Guest blogger: 49er proportions the blame between governments

Introduction by Stephen:

My previous post was an exercise in imagining how different things might have been in the New Orleans Convention Center if government had responded better. In writing that post, I realized the challenge was entirely logistical. As far as I can tell (admittedly I’m no expert) the USA didn’t lack anything that was necessary to a rescue mission except organizational savvy.

My impression was confirmed by an article in the Globe and Mail this week. A Canadian multi-millionaire, Frank Stronach, decided he was going to take personal responsibility for saving 300-400 of Hurricane Katrina’s victims. Here’s the part of the story that got me:

Last Thursday, Mr. Stronach decided he could no longer wait for slow governments and large organizations to act on the tragedy unfolding along the Gulf Coast. He knew from his own life experience what it was like to be desperately poor and hungry — “Those things are burned right into the soul” — but could only imagine the danger that the survivors were facing. …

Mr. Stronach immediately dispatched his assistant, Dennis Mills, to Florida.

“I got this call from Frank,” says Mr. Mills, who was still in Palm Beach yesterday afternoon, “and he says ‘This is crazy! Let’s go!’ …

Mr. Mills is an organizational legend whose triumphs include helping to bring Pope John Paul II to Canada for World Youth Day and the Rolling Stones to Toronto for the successful SARS relief concert.

Mr. Mills immediately began working with FEMA and the Red Cross to cut through the red tape and line up several hundred candidates for the airlift. The first evacuees landed in Montgomery, Ala., where buses picked them up.

“These people were traumatized,” Mr. Mills says. “The first planeload of 126 was basically people they’d fished out of the bayou that morning.

It was as simple as that, I’m tempted to say. All you need is a good organizer and it can be done, and done quickly.

That’s my long-winded introduction to a guest blog from 49erdweet. He has researched government relief efforts, and assigned a grade to each order of government.

49er brings some relevant experience to the task. He explains that he had many years of fleet and system planning experience, spent several years on the board of an outstanding ambulance (and first responder) service, spent years as a California trained county peace officer and supervisor, and volunteers each year to oversee the public and volunteer transportation segments of at least two internationally known public events.

But feel free to disagree, and let him know about it. No one’s opinion is sacrosanct at Simply Put, including mine; so give 49er an earful with my blessing!

Full disclosure: I have taken the liberty of editing 49er’s work a little, without in any way censoring his views. I wanted to focus on the several orders of government; 49er addresses some other parties as well, at Minding the Gap. What follows is entirely 49er’s, though he speaks of himself in the third person.

NOTE: None of what follows will be supported by links or references. Mainly because most of it has been freely available to everyone wishing to look.

After bouncing around between the net and the tube, including some of the side stories that have yet to receive wide spread recognition, the 49er has come up with the following weighted governance grades IN HIS OPINION for the period beginning three days before Katrina blew through Florida, until midnight New Orleans local time yesterday, 9/5/2005:

New Orleans governance: C minus
Orleans Parish governance: D minus
Louisiana governance: F
Federal Emergency Management Agency: D minus
GW Bush: C minus
neighboring states: A
other national statesmen: D minus

New Orleans government: C minus
The city of New Orleans (NOLA) receives good marks for forcefully telling everybody to leave town ahead of time, and later for warning those going to the superdome to take food, water and blankets because they would be there on their own for several days and it would be “rough”.

They receive bad marks for earlier in time allowing the installation of a police radio system that could fail so completely during the foreseeable disaster they’ve since suffered. Whoever spec’ed out and okayed that system should be investigated criminally for neglect of duty. An emergency response force is useless if they can’t communicate on multiple levels. Many reports suggest the only communications left to them were primitive line-of-sight single-frequency “tach” channels. Cops outgrew those in the 1940s.

They receive a failing mark for saving their buses but not their citizens. Reports say during planning meetings when they came to the question of how to help evacuate the poor, the answer was silence. Effective leadership would have years earlier directed a team of action people to resolve that dilemma. No evidence has yet surfaced that this was attempted. (And, yes, besides reading of the city buses that were driven to safety, 49er saw the photo of the school bus yard containing over 300 partially flooded school buses).

The city receives good marks for ‘getting with it’ once the scope of the flood was finally understood. When your power is out and you are operating on batteries, and your emergency services people can’t talk and report back at will because their communications are down, leaders are blinded and naturally hesitant. They recovered from that problem fairly rapidly, apparently, so he gave them the benefit of the doubt.

