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September 10, 2005
Katrina: Incompetence Distilled

The New York Times has a feature story in its Sunday edition that supposedly looks at the frustration of coordinating the local, state, and federal responses to Hurricane Katrina. However, the article by a crew of Times writers instead inadvertently encapsulates the incompetence of Louisiana's governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, in a single anecdote that also calls into question the ability of the four reporters to properly investigate their subject matter.

The scene: three days after Katrina's landfall, and a day after the levees broke. The place: Baton Rouge. The setting: the state's command center for emergency response.

The governor of Louisiana was "blistering mad." It was the third night after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco needed buses to rescue thousands of people from the fetid Superdome and convention center. But only a fraction of the 500 vehicles promised by federal authorities had arrived.

Ms. Blanco burst into the state's emergency center in Baton Rouge. "Does anybody in this building know anything about buses?" she recalled crying out.

They were an obvious linchpin for evacuating a city where nearly 100,000 people had no cars. Yet the federal, state and local officials who had failed to round up buses in advance were now in a frantic hunt. It would be two more days before they found enough to empty the shelters.

Why didn't Blanco know about these buses?

Better yet, why didn't she and Nagin make use of the buses as called for in the New Orleans Emergency Response Plan? Section III-B-V lists the tasks assigned to the various city government offices in the event of a hurricane catastrophe. The Mayor has three tasks: to initiate the evacuation, to retain overall control of the emergency operation, and then to authorize a return to the evacuated areas. The city's Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) reports to the mayor and must coordinate with the NOPD, the state OEP, and the regional transit authorities to:

* Supply transportation as needed in accordance with the current Standard Operating Procedures.

* Place special vehicles on alert to be utilized if needed.

* Position supervisors and dispatch evacuation buses.

* If warranted by scope of evacuation, implement additional service.

Instead, three days after landfall and a full day after the massive flooding, Blanco suddenly came to the conclusion that the buses might be useful. Unfortunately, now they sat under water, along with most of New Orleans and a few thousand of its residents. She got incensed by the lack of buses coming in from the outside -- but all of the eastern access roads to the city got destroyed in the hurricane, and the few left functioning on the west side were being used to bring in relief materials -- which she would deny to the people inside the city for days to come.

All of this has been known to bloggers for a week. I wrote about this on September 4th, and I was not the first (the link above takes you to Junkyard Blog's first report on the subject). The Houston Chronicle reported two days ago that "City officials had 550 municipal buses and hundreds of additional school buses at their disposal but made no plans to use them to get people out of New Orleans before the storm..."

So why can't the New York Times do some research at least equal to that of the Houston Chronicle, and perhaps even as well as the bloggers who have easily researched the New Orleans plan and its requirements? Instead, their report includes assertions such as these:

New Orleans had used $18 million in federal funding since 2002 to stage exercises, train for emergencies and build relay towers to improve emergency communications. After years of delay, a new $16 million command center was to be completed by 2007. There was talk of upgrading emergency power and water supplies at the Superdome, the city's emergency shelter of "last resort," as part of a new deal with the tenants, the New Orleans Saints.

But the city's plan says that about 100,000 residents "do not have means of personal transportation" to evacuate, and there are few details on how they would be sheltered.

But it does say that the issuance of an evacuation order should prompt the mayor to get buses and other transportation assets into play to get those people out who cannot evacuate on their own. It clearly states that the mayor must position supervisors and dispatch evacuation buses. It's difficult to get any more clear than that. Those buses should have been rolling on Sunday, August 29th, with the initial evacuation order.

Why couldn't the Times reporters read that for themselves?

This anecdote and this report tells us all we need to know. It amply demonstrates the incompetence of the state and local authorities, who had no clue about their own emergency response plans in the days and hours before landfall. And it also demonstrates the incompetence of the Exempt Media in reporting the story that continues to this day. (h/t: Tom Maguire)

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 10, 2005 6:45 PM

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