This is the issue that matters the most

Could New Orleans have been cleared in time?

Donald Sensing has a long and informative post up about whether or not New Orleans could have been evacuated in time to avert the disaster:

Let’s walk the dog a little. Here are two key questions in evaluating the plight of 100,000 citizens of New Orleans:

1. What was the earliest time that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin might reasonably have called for evacuation?

2. Would that time have been early enough to reduce significantly the human suffering from the level that did occur?

This is the heart of the matter. The fact that the city was not cleared of those unable to get out on their own is why there is a humanitarian crisis in the first place. Note that I’m not talking about those unwilling to leave. They’re on their own and, frankly, I don’t much care what happens to them. Not when compared to all those suffering simply because they couldn’t evacuate on their own.

Sensing’s conclusions?

So, to answer my two questions at the beginning of this piece:

What was the earliest reasonable time that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin might have called for evacuation?

Given the facts and circumstances at the time, I think that it’s not realistic that an evacuation would have been urged or ordered before about midnight Friday. But overnight it would have had little practical effect. On Saturday morning, Gov. Blanco asked for a presidential emergency declaration; her request was timely. So it’s fair to say that Mayor Nagin should have urged people early on Saturday morning to get out rather than waiting until 5 p.m.

Would it have been early enough to reduce significantly the human suffering from the level that did occur?

Even had Nagin called for immediate evacuation early Saturday morning, I don’t think more people could have or would have left unless the city took active steps to make it happen. Thousands of people could have been been convoyed out using the buses. That they were not is fairly laid at Ray Nagin’s feet, it seems to me. If a plan to do so had been in place, an early Saturday evacuation order would have made an immeasurable difference in reducing the suffering. That nothing was done was, IMO, inexcusable — the Nagin administration had been through hurricane evacuations before and knew that people would be stranded

Now, this is obviously in line with my position. So be sure to check out Sensing’s post to see how he reached his conclusions.

These two questions directly address my reasons for not jumping all over George Bush and FEMA despite that their performance has been–shall we say ‘unspectacular’?–so far. In an earlier post a reader commented, when I stated that natural disaster relief is a local and state responsibility first and a federal responsibility last, “This is the kind of disaster that only the feds are equipped to handle.” I responded:

You mean, like, only the feds have buses to get the people out of the path of the storm?

I guess it depends upon what sort of relief we’re talking about.

Virtually all of the criticism I’ve seen has been along the lines of “the federal government couldn’t even get those poor people food or water…and this is AFTER the lessons of 9/11 have supposedly been learned”. (I’m paraphrasing.)

The problem with this criticism isn’t that the Feds shouldn’t have given food and water to all those poor people…the problem is that all those poor people needed to be taken care of BEFORE the storm hit. As in, removed from what was absolutely guaranteed to be a total disaster zone.

To blame the Feds (FEMA, the military, George Bush, or whoever) for not doing a good job picking up the pieces left laying around by the local and state government is irresponsible.

I realize that my position makes it look like I’m defending FEMA. In fact, that’s not my position at all. I believe that the screw-ups at the federal level have been pretty significant, and Bush himself is not blameless, I think, even if only because he’s the head of the federal government.

But the efforts to lay the scale of this disaster at the feet of federal agencies just plain ignores the responsibilities of the local and state governments. They had plans (or guidelines at least) and they didn’t follow them. Upon closer inspection, it appears that those plans were woefully inadequate anyway.

If those 100,000 (or however many) people had been in Baton Rouge instead, do you think maybe FEMA would have been able to get more food and water to them more quickly? If those 5,000 or so drowned bodies had been camped in a big tent city 200 miles to the north, how many of them would be drowned bodies right now?

I understand that it’s difficult (impossible) to get everyone 100% out. But there doesn’t even appear to have been an effort.

I fail to see how that’s FEMA’s fault or George Bush’s fault. I’m all for sticking it to FEMA and Bush for the things they’ve done wrong.

But for them to do what most critics seem to be expecting them to do would mean completely discounting any effort by local and state authorities, because it’s the actions (and lack of actions) at that level that put FEMA in a position where it needed to respond to all those stranded people in NOLA.

As I said, federal aid comes AFTER the disaster when it’s a natural disaster. Especially one with some warning like this one. In an earthquake out of nowhere, I’d expect the feds to be responsible for more as the local and state agencies would be caught totally unawares. But this looks like a case of sitting around and waiting for the feds to make everything all right, and then complaining when they aren’t going about it quickly enough.

In terms of after-the-fact “relief”, yes, the feds have to step up big-time for something on this scale. And I think they’ve been found wanting. But “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, and the way to prevent this sort of suffering is to get the people out of the danger zone before it gets blasted.

