Senate Hearings on Katrina
Hearings in the Senate on the response to Katrina will be conducted beginning today. Le Monde has a nice summary on what they should probe concerning the President's and Chertoff's actions.
On September 3, it only took half a day to empty out the Convention Center and the Superdome, New Orleans’s giant stadium, where thousands has sought refuge from hurricane Katrina since Monday 29 August. The operation was carried out with 1,000 National Guard troops. Instead of busses, the refugees were evacuated by aircraft in the largest airlift in US history. With the disappearance of the scenes of chaos that shocked the world come the questions. Why didn’t the authorities respond quicker? Why so late? All those involved—the Army and the rescuers—were ready. Katrina was declared a hurricane on 24 August. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the federal agency responsible for emergency assistance, had even put together two teams of veterinarians to take care of injured animals. But nothing was activated in time.
The deficient response on the part of the authorities is emmeshed with bureaucratic problems. The Red Cross did not deliver basic necessities because of the lack of security. President George Bush hesitated before sending in troops. Tens of thousands of people were left without food or water after losing their homes in the storm. For a week, Katrina was a catastrophe without a casualty count. The authorities refused to provide estimates. No one was engaged in recovering dead bodies. On Sunday the death toll was 59 in New Orleans and 125 in Mississippi. Then the authorities began to prepare the citizenry for a high death toll. The chief of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, warned that there would be “atrocious scenes” as the waters receded. The Secretary of Health and Human Services announced “thousands of dead.”
Was the disaster foreseeable? On September 1st, the President said, I don't think anyone expected the levees to collapse. Michael Chertoff was of the same opinion, comparing the failure of the levees to an "atomic bomb" which had suddenly introduced itself into expected events (hurricane and transitory levee overtopping). However, warnings of a potential disaster were everywhere: From Hurricane Zebra in 2000 to Hurricane Pam in 2004, several exercises were conducted (but based on the scenario of a Category 3 hurricane, not Category 4). Last year, funds earmarked by the Federal Government to the US Army Corps of Engineers were axed by half without reflection on the consequences.
Why wasn't everyone evacuated? The Mayor of New Orleans declared a mandatory evacuation order on August 28th, the day before Katrina struck. But nothing was planned for the underprivileged. FEMA claims that it was the mayor's responsibility to rent busses. At least 2,000 coaches would have been necessary. Here again, the problem was well-identified: a study carried out by the University of New Orleans estimated that 125,000 people would be without transportation. The charity organization, Brother's Keeper, launched an operation in local churches to hook up car owners to those without a vehicle. The hurricane arrived at the end of the month, when thousands of people were awaiting their welfare checks and did not have the means to leave town.
Why did no one come to assist the evacuees in the Superdome? [Here are the snafus/excuses:]
The US Military: According to the 1878 posse comitatus law, active-duty military may not engaged in missions to keep order without a presidential order. Sean Kelly of Northern Command to the BBC that on March 30th the Pentagon created a Task Force but had to wait for a presidential decision as required by law.
New Orleans Police: The force has disintegrated. Overwhelmed, 200 out of 1,500 police quit their jobs. Two others committed suicide. Many of their squad cars were under water. The police had to do what everyone else did and help themselves to property. But soon even their commandeered cars ran out of gas. And they were shot at.
National Guard: The Guard has responsibility for maintaining order and for civil defense and is under the orders of state governors. Lt. General Steven Blum, the head of the National Guard, said on Saturday that his troops did not enter New Orleans sooner because they did not foresee the collapse of the civilian law enforcement: He then claimed that he had to wait for sufficient personnel to "attain overwhelming superiority". If we had gone in with fewer personel, there might have been a response. Innocent people might have been caught up in a gunbattle(...) We had troops assemble at a rate of 1,400 per day, and as soon as we had sufficient strength, the troops were sent in.
The Red Cross. The organization was not given the green light to enter New Orleans. At the Red Cross website's Disaster FAQ: Access to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders. We cannot get relief aid into any location until the local authorities say it is safe and provide us with security and access. The state Homeland Security Department asked it to stay out of New Orleans after the hurricane: Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.
Federal agencies: The Director of FEMA, Michael Brown, provoked indignation when he said on Thursday that the Federal Government was unaware that there were evacuees at the Convention Center when all that was necessary was to turn on the television. Michael Brown is not a humanitarian assistance professional but he is a Republican Party figure from Oklahoma. FEMA officials blamed the local authorities, who should have known that federal assistance kicks in only after 72 to 96 hours. Local authorities criticized foot-dragging on the part of FEMA. The American Association of Ambulance Drivers volunteered 300 vehicles. It was told to make an official request through the General Services Administration, which in turn demanded an official FEMA request. The ambulances never took to the road.
Is Louisiana paying a high price because of Iraq? The US Left views New Orleans as a victim of war: 40% of the Louisiana National Guard is deployed to Iraq (3,800 troops). President Bush has rejected this argument. According to him, the country can man both fronts. Governors are bound by mutual assistance arrangements with other states. The Federal Government blamed Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco for not having requested troops from other states soon enough. But according to the agreements, troops are to be lent for civil defense operations, not for maintaining order. Another exchange of faxes was necessary to authorize out-of-state troops to enter downtown New Orleans.
Where was President Bush? Mr. Bush is being criticized by members of his own party for not having understood the scale of the catastrophe. On Tuesday August 30th, Bush was at a military ceremony in San Diego. He flew to Washington the next day. His plane flew over the disaster area. But his aides were not with him to brief him personally. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card was in Maine. Condoleezza Rice was on a private visit to New York; she had gone shopping for shoes at Ferragamo's on 5th Avenue....
The failings of Homeland Security: This was the first test for the Department of Homeland Security, created after September 11th, 2001, (180,000 employees and an annual budget of $40 billion). One of the members of the September 11th Commission, Timothy Roemer, was quoted by the Washington Post as saying, We spent billions of dollars to try to protect ourselves and we haven’t made any progress. Representative Bernie Thomson cited the example of oil: If the consequences of what happened in New Orleans is an oil supply crisis throughout the country, it makes no difference if we were hit by a hurricane or a terrorist attack. And just like on September 11, 2001, officials were hampered by communications problems. The Police Chief couldn’t talk to the Mayor because their cell phones didn’t work and their radios couldn’t communicate said Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu to the New York Times.