Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Experts' Predictions Ignored

Here is an excerpt from National Geographic;

...Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level - more than eight feet below in places - so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.
What is unique about this article is that it was written in October of 2004! Here's a bit more;

...When did this calamity happen? It hasn't - yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.

"The killer for Louisiana is a Category Three storm at 72 hours before landfall that becomes a Category Four at 48 hours and a Category Five at 24 hours - coming from the worst direction," says Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer at Louisiana State University who has spent 30 years studying the coast...
Sadly, these predictions have proven to be all too accurate. A tip of the biretta to Paulapalooza for spotting this.

New Orleans knew of the danger. Why was the city so unprepared? For suggestions as to what might have been done, I refer you to this morning's editorial in the NY Times by John Tierney, Magic Marker Strategy;

...Mr. Judkins is one of the officials in charge of evacuating the Hampton Roads region around Newport News, Va. These coastal communities, unlike New Orleans, are not below sea level, but they're much better prepared for a hurricane. Officials have plans to run school buses and borrow other buses to evacuate those without cars, and they keep registries of the people who need special help.

Instead of relying on a "Good Samaritan" policy - the fantasy in New Orleans that everyone would take care of the neighbors - the Virginia rescue workers go door to door. If people resist the plea to leave, Mr. Judkins told The Daily Press in Newport News, rescue workers give them Magic Markers and ask them to write their Social Security numbers on their body parts so they can be identified.

"It's cold, but it's effective," Mr. Judkins explained.

That simple strategy could have persuaded hundreds of people to save their own lives in New Orleans. What the city needed most was coldly effective local leaders, not a president in Washington who could feel their pain. It's the same lesson we should have learned from Sept. 11 and other disasters, yet both liberals and conservatives keep ignoring it...
When facing this magnitude of disaster, I'd say "cold but effective" is the way to go.

I'm not interested in playing the "blame game." But I do think that it will soon be time to begin the process of learning from this disaster. We need to identify what went wrong and create better plans for the future. Such plans might benefit from exploring creative options in place in other communities. Personally, I agree with Tierney; the best plans will be developed locally, with state and federal assistance being a secondary support system.


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