UPDATE: As much as I’m inclined to agree with statements that it isn’t worth rebuilding New Orleans, I’m not even willing to make the effort to argue the point. Insurance money and federal aid (i.e., my money and yours) are already earmarked for it and it’s going to happen. Only if the government bought the place outright and forbade any reconstruction would this have a ghost of a chance, and that’s not going to happen.

UPDATE 2: Paul at Wizbang, who lives in the area:

Bush declared a state of emergency before the storm even hit and he personally lobbied local officials to call for a mandatory evacuation. He was not the one behind the curve on this one. (But he still needs to fire that FEMA idiot).

UPDATE 3: Whoa! The Captain notes that ABC News has finally realized that New Orleans had an evacuation plan:

ABC also asked Governor Kathleen Blanco’s office about their response to the evacuation. They responded that they never asked for evacuation assistance from the federal government as part of their interaction with FEMA, only for assistance with shelter and provisions. They assumed that the city of New Orleans had followed its own evacuation plan.

That assumption wound up costing lives.

What are we looking at? 1,000 dead? I doubt it. Probably around 5,000. Maybe as high 10,000? Possibly. Or more? Not likely in my opinion, but what do I know?

Despite the death toll and the magnitude of the disaster, though, let’s not forget what would have happened if the storm hadn’t let up or turned at the last minute. A lot of folks keep going on about how this was “the Big One” that had been predicted for so long, but the truth is that Katrina was not the Big One. It sure looked like it for a while. But in the end it was far less destructive than it could have been.

UPDATE 4: Troops Back From Iraq Find Another War Zone:

“It’s just so much like Iraq, it’s not funny,” said Atkinson, of Woodlawn, Ark., “except for all the water, and they speak English.”

For a year ending this spring, Atkinson’s infantry company of the Arkansas National Guard patrolled Baghdad’s deadly Haifa Street, and scores of its members were awarded Purple Heart medals after fighting insurgents. Those war-zone images and instincts came flooding back Friday when Atkinson and 300 other Arkansas guardsmen, wearing helmets and full body armor, rolled into the chaos of central New Orleans.

“It’s like Baghdad on a bad day,” said Spec. Brian McKay, 19, of Mount Ida, Ark.


The guardsmen voiced little hesitation at using deadly force — a skill honed in Iraq — on the streets of New Orleans. “If we’re out on the streets, we’ll fight back and shoot until we kill them. That’s too bad but that’s what has got to happen,” said Spec. Jake Perry, 20, of Camden, Ark. “I didn’t spend a year in Iraq to come to Louisiana and get killed.”

Indeed, just the smell and feel of a war zone in the city put the soldiers on edge.

“The worst feeling was putting that body armor on,” said Spec. Richard Dunlop, 36, also of Camden, who with his comrades has vivid memories of the dozens of Arkansas soldiers who perished in Iraq. “I find myself checking the rooftops. I worry about stepping on something in case it is an IED,” he said, referring to an improvised explosive device or roadside bomb.

“I was waiting on a gunfight,” he said. “It’s weird.”

That this happened in an American city is shameful.


  1. Thanks for keeping on top of this stuff. I’ve linked to this post and the one at One Hand Clapping. I suspect that once all the rescues are done and people have time to review what’s gone on, that the Katrina aftermath in general, and New Orleans in particular, will provide painful examples for training films and exercises for a long, long time. On the other side of that, I’m amazed at how much did get done, and how quickly some of it got done, given the unspeakable conditions and the size of the catastrophe. I’m still trying to get my mind around the size of this, to be honest with you.

  2. When all is said and done, the feds will be shown to have saved New Orleans from its self-inflicted wounds. I invite you to review: Looking for holes in this thesis on the so-called lack of federal response in New Orleans

  3. I’m with you Murdoc. The Feds are the reinforcements – the state and local authorities have to prepared to handle this kind of crisis for a few days. I’m with you Murdoc. The Feds are the reinforcements – the state and local authorities have to be prepared to handle this kind of crisis for a few days. It takes at least a day to mobilize the National Guard, add a couple more if they are coming from another state. It wasn’t the FEMA and the 82nd Airborne trying to rescue people from the Trade Center. Somehow there are huge numbers of Americans who do not realize that our government is a Federal system in which the national government is supposed to be distant and restrained. With a few exceptions such as interstate trade and national defense, most governmental powers are reserved for the States. Don’t they teach American history and government in High School anymore? Like most emergencies, the earlier Katrina was dealt with the better, but the state and local authorities were absolutely unable to handle the job in time to avert disaster. A few good articles along the same lines:

  4. Here is one more. I wonder if any of this will make it into the mainstream media.