September 11, 2005


The Steady Buildup to a City's Chaos: Confusion Reigned At Every Level Of Government (Susan B. Glasser and Michael Grunwald, 9/11/05, Washington Post)

Walter Maestri had dreaded this call for a decade, ever since he took over emergency management for Jefferson Parish, a marshy collection of suburbs around New Orleans. It was Friday night, Aug. 26, and his friend Max Mayfield was on the line. Mayfield is the head of the National Hurricane Center, and he wasn't calling to chat.

"Walter," Mayfield said, "get ready."

"What do you mean?" Maestri asked, though he already knew the answer.

Hurricane Katrina had barreled into the Gulf of Mexico, and Mayfield's latest forecast had it smashing into New Orleans as a Category 4 or 5 storm Monday morning. Maestri already had 10,000 body bags in his parish, in case he ever got a call like this.

"This could be the one," Mayfield told him.

Maestri heard himself gasp: "Oh, my God."

In July 2004, Maestri had participated in an exercise called Hurricane Pam, a simulation of a Category 3 storm drowning New Orleans. Emergency planners had concluded that a real Pam would create a flood of unimaginable proportions, killing tens of thousands of people, wiping out hundreds of thousands of homes, shutting down southeast Louisiana for months.

The practice run for a New Orleans apocalypse had been commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the federal government's designated disaster shop. But the funding ran out and the doomsday scenario became just another prescient -- but buried -- government report. Now, practice was over.

And Pam's lessons had not been learned.

As the floodwaters recede and the dead are counted, what went wrong during a terrible week that would render a modern American metropolis of nearly half a million people uninhabitable and set off the largest exodus of people since the Civil War, is starting to become clear. Federal, state and local officials failed to heed forecasts of disaster from hurricane experts. Evacuation plans, never practical, were scrapped entirely for New Orleans's poorest and least able. And once floodwaters rose, as had been long predicted, the rescue teams, medical personnel and emergency power necessary to fight back were nowhere to be found.

Compounding the natural catastrophe was a man-made one: the inability of the federal, state and local governments to work together in the face of a disaster long foretold.

In many cases, resources that were available were not used, whether Amtrak trains that could have taken evacuees to safety before the storm or the U.S. military's 82nd Airborne division, which spent days on standby waiting for orders that never came. Communications were so impossible the Army Corps of Engineers was unable to inform the rest of the government for crucial hours that levees in New Orleans had been breached.

The massive rescue effort that resulted was a fugue of improvisation, by fleets of small boats that set sail off highway underpasses and angry airport directors and daredevil helicopter pilots. Tens of thousands were saved as the city swamped; they were plucked from rooftops and bused, eventually, out of the disaster zone.

Chronology of errors: how a disaster spread (Keith O'Brien and Bryan Bender, September 11, 2005, Boston Globe)
Late on Aug. 27, less than 36 hours before Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin's home phone rang. It was Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Florida.

Katrina was a ''worst-case" pattern, Mayfield warned. A mandatory evacuation of New Orleans was necessary.

Mayfield's advisory was in an official timeline of events compiled by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Hurricane Center.

Thousands of residents were streaming north by then, alarmed by the increasingly dire predictions on the Weather Channel and on the local news. But it was not until 11 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, almost 12 hours after Mayfield's call, that Nagin ordered the evacuation.

The order would send buses to pick up people at designated locations and would take them to shelters, including the Superdome.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., that Sunday morning, Michael Chertoff, the US secretary of homeland security, and Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were receiving electronic briefings from the National Weather Service on the possibility of a levee break in the city. Despite the catastrophic implications, it would take more than a day for Brown to move to bring FEMA personnel into the region.

Every forecast from the National Hurricane Center, beginning 56 hours before the storm struck, had predicted that the hurricane would come ashore at Category 4 intensity or greater and that it would then pass over or near New Orleans and the Louisiana-Mississippi border.

