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Hurricane Katrina, What Went Right

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September 15, 2005
Katrina, What Went Right
By Lou Dolinar
http://realclearpolitics.com/Commentary/com-9_15_05_LD.html

With body recovery teams in New Orleans finding far fewer than the expected 10,000 to 25,000 dead, despite the flooding of 80 percent of the city, it is time to ask: What went right?

Largely invisible to the media's radar, a broad-based rescue effort by federal, state and local first responders pulled 25,000 to 50,000 people from harm's way in floodwaters in the city. Ironically, FEMA's role, for good or ill, was essentially non-existent, as was the Governor's and the Mayor's. An ad-hoc distributed network responded on its own. Big Government didn't work. Odds and ends of little government did.

The critical period was the immediate aftermath of the levy breaks on Monday, August 29 until the flooding crested on Sept. 2. If people were going to be trapped in attics, drowned in their cars, or washed off roofs, this is when it would have happened. Once the flooding crested, while thousands still needed to be removed from their homes, fed, and relocated, at least the immediate threat of drowning was over.

During the critical period beginning Monday, rescue helicopters were already reeling in at least 2000 people a day. These independent units comprised dozens of Coast Guard, Air Force, Air National Guard and Army choppers. Various boat-rescue operations by New Orleans first responders saved thousands more-even as the media's attention was focused on the Superdome, snipers and scenes of looting. The response to the real threat of Katrina, other words, was immediate and massive -it just wasn't the response the media wanted, expected or was spoon-fed at a press conference.

The precise records of who saved how many, when, are incomplete. However, the bottom line here is the count of the dead. That it is far lower than projections indicates that many of the people who faced imminent doom were rescued as waters rose. By Friday of the first week of operations, chopper crews had literally run out of victims to save and had mostly switched to transporting supplies, dropping sandbags, and rearranging people who were already safe.

The Connecticut Post, of all places, gives the best overview of the operation in a column by Peter Urban. He points out that a single chopper of the Louisiana National Guard, on Monday after the storm hit, pulled some 250 people to safety; there were 16 other 30- passenger Black Hawks in the unit that had been stripped of seating to fly similar rescue missions. If the other choppers only saved half as many people, that one unit alone pulled out 2000 people a day.

But the Louisiana Blackhawks weren't the only rescuers. The Coast Guard was flying as soon as the hurricane passed on Monday as well and had already accounted for several thousand victims by Wednesday.

The Air Force reported 1,300 rescues and some 14,000 "transported" by Sept. 4.

By Tuesday night, the Navy's USS Bataan amphibious assault ship -cited for its inaction by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman--in fact had five choppers flying rescue missions and had pulled out several hundred people.

But those weren't the only helicopters flying. Overall, 113 choppers were in operation around New Orleans by Sept. 1, according to The Armed Forces Press Service.

Urban also notes one explanation why the rescue operation flew below the radar of the media: Individual federal and state units were not coordinating their efforts overall. There was no central clearing house for information on rescue efforts. What looked like a hurricane relief breakdown was in fact a press release breakdown.

Local rescue efforts by boat were surprisingly robust, contrary to conventional wisdom. The much maligned New Orleans police and fire departments, which began operations Monday afternoon, were able to field 100 to 200 boats in the first 24 hours after the breach, according to local officials quoted in the Times Picayune. However, with the City's communications system broken down, the 500 to 1000 rescue workers had to organize themselves and so were operating without central command and control, thus also below the media radar. How many these police and firefighters saved is unknown, but with so many boats in the water so quickly, the number would have easily been in the thousands.

Meanwhile the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, claimed 20,000 rescues by Sept. 8 at which point it suspended calls for more volunteers and boats. While it is unclear how many of these rescues took place in the critical time frame, the only mention of this staggering achievement came in the Sept. 8 press release. How many national reporters thought to call the Wildlife department, or even thought it was a go-to agency?

This list is by no means exhaustive. State police and deputies from various Sheriff's departments were operating rescue boats, as was the Coast Guard. Individual National Guard units responded on their own initially, as did civilian rescue teams from out of state. Dates and numbers saved simply haven't been added up, or served to a skeptical media.

Besides the large number of rescuers, there was another key reason for the success of rescue efforts. The nature of the flooding differed from the scenarios that would have resulted in 10 to 25 thousand dead. Worst case models projected a storm surge that overtopped the levies by 10 feet, destroying them and creating an instant flood at or near the time a Cat 5 hurricane leveled 80 percent of the structures in the city and environs.

That only happened in parts of the city, eastern New Orleans. It is clear from video footage that even there much of the housing survived, at least insofar as it provided a few days of refuge from flood waters. The flooding elsewhere was extensive, but not always rapid--in many areas the rise was six inches to a foot per hour, easily evaded by a moderately fit adult or child.

Flooding didn't crest until Sept. 2, giving rescuers a five-day window in which to prioritize operations for the most desperate. Even then, few homes were overtopped and submerged.

The death toll from Katrina in New Orleans will inevitably rise, but it will likely be in the hundreds rather than the thousands, contrary to the ghoulish projections. That doesn't absolve authorities from responsibility for some of those deaths. As is the case in any disaster, the old, the sick and the handicapped will disproportionately be victims, bringing into tight focus the City of New Orleans' failure to take the modest steps needed for early evacuation for a few thousand of its most vulnerable. More died at the Superdome after the Governor decided on a Pol Pot solution for evacuation of the city, e.g. Starve the city dwellers to force them into the countryside. And of course FEMA's political appointees, and by extension the Administration, failed to step in to address these and other problems, particularly the lack of coordination between the many agencies that were flying blind for the first 48 hours. Indeed, if it turns out that there are large numbers of dead remaining, they won't have died for lack of resources, but rather, because there was no one to tell the vast and otherwise successful rescue flotilla where to go
 
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