NOLA also receives good marks for making a controversial decision to oppose anarchy by forsaking some safety and recovery efforts, and directing increased enforcement resources back against looting, crime, etc. The humanitarian drama steals our emotions, but anarchy is extremely insidious and once it had been allowed to gain a foothold the human cost could easily have been worse and longer lasting than from the flood.

And they receive good marks for yesterday realizing their emergency responders were wearing out and badly needed personal and recreational time away from the disaster zone. Sending them to Atlanta and Lost Wages was a good idea. Their local knowledge will be vitally needed as the body recovery program begins in earnest, and when they return they should have clearer eyes and strengthened hearts.

Orleans Parish governance: D minus
Orleans Parish seems to be almost completely composed of the downtown portion of the Crescent City. 49er has found little to clarify its relationship with NOLA city governance. It may be that some city officials wear two hats, similar to the city and county of San Francisco, but he cannot confirm that at this hour.

Never the less, the parish portion of the job seems extremely poorly done. For a parish that lived for decades under the threat of total disaster if a hurricane of a certain size descended upon its neighborhood, disaster planning was terribly lackluster and incomplete. As the interim level between city and state, it should have been jumping the gun to get things going days before Katrina hit, and then once again when the levies were breached. To this day he can find no record of them responding. Curiously, 49er can find response activity records for neighboring St. Bernard, Jefferson, and Plaquemines parishes, just not Orleans.

Louisiana governance: F
State governance did a good job of facilitating the original motorized evacuation a couple of days before Katrina’s second landfall. That went by plan and was pretty smooth. Personal friends that were in it said it was slow at first, but they reached Houston safely in well less than a day, and were pleased with the support they received.

Louisiana (LA) state authorities were given access to resources and “federal disaster area” legal status a full day ahead of time by the feds, but seemed to “sit on it”, rather than take pre-cautionary actions. Why this failure to act occurred will be interesting to determine. It is probably the worst and most critical failure noted. A state can always step in and override a parish or city, but the feds cannot override a state without approval from congress.

The worst failure of the state, in 49er’s opinion, is for years accepting the limited safety of a defective levy system that was too low and too old. (A new type of system — originating in LA — for reinforcing their bases with permeable clay and building up levies was only partially used in and around the mighty Mississip, before it was imported to other river cities such as Sacramento and St Louis, etc.) If a levy is too low, it is TOO LOW. If it is too old, it is TOO OLD. The state of Louisiana failed miserably to make that dangerous situation a matter of the national conscience. That was their collective duty. They blew it.

Federal Emergency Management Agency: D minus
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is too full of bureaucrats (sorry, Q). There is a place for them, but that number should make up less than 1/5th of the staff. Instead, they seem to run it. And the way they run it is about three decades behind the times. Two examples. First, officials in St. Bernard Parish, east by southeast and seaward from New Orleans, as of midnight last night had still to hear a from anybody at FEMA even though they had been leaving phone messages at FEMA headquarters for five days.

Second, for any flood victim to apply for aid – as of 5 PM yesterday – required them to phone or email for a packet, WHICH WOULD BE MAILED to the claimant’s address for them to complete and mail back. So now to qualify for disaster aid, a citizen must not be in so much of a disaster as to lose either phone or email service, and/or a bona fide mailing address. Ridiculous. FEMA needs a good flushing of its top-level administrators. They don’t need to just administrate “smarter” (the old saw), but they need to administrate “realer”, to coin a phrase.

GW Bush: C minus
Interesting comment last night on Fox from Newt Gingrich, when asked why the delay in response from GWB. His reply, “He was getting too much conflicting information”. Since 49er and others believe that has been true for two or three years, it is easy for them to accept. If he learns otherwise, he reserves the right to alter his grade.

neighboring states: A
Texas, Mississippi, Alabama all came through this with their states performing like champs — even though vast areas of the last two had been wiped out. Was the flooding the only difference? Maybe, maybe not.

other national statesmen: D minus
Life on the Bayou and Gulf Coast always brings out vile and pesky critters that can prove to be very bothersome. They are considered nuisances. Some of the nuisances do not have wings or feelers, but instead ride around in limos and hang out in the halls of congress. Those critters are now coming out in force hoping to put a political spin on anything done in the name of humanity. If we only hadn’t rid ourselves of the protection afforded by DDT, maybe they wouldn’t be so pesky.

(Cross-posted by 49er on Minding The Gap.)


12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. The Misanthrope
    Sep 07, 2005 @ 23:31:00

    The Louisiana governor, Senator and I believe there was one other person, asked for $60 million to improve the levy and they were denied by the Bush gang. They said the money was needed for homeland security and the war in Iraq. This was after the test study called Hurricane Pam showed the state would be in serious danger with a level 3 hurricane.

