Why is it taking so long for aid to reach Katrina victims?

Well, mostly because they’re all in the middle of a city that’s been hit by a hurricane.

I’m not trying to be coy here. The simple fact of the matter is that it’s just plain difficult to get food, water, and aid personnel to the people and places that need it the most. That is an obvious point that many seem to be missing. If it were easy to get there, the people there wouldn’t need it the most. Someone else more difficult to get to would need it the most.

First, I’d like to state loud and clear that I’m absolutely positive that screw-ups are happening right now and that they’ll continue to happen, despite anyone’s efforts, right through until the end. They’ll occur at the local, state, and federal level. The New Orleans and Louisiana governments will continue to screw up. FEMA will continue to screw up. The National Guard and the rest of the military will continue to screw up. Why?

Because it’s what we call an “emergency”. Things go wrong in emergencies. Things you thought you had covered don’t work out like you planned when the rubber hits the road. Especially if the road is under ten feet of water.

The biggest problem getting aid to those stranded in the city, even bigger in the great scheme of things than the idiots shooting at and carjacking relief efforts, is the condition of the logistics infrastructure.

Roads and train tracks are flooded if not totally wiped out. Even if they weren’t, they’re currently blocked by God-knows-what-sorts of debris. The same goes for the airports, with the additional problems that air operations need a lot of support at the airport end of things, and the airports are basically trashed. Ships, even if dock facilities were open for business–which they aren’t, as the city has been hit by a hurricane, probably cannot approach due to obstacles (or even just concern about obstacles) left by the devastation of–you guessed it–the hurricane.

Incidentally, this is exactly why, especially when we’re discussing a city out on its own, below sea level, and in between an ocean and a lake, it’s so vital to get as many people as you can out of the city BEFORE the storm hits. Using, say, buses or something.

We’re seeing the dramatic efforts of the military in action right now. They’re choppering in food and water. They’re plucking stranded pregnant women off of roof-tops. Amphibious vehicles are are storming ashore with supplies and personnel.

This is all great, of course, but in many cases military action, designed to operate in the smithereens of a war zone, is the only action possible. The Red Cross and other agencies, valiant though their efforts are, will struggle to cope with disaster of this magnitude. And the military, right now the leading agency in the relief effort, can only do so much. They can operate in places like this, but they aren’t really equipped to do the work that needs to be done.

The fact that the military is shouldering so much of the load right now, while a credit to our men and women in uniform, is really more a sign of how desperate the situation really is than a picture of great disaster relief.

Think back to the tsunami in Indonesia and remember all of those dramatic photos and stories about or men and women, trained to kill and destroy, saving the lives of those that survived the initial destruction. The military wasn’t there because it’s the best at disaster relief. It was there because no one else could get the job done.

Now, New Orleans is a lot better off than Indonesia. As roads are cleared and routes are established, supplies beyond imagination are going to be trucked in. Indonesia had no such hope. People and things can be flown in to cities near New Orleans and hitch a ride on the gigantic caravans that are going to be formed. But that’s just getting started now.

The sheer number of people left in the city, combined with the condition of the city, makes getting what’s needed to the people who need it very difficult. As convoys of semi-trucks and parking lots full of pallets of relief supplies pile up, we’re sure to see more and more stories all about how so much of what’s being sent isn’t getting through. It’s going to be told as a story of how the government or the military or FEMA or the mayor or George Bush personally is screwing up delivery of the water to thirsty people. We’re already hearing about how some of the ships the Navy is sending haven’t even arrived yet.

We can all pitch in and send a semi-truck full of bottled water to Louisiana. Getting that last hundred miles to the city is going to be tough, though. And once you arrive you must pick your way through a ruined, flooded city to reach people scattered across it in pockets separated by nearly-impassable destruction.

At least the authorities seem to be getting a handle on some of the violence. As more military units move in and the state and local authorities start putting their organizations back together, this will become less and less of a problem. At least in the sense that it will impede relief efforts.

And I’ll wager that the same folks giving us reports of piles of unused relief supplies today are going to be giving us reports of unused relief supplies a month from now and explain to us how too many MREs were sent or something.

There’s obviously a lot of frustration about the delays getting the victims the things that they need. Time is life in a situation like this, and every delay could cost someone dearly. But to blame the relief effort or FEMA or George Bush for it being so hard to drive in a flooded city doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Things obviously would be better if 50,000 or 75,000 of those in the city had been bused to refugee camps 200 miles inland. Getting them food and water and aid would be thousands of times easier. And aiding the 50,000 still in the city would be a less-daunting task.

Of course, if the hurricane had stayed at Category 5, if it hadn’t turned at the last minute, there also might be only 50,000 mouths to feed in the city. But it would be because there were 50,000 bodies floating in the streets.

Things are bad. But they’re getting better. It could have been worse.

As the days go on, more and more conventional aid will be able to reach victims. The critical period has passed. But it’s been a week already, and tens of thousands of people still don’t have what they need. Because it’s just plain difficult to get it to them.

UPDATE: A great read on the logistics issue at Milblog.

Meanwhile, a Chrenkoff reader notes that it’s actually Mississippi that took the brunt of the hit and that Mississippi relief efforts actually seem to be working. This, of course, is simplified by the fact that Mississippi doesn’t have a city with 100,000 stranded victims below sea level, but that is, in fact, supporting evidence…

UPDATE 2: Here are a couple of pics that illustrate my point:

This was Highway 90 leading into Biloxi.

This is only identified as an interstate across Lake Ponchatrain, but it’s quite likely I-10. (Click for better look.)

Remember that these are just to get to the cities in question. Once you manage to make it somehow, you get this:


Pics from various galleries at the WaPo.


  1. I think the point is that the people the media can talk to are clearly going to be in a safe place, and not in that great a deal of danger. The people who the government are looking after at the moment are the people that are truly stranded and in need. Or is everyone seriously considering we use the ‘out of sight out of mind’ concept in our rescue efforts: In this case, why dont we have a news team lead every military/police/rescue team? It would mean the media could never blame us. People are too inwardly focused, I understand there is a great need, but in a crisis, it is quite usually very true that there is always someone in greater need; especially if you actually have the luxury to relax and think about things like that.