Saturday, September 10, 2005

Portrait of A Dangerous Incompetent

In their long article, Disarray Marked the Path From Hurricane to Anarchy, Reporters Jason DeParle, Robert Pear, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker from the NY Times and their editors seem uninformed about some basic information. While opening by telling us that Governor Blanco was "blistering mad" about being unable to locate the necessary buses needed to ship out the evacuées on Wednesday after the destruction of the hurricane, for example, they neglect to let their readers know something well known to many people who read the internet. That plenty of buses had been available that were now flooded. Their omission of this fact does as much as anything else in this article to underline the slant of the writers who are trying to get their readers believe that the majority of the fault in New Orleans lay with the Federal Government, not with the local government.

Here are some other points. The reporters inform us that:
"I'm very angry that we couldn't get the resources we needed to save lives," [Lonnie C. Swain, an assistant police superintendent] said. "I was watching people die."
We all know that there was a terrible human tragedy perpetrated last week. However, what many people don't yet know is that the reason the people inside the Convention center and the Superdome were beginning to die is that Governor Blanco's team ordered the Red Cross trucks not to be permitted to deliver their supplies either to the Superdome or the Convention Center because she did not want to encourage people to stay in the city and she wanted them to be evacuated. But somehow, in a 6 page article, the Times doesn't bother to inform us of this crucial fact. Seems to me that reporting it would be news in some quarters.

Here's another point omitted from the article.
Mayor Nagin and the New Orleans police chief, P. Edwin Compass III, said in interviews that they believe murders occurred in the Superdome and in the convention center, where the city also started sending people on Tuesday. But at the convention center, the violence was even more pervasive.

"The biggest problem was that there wasn't enough security," said Capt. Winn, the head of the police SWAT team. "The only way I can describe it is as a completely lawless situation."
But why was there no security? Because the Governor had ordered her National Guard to be weaponless -- and hence unable to carry arms and keep order in the SuperDome.

You have to read to the middle of the 5th page to find this:
The power-sharing arrangement was by design, and as the days wore on, it would prove disastrous. Under the Bush administration, FEMA redefined its role, offering assistance but remaining subordinate to state and local governments. "Our typical role is to work with the state in support of local and state agencies," said David Passey, a FEMA spokesman.
But even here the NYTimes omits to say that in other states, such as Florida, where Governor Bush showed strong leadership and made intelligent decisions, this arrangement worked very well. The lynchpin that fell apart so fatally is that there would be intelligent leadership at the level of the Maayor and the Governor. No amount of planning will cover that.

And finally here's a description of the incompetance of Governor Blanco:
Telephone and cellphone service died, and throughout the crisis the state's special emergency communications system was either overloaded or knocked out. As a result, officials were unable to fully inventory the damage or clearly identify the assistance they required from the federal government. "If you do not know what your needs are, I can't request to FEMA what I need," said Colonel Doran, of the state office of homeland security.

To President Bush, Governor Blanco directed an ill-defined but urgent appeal.

"I need everything you've got," the governor said she told the president on Monday. "I am going to need all the help you can send me."

"We went from early morning to late night, day after day, after day, after day. Trying to make critical decisions," Ms. Blanco said in an interview last week. "Trying to get product in, resources, where does the food come from. Learning the supply network."
So glad she was learning the supply network as this unfolded, and did not know it ahead of time. That she had not briefed herself on disaster relief routes before the Hurricane struck.

Still, as a literary point, it's interesting that the Times reserved its harshest critique of the Governor for the end of the article. Because it well knows that many readers' attention will have wandered off by then and this section will remain unread.

The article ends this way:
The evidence of the initial response to Hurricane Katrina raised doubts about whether the plan had, in fact, improved coordination. Mr. Knocke, the homeland security spokesman, said the department realizes it must learn from its mistakes, and the department's inspector general has been given $15 million in the emergency supplemental appropriated by Congress to study the flawed rescue and recovery operation.

"There is going to be enough blame to go around at all levels," he said. "We are going to be our toughest critics."
On that topic, they should look at this interesting model posted on Daniel Drezner's site, that explains that disasters ought to occur during emergency drilling, because otherwise no one learns how to handle the conditions likely to prevail during a real crisis:
1. The keystone cops response in New Orleans stems, in part, from a flawed model of how to train for disaster.

Training drills almost never prepare officials for the worst. New Orleans conducted disaster exercises in 2000 and 2004 for hurricanes, but these drills did not include the possibility of a levee failure. In Los Angeles, a major port security exercise, Determined Promise 2004, tested a new mobile radio patch unit that enables different emergency response agencies to talk to each other. Surprise surprise: the system worked well. Of course it did. When everyone knows disaster will begin at noon on Monday, they miraculously remember to bring the right radios and brush up on instructions about how to use them properly. Even worse, not only do many exercises avoid facing truly disastrous scenarios, they define success by how smoothly everything goes. This gives a false sense of comfort, or to use a technical term, it's STUPID. Instead, we need to drill into officials that the right measure of success is how much they learn. If things do not go wrong in a drill, then the exercise was not useful.
One fallout from this disaster, as much as anything else, is that Governor Blanco's incompetence has weakened state power from this point on; because now the Federal Government will assume the power to flatten local power, even when it is corrupt and the local government is efficient.

Maybe from now on we'll get serious about electing officials to office who have appropriate leadership qualities for the positions they are assuming.

UPDATE: See also this account of disaster management teams from Florida which cast a different reflection on the creation of the disaster.

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