    No one comes out of this looking good. The reason Bush deserves an F is because as the leader of free world he is clueless and insensitive to people’s suffering. One cannot completely run the country as if one is running a business there are far too many variables. If Bush cannot process the right information than he should not be president. He had no problem not listening to against conflicting his march to war. To grade any of these organizations or individuals above F is nonsense when there are so many dead. If this were in a middle class or rich area there would be class action lawsuits flying every which way. These are the poor who don’t count because they don’t vote and they don’t contribute to political campaigns.


  2. Q
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 06:02:00

    You have to know that Misanthrope and I are going to keep the heat turned up on President Bush.

    I notice you’re pretty tough on FEMA, giving them a C minus and offering two examples of their incompetence.

    But who appointed the head of FEMA? George W. Bush, of course. He installed Michael Brown, who has failed completely in the responsibility. Moreover, Mr. Brown’s failure in the job was eminently foreseeable but he was appointed anyway because he was a buddy of a buddy of George Bush. The Washington Monthly summarizes:

    Michael Brown had no previous disaster management experience. Not only was he a former attorney for the Lyons, Colorado based International Arabian Horse Association, but he was actually *fired from* the International Arabian Horse Association. A Kos poster writes that his colleagues says he was fired for being an “unmitigated, total…disaster”. Brown was the lawyer for the horse association not back in the 1980s or 1990s, but until 2001 when he was brought into FEMA as deputy director.

    Bush Watch quotes Paul Krugman:

    The undermining of FEMA began as soon as President Bush took office. Instead of choosing a professional with expertise in responses to disaster to head the agency, Mr. Bush appointed Joseph Allbaugh, a close political confidant. Mr. Allbaugh quickly began trying to scale back some of FEMA’s preparedness programs. As many people have noticed, the failed response to Katrina shows that we are less ready to cope with a terrorist attack today than we were four years ago. But the downgrading of FEMA continued, with the appointment of Michael Brown as Mr. Allbaugh’s successor. Mr. Brown had no obvious qualifications, other than having been Mr. Allbaugh’s college [buddy]. The Boston Herald reports that he was forced out of his previous job, overseeing horse shows. And when Mr. Allbaugh left, Mr. Brown became the agency’s director. The raw cronyism of that appointment showed the contempt the administration felt for the agency; one can only imagine the effects on staff morale.

    And you blame FEMA’s failure on innocent bureaucrats! For shame, 49er! Bureaucrats always get a bum rap! 😉

    But seriously, you’re pretty tough on the government of New Orleans for allowing the installation of a police radio system that could fail so completely during the disaster. How come the disastrous appointment of Michael Brown doesn’t factor into GWB’s grade?


  3. Q
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 06:08:00

    I should explain that I am responsible for inserting the photo of Donald Rumsfeld where 49er discusses “other national statesmen”. This is the only place where I may have skewed 49er’s message.

    I don’t know whether 49er had Mr. Rumsfeld in mind. I thought of him because of a post at Toner Mishap (Misanthrope’s & B2’s blog) which denounces Republican leaders for turning the disaster into a photo op.


  4. 49erDweet
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 08:25:00

    Fair questions re: Brown/Bush, Q, on the surface but look a little deeper. My grades are based on an agency’s actual performance, not the popularity factor of its leaders. Regardless of how able/inept its current boss, the agency did what it has always done, in pretty much the same way. Even if I were to agree somewhat with the “benign neglect” premise, or the “Brown is a total failure” crowd, they haven’t gone backward, just haven’t improved.

    They are not the sharpest tack in the government, but they were there for LA, whether wanted (and used) or not.

    Some of the carping about Brown’s appointment is pure politics. (You remember PMPM’s recent appointment of a female cabinet minister who switched parties for the position)? Some comment may be valid. But you of all people know that an administrator is an administrator is an administrator. If he or she is a talented administrator, they can adapt to virtually any agency. (This presupposes they are alive and actually wish to be useful).

    So I’m not downgrading GWB’s grade just yet merely for earlier appointing Brown to a post at which he might prove to be less than useful. A list of names falling into that category going back only as far as the Carter administration would fill a Who’s Who in Government volume. Only when Brown’s failures are enumerated, rather than inferred, would that be the bureaucratic thing to do. 😉

    The photo op bit is fair comment, but far from even-handedly applied. It should cut both ways, but I suppose that would be too much to ask.

