hopperbach


Monday, September 12, 2005

A speedy response?

Post-Gazette writer Jack Kelly pens an excellent article detailing how the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was faster than that of previous storms:

It is settled wisdom among journalists that the federal response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina was unconscionably slow.

"Mr. Bush's performance last week will rank as one of the worst ever during a dire national emergency," wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in a somewhat more strident expression of the conventional wisdom.

But the conventional wisdom is the opposite of the truth.

Jason van Steenwyk is a Florida Army National Guardsman who has been mobilized six times for hurricane relief. He notes that:

"The federal government pretty much met its standard time lines, but the volume of support provided during the 72-96 hour was unprecedented. The federal response here was faster than Hugo, faster than Andrew, faster than Iniki, faster than Francine and Jeanne."

For instance, it took five days for National Guard troops to arrive in strength on the scene in Homestead, Fla. after Hurricane Andrew hit in 2002. But after Katrina, there was a significant National Guard presence in the afflicted region in three.

Journalists who are long on opinions and short on knowledge have no idea what is involved in moving hundreds of tons of relief supplies into an area the size of England in which power lines are down, telecommunications are out, no gasoline is available, bridges are damaged, roads and airports are covered with debris, and apparently have little interest in finding out.

So they libel as a "national disgrace" the most monumental and successful disaster relief operation in world history.

I write this column a week and a day after the main levee protecting New Orleans breached. In the course of that week:

  • More than 32,000 people have been rescued, many plucked from rooftops by Coast Guard helicopters.

  • The Army Corps of Engineers has all but repaired the breaches and begun pumping water out of New Orleans.

  • Shelter, food and medical care have been provided to more than 180,000 refugees.

Journalists complain that it took a whole week to do this. A former Air Force logistics officer had some words of advice for us in the Fourth Estate on his blog, Moltenthought:

"We do not yet have teleporter or replicator technology like you saw on 'Star Trek' in college between hookah hits and waiting to pick up your worthless communications degree while the grown-ups actually engaged in the recovery effort were studying engineering.

"The United States military can wipe out the Taliban and the Iraqi Republican Guard far more swiftly than they can bring 3 million Swanson dinners to an underwater city through an area the size of Great Britain which has no power, no working ports or airports, and a devastated and impassable road network.

"You cannot speed recovery and relief efforts up by prepositioning assets (in the affected areas) since the assets are endangered by the very storm which destroyed the region.

"No amount of yelling, crying and mustering of moral indignation will change any of the facts above."

"You cannot just snap your fingers and make the military appear somewhere," van Steenwyk said.

Guardsmen need to receive mobilization orders; report to their armories; draw equipment; receive orders and convoy to the disaster area. Guardsmen driving down from Pennsylvania or Navy ships sailing from Norfolk can't be on the scene immediately.

Relief efforts must be planned. Other than prepositioning supplies near the area likely to be afflicted (which was done quite efficiently), this cannot be done until the hurricane has struck and a damage assessment can be made. There must be a route reconnaissance to determine if roads are open, and bridges along the way can bear the weight of heavily laden trucks.

And federal troops and Guardsmen from other states cannot be sent to a disaster area until their presence has been requested by the governors of the afflicted states.

Exhibit A on the bill of indictment of federal sluggishness is that it took four days before most people were evacuated from the Louisiana Superdome.

The levee broke Tuesday morning. Buses had to be rounded up and driven from Houston to New Orleans across debris-strewn roads. The first ones arrived Wednesday evening. That seems pretty fast to me.

A better question -- which few journalists ask -- is why weren't the roughly 2,000 municipal and school buses in New Orleans utilized to take people out of the city before Katrina struck?


Good question. Furthermore, as the Washington Times reported on Sept. 7, Bush could have acted even sooner (try before the storm hit) had Governor Kathleen Blanco not dragged her feet:

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin told CNN's "American Morning" Monday that he met with Mr. Bush and Mrs. Blanco on Air Force One on Friday and implored the two to "get in sync."
"If you don't get in sync, more people are going to die," Mr. Nagin said.
Mr. Bush met privately first with Mrs. Blanco, then called Mr. Nagin in for a meeting.
"He called me in that office," Mr. Nagin said. "And he said, 'Mr. Mayor, I offered two options to the governor.' I was ready to move. The governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision."

That decision was a request by Mr. Bush to allow the federal government to take over the evacuation of New Orleans, which had been marked by chaos for days. The Democratic governor, who has clashed behind the scenes with the Bush administration since the storm hit, refused.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan confirmed the Air Force One meeting with Mrs. Blanco and the governor's decision not to cede her authority over the Louisiana National Guard, but added that he didn't think "it helps any situation to get into all those internal discussions."

"This isn't a time when people are trying to look at who's to blame or try to shift responsibility," Mr. McClellan said. "This is a time when we're all trying to work together to get things done."

Mr. Bush, at the request of Mrs. Blanco, declared the entire state of Louisiana a disaster area 48 hours before the hurricane made landfall. He also asked Mrs. Blanco to order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans on Aug. 27 -- two days before the hurricane hit -- but she did not make the order until Aug. 28.


If Republicans can muster up enough courage, some of this information might just make it into the inevitable hearings that will be conducted. Let's not hold our breath though.

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