February 16th, 2006

new orleans, fleur

What A Difference A Year Makes

One year to the day after being unanimously confirmed as head of Homeland Security Micheal Chertoff faces heated questioning and unrestrained criticism from Senators regarding FEMA and Homeland Security's response to the Katrina devastation.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the top Democrat on the Senate committee, said he couldn't understand why, in the face of the nation's biggest natural disaster, Chertoff chose to attend a conference on bird flu in Atlanta the day after the hurricane slammed into the coast. He said that under Chertoff's administration, disaster workers "ran around like Keystone Kops, uncertain about what they were supposed to do or uncertain how to do it."

This comes on the heels of the release of the House of Representative's 520-page report which is also highly critical of FEMA's actions following the storm.

"None of this had to happen," the report concluded. "The potential effects of a Category 4 or Category 5 storm were predictable and were in fact predicted. Declaration of mandatory evacuations, declarations that could have resulted in a more complete evacuation, were delayed or not done at all. New Orleans' decision to shelter instead of evacuate the population, as well as individuals' reluctance to leave, further resulted in an incomplete evacuation."

LA Governor Blanco and NO Mayor Ray Nagin along with other state and local officials were also roundly criticized in the report for not doing more before the storm.

In their defense, I will say that as of Friday morning, 08/26/05, the weather reports predicted that the storm was going to the Florida panhandle. I watched the local morning news for reassurance on my way out the door and went to work unconcerned.

That Friday afternoon, my co-workers and I were preparing to leave a little early to beat the traffic because there was a Saints game in the Superdome, next door to our building. We happened to check the storm track online because phoenix_anew was planning to spend the weekend in Biloxi/Gulfport with family. When we saw that the predicted path of Katrina was now headed straight for New Orleans, it was a huge shock for all of us. Many people I have spoken with since the storm said that they did not know about the change in the storm's path until late Friday night or early Saturday morning.

On my way home from work, I listened to WWL radio. They were alternating Saints pre-game coverage with storm updates and switched to a press conference with Ray Nagin. Nagin said very bluntly that he knew many citizens of the New Orleans area were not focused on the storm because of it being a Friday night and due to the Saints game. He expressed grave concerns about the short time available for planning and evacuation for the state, city and individual families.

Given the fact that we had less than 48 hours notice (they wanted people out by Sunday afternoon before the storm's outer bands reached Southern Louisiana), the evacuation worked. The fact that so many people did leave with so little notice is impressive. State and local officials along with the media deserve a lot of credit for this because they got this part right, in my opinion.

But... Every storm planning scenario, including the much-mentioned Hurricane Pam drill, anticipates that at least 20% of the affected population will not leave. They stay because of stubbornness, lack of transportation, lack of funds or the foolhardy notion that the storm won't harm them. Everyone from FEMA on down knows this and yet they were still not prepared to assist that 20% of the population. That's how they all failed. And this is the response to a disaster they can prepare for because of the nature of hurricanes. No such luck with earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, etc.

I am hoping they will be better prepared for the next "Big One" - whatever that may be. I just wish everyone had been more ready for this one. It's unfortunate that my city was the test case.