Monday, August 29, 2005

Early Lessons From New Orleans.

I realize that the height of a tragedy is not the ideal time for finger pointing or blame finding. But when New Orleans Mayor Nagin delayed - according to news reports - issuing a mandatory evacuation despite being asked by the President, the Governor and the hurricane experts, until he was practically ordered to - one can only wonder how many deaths his delay may have caused. And while I did not see his press conference when he made the request (where he supposedly acquitted himself well), I did see him on the later local news shows when he talked about the upcoming disaster so... calmly... that it was hard to take him seriously.

He did mention that there was mandatory evacuation, but in the news shows I watched, he never tried to sell the urgency of the evacuation; he never pleaded with or begged his citizens to leave and he never gave them numbers to call if they needed help in leaving; in fact, he spent more time talking about oil prices than he did about the evacuation.

And then he contradicted experts about how long it would take to get the city running again, even after a direct hit - I think two weeks was his guess for both water and electricity - and that staggeringly wrong assessment essentially told his audience that it really wasn't going to be that bad, that there really wasn't anything to really worry about from this hurricane. Plus Nagin also claimed that there was no real threat from toxic materials when one of the newscasters brought up that subject. I even recall how the newscasters had to literally drag information out of him that their viewers needed to hear from him.

Fortunately, other officials made the mandatory evacuation point far more effectively and that helped get the majority of the population to leave the city.

But still, even then, even after that lackluster performance, when the last minute stragglers were interviewed after leaving New Orleans - their most cited reason for leaving - was the Mayor's - long overdue - mandatory evacuation order, even without his proper selling of this message to his city. It then became clear to me how much trust the people in New Orleans had in him. So imagine how many more might have left had he been selling the message that they needed to get to higher and safer ground - now - hard - and non-stop.

And then the storm started and... Nagin seemingly vanished... and was not heard from for many hours. Luckily, though, the city was spared a direct hit and the winds dropped considerably even before then - sparing the city an unimaginable disaster that would have leveled the majority of ALL structures in the city and flooded the entire city, with tens of thousands of potential casualties.

Then the Mayor seemingly vanished again until one of the local TV stations felt they had to ask their viewers if they could reach him and ask him to call the station so he could let the citizens of New Orleans... know what was going on! It was the verbal equivalent of putting his face on a milk carton. Granted there were some communication problems - but look back on how Mayor Riordan and Mayor Giuliani handled the LA earthquake and the 9/11 disasters. They each effectively ran the rescue and relief efforts while they still effectively communicated with their citizens on a non-stop basis.

And then when Mayor Nagin finally made a re-appearance, he looked... shell shocked. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look and he at first just repeated what FEMA officials told him from their helicopter tours of the city - tours he did not even take with them. And a number of the things he said - seemed somewhat exaggerated, and I could be very wrong here - MIGHT even have been contradictory to what other people were saying. But he did very accurately convey a sense of the size of the disaster that had hit the city.

My point here is that had he conveyed that same sense of impending disaster BEFORE the storm, far more people might have evacuated.

But there is still another failing of the Mayor's that was made very clear in the coverage.

Both before and after the storm, time and time again in interviews, people said they wanted to leave, but that they could not; they said could not afford to leave, they said didn'’t have transportation or they said were just too old to handle any part of the situation.

My final question is - if everyone knew this day was coming, and since New Orleans has a high percentage of its population living in poverty and many poor elderly and infirm - how could there not have been an evacuation plan that effectively included them? Why was there no concerted and organized outreach plan prearranged to reach those communities? Why was there no plan for school buses and churches buses to take them to safety, even if just into local shelters? Why were the churches not more tied in this last minute effort, other than just sending them faxes? One reporter even said that churches were setting up ad-hoc shelters once they realized that there were not enough localized city shelters set-up for those who could not leave in their communities, since they are the social centers of each community in New Orleans.

Now I don't know how this could have all happened the way it did... but it is more and more clear that we can not wait until our big one hits before we develop a detailed plan on how very aspect of our response needs to be handled ; a plan that tries to anticipate every need and every possibility. We can't afford to happen here what just happened in New Orleans.


It is now almost 1 PM Wednesday August 3oth LA time and multiple levee breaks are rapidly flooding the entire city. I have only been watching coverage for a few hours, but one person has been conspicuously absent from all the TV coverage that I have seen so far; but it was just mentioned that the Mayor was been interviewed on radio earlier today, which, is of course, where most of the people of New Orleans will be getting their news for a long time.


4:20 PM Tuesday August 30th

Mayor announces that a major pump has failed and the attempt to fix the levee breaks has failed. All of New Orleans will now be flooded to five feet over sea level and since most of the city is below sea level, that means 8 - 20 feet of water in much of the city (luckily, though, some of the city is above sea level) within twelve hours.

The second hand TV-related advice of the Mayor was to either evacuate - or move to a higher floor in your building. Now I assume he means the latter only if you can not get to a shelter or get out of New Orleans - but that is not what was conveyed on either report I saw. And no infomation on how to get out of town or get to a shelter was being given on the TV reports I am hearing. Now I asume that information is being given out elsewhere, but... still...


Anonymous said...

I would guess that many areas still have no real emergency plan and have not conducted a vulnerability assessment. NOAA has been working on the tools and parameters for these assessments:

As far as Nagin, I think it worked in NO favor and perhaps his technique was calculated. People DID get out. The roads out were slow, but a full-scale evacuation effort fueled by panic would have resulted in total gridlock and even fewer people escaping.

The storm grew in intensity in a hurry and a 24 hour warning is in reality a small time to deal with such enormous plans and consequences.

Anonymous said...

My brother only left Algiers Sunday morning and my parents didn't leave Sidell until even later due to the sense of complacency that Nagin fostered. And even then they only left because I said I would never speak to any of them again if they did not leave. There was ample time for everyone to get out. I only wish I was still a registered voter back there.

Amy F.