Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Democratic Underground : : Thoughts on Katrina From a Professional Engineer

This post by 'T Roosevelt' makes some interesting observations about apportioning blame. A more reality-based contrast to the blither and spin Mr. Brown is spewing this morning in Washington.


Blogger Management said...

I've been seeing a lot lately in the news and in the blogs about the "blame game" and who was responsible. Having worked in the engineering private sector interfacing with emergency management, and having spent the past few years working on my PhD in engineering studying hurricane evacuation, I can say that there is plenty of blame to go around. As in civil lawsuits, the question is how much is apportioned to whom.

Every jurisdiction at risk of a hurricane develops emergency procedures to deal with the possible consequences based on the predicted storm severity and expected impacts (eg storm surge). Resource allocation, placement of equipment and other supplies, and responsiblity of each involved agency is laid out in these plans. These plans are typically layered to account for increasing threat. Cat 1 storms don't require nearly the preparation or relocation as Cat 5 storms - obviously. And no city wants to evacuate if avoidable; this is costly both economically and in terms of risk to citizen and personnel.

Once the threat becomes established (based on NHC weather forecasts), these procedures are implemented, and as the threat increases, the additional pre-determined measures (layers) are taken. Emergency procedures don't kick in until certain criteria are met, simply out of practicality. Jurisdictions can't just willy-nilly declare emergencies and begin evacuations at any time, since nature can't be accurately predicted beyond short-term times (Hurricane Charley is a good example). Based on available timelines for Hurricane Katrina (ignoring the GOP-produced bullshit timeline), Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin appear to have done what they were supposed to do, when they were supposed to do it.

Once an emergency is declared, various administrative and jurisdictional procedures kick in. Blanco clearly did this on the Friday prior to landfall, and once the feds acknowledged her request (Saturday morning), they became obligated to aid in any number of specific ways. Mayor Nagin also took the steps assigned to him to move as many people to shelters as possible. The fact that the evacuation reached an unprecedented 80% is an indication of his efforts and his success (when 60% was expected).

Destination is a sticking point in many discussions - why the Superdome? Why the Convention Center? Where was the food and water. When evacuation procedures are developed, emergency evacuation shelters are identified. However, provisions are not normally made for providing food and water - this is the responsiblity of the evacuees (and Nagin pointedly recommended 2-3 days of food and water). Clearly the Superdome and Convention Center, along with a number of public schools or other sturdy public facilities, were identified as shelters, and performed admirably for the duration expected - around 2-3 days.

In addition, jurisdictions work with the resources available to them. This includes money and personnel. If the money is not available, things just don't get done, regardless of their necessity or potential for death or destruction. This is the free market at work. And evacuations are expensive. For example, much has been made of the school buses not used to evacuate. It wouldn't have mattered if Nagin had a million buses available to him - if he doesn't have the drivers, the buses are useless. Perhaps if the National Guard had been dispatched in a timely matter (and this is a sticking point between the Feds and the State), the buses could have been utilized. Given that Lousiana was short-handed on experienced NG troops due to their presence in Iraq, the federal government bears much responsibility.

An important point, however, is destination. Where would have the buses taken the evacuees? Most likely the Superdome, since any trip beyond New Orleans would have been effectively one way (remember, the freeways were contra-flow, meaning all lanes were outbound - therefore no return traffic). Beyond this, there would have had to have been agreements made or destinations established for these evacuees. Within Louisiana this likely would not have been a problem, though no unaffected jurisdiction would have been happy with so many evacuees descending upon their city. Anything beyond the state limits would probably have required agreements between Louisiana and the receiving state, along with the funds necessary to support the temporary relocation (be it shelters, hotels, whatever). Once again, money and free market raise their ugly heads.

The problems encountered during Katrina underline the importance of a strong federal government, and a competent agency missioned to handle such situations. State and local governments simply lack the resources (both money and personnel) necessary to handle natural disasters of this magnitude. FEMA was retooled after Hurricane Andrew to be the focal point of response.

Without an investigation, absolute allocation of blame can probably never be made. However, with a minimal amount of information some educated guesses can be made. And in the case of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA clearly dropped the ball, leaving the city of New Orleans and the state of Lousisiana to essentially fend for themselves.

9:34 AM  

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