Air Force ''hurricane hunter" planes, flying from Florida and into the eye of the storm, were clocking wind speeds of 145 miles per hour, then 150, then 160.

But from the critical hours before the hurricane made landfall to the desperate days after Katrina sent floodwaters surging into the streets of New Orleans, government officials at every level -- local, state, and federal -- had misjudged, miscommunicated, and underestimated both the power of the storm and the seriousness of its aftermath. [...]

Arriving at her office on Sunday morning, two days after she declared a state of emergency and a day before the hurricane's landfall, Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco, had her staff write a letter to President Bush.

''Based on predictions we have received from the National Weather Service and other sources, I have determined that [Hurricane Katrina] will be of such severity and magnitude that effective response will be beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments and that supplementary federal assistance will be necessary," she told the president in a three-page memo on the letterhead of the State of Louisiana Military Department.

But the request did not include what the residents of the Gulf Coast would need most in the coming days: food, water, transportation to higher ground, and thousands of National Guard troops to ferry life-saving supplies and medical personnel and to restore order.

Instead, she sought access to several federal assistance programs focusing almost solely on the economic recovery that would be required in the aftermath of the storm. She asked for disaster unemployment assistance, crisis counseling, and Small Business Administration loans for the survivors -- all critical assistance, but far from the cavalry that would be needed in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

There were obstacles to amassing that sort of force. Almost 40 percent of Louisiana's National Guard is on active duty in Iraq; this left the governor with only 4,000 members to muster over the weekend, and a total of 5,700 by Monday.

Aware of this problem, other governors, including New Mexico's Bill Richardson, offered to help. On Sunday afternoon, Richardson called Blanco offering his own state militia, and Blanco readily accepted.

That did not solve the problem.

Because of legal guidelines, Richardson could not send a single soldier until approval came from Washington, specifically the National Guard Bureau. Washington, meanwhile, could not give such approval without a formal request from Blanco.

That request was made Tuesday, after New Orleans was almost completely under water. It would be two more days, until late Thursday, before that authority would come from Washington. And by then, almost four days had passed since Katrina hit the coast. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were dead.

Bureaucratic glitches slowed progress from the beginning. On Sunday, the day before the storm, the Louisiana National Guard asked FEMA for 700 buses to evacuate people. It received only 100.

Even after the federal government stepped in, there were still more snags. The mutual aid agreements among states did not allow out-of-state National Guard units to perform law enforcement duties. Blanco had to grant additional authority for that.

Other units would not deploy until their superiors received assurances that Washington would pay for their deployment with federal disaster funds.

The Politics of Katrina: Partisanship begins at the water's edge. (Fred Barnes, 09/26/2005, Weekly Standard)
NANCY PELOSI, THE HOUSE Democratic leader, tells a great story about questioning a benighted President Bush on Katrina relief. At a White House meeting last week with congressional leaders, she told Bush he should immediately fire Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The president's response, Pelosi says, was to ask: Why? What went wrong? Her conclusion was that Bush was "oblivious, in denial, dangerous."

Others at the meeting tell a slightly different version of the testy encounter, a version that sounds more believable. Yes, Pelosi declared that Brown should go, and Bush asked why. But it's her answer, not Bush's question, that is telling. "Well," she said, then paused. "For everything. . . . It was so slow." Pelosi offered no list of specific things Brown did wrong or failed to do. Bush was appalled. He knew how Brown had performed, wasn't happy with it, and removed him from Katrina duties two days later. Pelosi had merely uncorked the now-familiar blanket accusation at Brown. Bush responded sarcastically. "Thank you for your advice," he said.

A lot was packed into that brief exchange. It displayed the deep polarization in American politics that has shaped nearly everyone's take on Katrina. It showed the eagerness of Democrats to exploit the hurricane and its aftermath for maximum political gain. And it reflected Bush's failure to seize the opportunity of Katrina for strong presidential leadership.