    Nothing that I write is an attempt to change anyone’s bias about anything. It is simply my opinion. I like to think reasonable individuals sometimes DO alter their points of view, but that is probably too much to ask of the body politic.


  5. Q
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 08:40:00

    Don’t take my criticism, focused on GWB, as a rejection of your whole analysis. I wouldn’t have given you the space on my blog if I didn’t think you were providing a lot of clarity. My apologies for not saying as much explicitly … I guess I thought it was self-evident.

    As for altering points of view, you’ve definitely caused me to think twice. I understand much better than I did earlier that much (maybe even the majority) of the blame falls on the municipality and the state. And I’m still keeping an open mind about the New Orleans Convention Center — whether people were directed there by someone official or by hotel managers who were improvising a response, which would explain the lack of supplies and general organization.

    As for the Donald Rumsfeld photo, name a Democrat and I’ll post their photo instead. Or I’ll just pull the photo, whatever suits you. I’m not comfortable spinning your text in a way that you hadn’t intended, but I honestly don’t know which “other national statesmen” you have in mind.


  6. The Misanthrope
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 08:53:00

    49er you did not address the first paragraph of my reply.

    In my haste, what I had meant to say, was that Bush had no problem sorting out conflicting information regarding his march to war, so the excuse about conflicting information makes no sense.

    How can one reasonably give a passing grade to Bush or to any government agency or department when so many are dead!? Our government did a better job of killing its citizens than any terrorist group has done, especially if it turns out that 10,000 have died.


  7. 49erDweet
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 09:29:00

    tm. Sorry, did not intend to ignore your comments. It was a long reply and I was trying to be cool with Q’s space.

    We don’t know how long Bush thought about OIF before giving it the green light, so I disagree with that point.

    As I recall it is Congress who authorizes public works funds and the president who administers them. Does he have line-item veto power, like Arnold? I don’t know.

    Human life is priceless. I agree. But to equate any loss of life as failure means that our entire environment has failed everytime a traffic accident occurs. I do not concur in setting the bar that high. They utterly failed to provide for the poorest segment of the population. But they’ve done other things, too, and their overall grade has to reflect their successes AND failures, otherwise why should they even try?


  8. 49erDweet
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 09:32:00

    Q, we’re cool.


  9. Q
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 10:08:00


    I appreciate both the thought you’ve put into this subject and your passion. I’m all in favour of dispassionate analysis, but with 10,000 people dead … it would be inhuman of us not to get stirred up a little.

    You write:

    How can one reasonably give a passing grade to Bush or to any government agency or department when so many are dead!? Our government did a better job of killing its citizens than any terrorist group has done, especially if it turns out that 10,000 have died.

    On the second half of the comment, I have to express my disagreement. Terrorists intend to kill. Even if all three orders of government were shown to be utterly incompetent, they would still lack the intent to kill. Therefore, though there may be real moral culpability, the failure to rescue people is not equivalent to a terrorist act.

    But I understand the point you’re making: in terms of sheer numbers, many more people appear to have died here than died on 9/11.

    Which brings us to the other part of your comment. How can we give any level of government a passing grade if the reality is, 10,000 people died? I agree.

    49er, the traffic fatality is not a persuasive analogy. Government may be responsible for a traffic fatality if a particular intersection was known to be a death trap, and the government didn’t make any attempt to level the grade, or install a traffic light, or whatever else might have been done.

    Similarly, no one argues that the government is responsible for the hurricane itself. What governments are responsible for is to plan for foreseeable calamities, and to give effect to their plans before 10,000 corpses litter the streets.

    Arguably, government saved many lives by evacuating 80% of the residents before the hurricane arrived. But does that warrant a grade higher than “F”? I’m not so sure.

    I know, the point of the exercise is to proportion blame, and some political actors are arguably more responsible than others. But Misanthrope’s argument is hard to set aside.


  10. 49erDweet
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 10:31:00

    The numbers are beginning to come out now, and they could easily change my grades. Remember, I said this was a fluid thing.

    Please be patient.


  11. Q
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 10:43:00

    Let’s hope and pray that the numbers aren’t as high as feared, that the estimates keep dropping … just as happened after 9/11.


  12. The Misanthrope
    Sep 08, 2005 @ 10:53:00

    Regarding terrorist, I agree it is an overstatement to make a point that the bottomline is the same — death to innocent people who did not need to die.

    Regarding the $60 million that was rejected that Bush allowed to pass through a Republican congress should mean a failing grade for both Bush and Congress.


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