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September 3, 2005
WaPo On Katrina: It Starts Locally

Not all media outlets have forgotten about the responsibility of local governments to take care of its citizens. Today's editorial in the Washington Post not only reminds its readers that local authorities provide the first line of defense for its most vulnerable citizens:

But if blame is to be laid and lessons are to be drawn, one point stands out as irrefutable: Emergency planners must focus much more on the fate of that part of the population that -- for reasons of poverty, infirmity, distrust of officialdom, lack of transportation or lack of information -- cannot be counted on to leave their homes after an evacuation order.

Tragically, authorities in New Orleans were aware of this problem. Certainly the numbers were known. Shirley Laska, an environmental and disaster sociologist at the University of New Orleans, had only recently calculated that some 57,000 New Orleans Parish households, or approximately 125,000 people, did not have access to cars or other private transportation. In the months before the storm, the city's emergency planners did debate the challenges posed by these numbers, which are much higher than in other hurricane-prone parts of the country, such as Florida. Because a rapid organization of so many buses would have been impractical, the city's emergency managers considered the use of trains and cruise ships. The New Orleans charity Operation Brother's Keeper had tried to get church congregations to match up car-owners with the carless, and it had produced a DVD on the subject of hurricane evacuations that was to be distributed later this month. Unfortunately, none of these plans was advanced enough to have had much impact this week.

Instead the city decided to use the Superdome as a "shelter of last resort." Following that decision, a major mistake was made: Not enough food, water or portable toilets were made available to accommodate the enormous number of people who turned up. No one in the federal, state or city governments appears to have been prepared for the possibility that thousands would be forced to stay there nearly a week. With some forethought, the National Guard troops who arrived yesterday could have been en route before, or even immediately after, the storm. Five days was too long to tell people to wait without supplies.

The editorial misses two points that complete the loop. First, we can answer the question about the National Guard troops very easily. They get mobilized on orders from the governor of the state in which they serve. All that was needed was a mobilization order from Governor Blanco before the storm hit to get them in motion. Regarding the Superdome decision, that initially made sense -- until the levees broke, local authorities assumed that their stay would only take twenty-four hours or so. However, they wasted that time without moving transportation assets into position for a potential evacuation, hundreds of unused school buses that now sit under water.

The heavy-duty analysts at FEMA should also have anticipated this and provided direction towards these solutions. (We don't know that they didn't.) However, homeland security agencies in all major cities should have prepared for massive evacuations in the four years since 9/11. New Orleans' efforts show that it left itself woefully unprepared for such a contingency, even though it had known of its levee vulnerability for decades and its inability to stand up to a Category-5 hurricane.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 3, 2005 8:00 AM

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