-Pace of Recovery Efforts Picks Up: New Orleans could be drained of water sooner than expected, and in Mississippi, power is almost fully restored. In Houston, evacuees are told they'll get more permanent shelter soon. (Ellen Barry, David Zucchino and Josh Getlin, September 11, 2005, LA Times)
After almost two weeks of relentless tragedy, federal officials offered the city a glimmer of hope Saturday, saying that flooded parts of the city and nearby areas would be pumped dry within 37 days, not the 80 days originally estimated.

Local officials said that some residents of nearby Plaquemines Parish could return home this morning and that New Orleans' international airport would reopen Tuesday.

In Mississippi, whose coast Hurricane Katrina also raked, power was restored to nearly 98% of residents. And in Houston, officials announced that the 7,327 people remaining in the Astrodome and other temporary facilities would be moved to more permanent housing by the end of this week.

The search for bodies continued. Rescue teams searched for survivors. And political debate intensified over the pace of the federal government's response to the hurricane.

Too few dead and too speedy a recovery for the Left and MSM to follow this story more than another week or so.

Here's how the NY Times describes their Hurricane response story today in their e-mail newsletter. Breakdowns Marked Path From Hurricane to Anarchy (ERIC LIPTON, CHRISTOPHER DREW, SCOTT SHANE and DAVID ROHDE, 9/11/05, NY Times)

An initial examination of Katrina's aftermath demonstrates the extent to which the federal government failed to face domestic threats as a unified, seamless force.

Have you ever heard of a more ridiculous notion than that a modern bureaucracy would ever be capable of acting as "a unified, seamless force," nevermind that we would want it to? As the Founders well understood, freedom is guaranteed by the disunity and seams of the federal government.

-The Best-Laid Plan: Too Bad It Flopped (DAVID BROOKS, 9/11/05, NY Times)

Among the many achievements of the human race - Chartres Cathedral, the Mona Lisa - surely the New Orleans emergency preparedness plan must rank among the greatest, and the fact that this plan turned out to be irrelevant to reality should not detract from its stature as a masterpiece of bureaucratic thinking.

The plan (which is viewable online at begins with the insight: Be prepared. Or as the plan puts it, "Individuals with assigned tasks must receive preparatory training to maximize operations."

The plan lays out a course of action so that all personnel will know exactly what to do in case of a hurricane. The Office of Emergency Preparedness will coordinate with the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness in conjunction with the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan by taking full advantage of the courses offered by the Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Association and other agencies "as well as conferences, seminars and workshops that may from time to time be available, most notably state hurricane conferences and workshops and the National Hurricane Conference."

In addition, the plan continues, the administrative and training officer of the Office of Emergency Preparedness will maintain close communication with the state training officer of the L.O.E.P., making sure workshops are conducted at the Emergency Support Function level, reviewing Emergency Operating Center/E.S.F. standard operating procedures and undertaking more "intensive work sessions with elements of the emergency response organizations in order to enhance unified disaster planning."

One can imagine the PowerPoint presentations! The millions of cascading bullet points! The infinity of hours spent planning a hurricane response that would make a Prussian officer gasp with reverence!

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 11, 2005 12:01 AM

Didn't Schlieffen (or perhaps von Moltke) gasp at his last breath, "the flank, the right flank!"?

One can imagine Ray Nagin (had he drowned two weeks ago), gurgle out "a bus, a bus, my city for a bus!".

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 11, 2005 1:41 PM

Bush should have left the tiff with Pelosi, gone right into the press room, and announced that dear Nancy was going to NO with him that evening and would be assigned the role of oversight for Blanco. "You know, Ms. Pelosi can talk things up better than almost anyone in this town. I'm sure she can provide encouragement to the hurting people of the Gulf Coast. And she's such a prodigious fund-raiser; I'm sure she can help with that as well. Her energy and eagerness will be such assets for the hurricane victims".

Dame Pelosi in the Deep South? The mind reels.

Posted by: ratbert at September 11, 2005 2:11 PM