievable decisions FEMA made during the rescue efforts that actually made my jaw drop. You are probably going to say that in a disaster that huge, there needs to be organization so that it doesn't become more chaotic. I would initially say yes. But what if the people who were supposed to be organizing weren't really doing anything and there were a large amount of resources within reach? That is what we have to face now.

Sitting in Florida were a few Black Hawk helicopters, equipped with water and food and rescue gear, waiting for orders that never came. I have to keep in mind that the military is trained and can't do things without being ordered or asked, even if they know that breaking the rules is the right thing. This is a difficult moral/ethical issue that bothers me to no end. The pilots wanted to join the rescue efforts but could not. Sitting in the Gulf of Mexico was the USS Bataan. On board was enough food and water and hospital beds to accommodate much of the miserable refugees in the Superdome. FEMA never even called to ask for its service, so it sat empty in the harbor. Trucks with gallons and gallons of water were turned away by the National Guard because they weren't FEMA approved. A fleet of 500 water planes from Florida begged FEMA to allow them to help with the rescue. They were told it was too dangerous. Two hundred fire fighters drove down from Illinois were stopped outside of the city and told that they hadn't been approved by FEMA. When George Bush visited, a helicopter filled with food and water was flown in for a photo shoot but then was sent back without delivering any of its goods to those in need. And probably the worst example was of a doctor who was giving chest compressions to victims who were dying in the street. FEMA told him that he had to stop because his credentials hadn't gone through FEMA. He showed them his credentials and begged them to let him continue. He was trying to save lives. He was then forced to leave by the armed guards, who, by the way, had been given a shoot-to-kill order from Governor Blanco in the midst of the looting and violence that had been grossly overstated.

I understand that New Orleans was dangerous, contaminated, and even violent. But no matter what excuse is given, I cannot accept these atrocities. It breaks my heart to think of that doctor and those pilots and those fire fighters who had the misfortune of seeing the suffering and not being able to do anything about it. I will admit that while reading it, I felt my thirst for conspiracy burning in the back of my throat. And though some may argue that some agenda existed, I really think it was human error, hubris, and, as the title implies, indifference.

This post has had little to do with the racial issues that Dyson highlighted at the beginning of this book. When it comes to the actions, the series of events, the mis-communication, the battle for control, color and class was drowned out of the picture. A few days later, however, the world could see them floating in the water, next to the thousands of bodies whose lives had been overlooked for decades, centuries. The $1 billion that could have saved the levees has turned into $24 billion. The city of New Orleans will rise again, still below sea level, still impoverished, and I can't help but ask why.

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