Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina: A Fumble of the Highest Order!

Commerce was the sole reason that made the French settle on the strip of land between Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. An exotic piece of real estate that is prone to perennial floods and hurricane. That land later became New Orleans. Since then it’s been a well-known fact that New Orleans sits right in the bulls-eye of disaster. It’s just a matter of when.

After many decades and many hurricanes later, New Orleans finally succumbed to Hurricane Katrina, somewhat. Despite not being hit directly by the storm, the city now lies in ruins, waterlogged and inhabitable. Since Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005; gory and pathetic images upon images of the storm’s aftermath have been televised worldwide, and one can’t help but wonder what went wrong, after all, this is America. It is shameful and disappointing that we did not get to see the might of a superpower as I envisaged in an earlier post.

What went wrong?

Some factors acting in synergy partly account for the resultant effects of Katrina; the cumulative effects of which will later hunt and torment many forever.

A city below sea level

The vast majority of New Orleans lies below sea level. In June 2002, the Times-Picayune published a five-part series special report, aptly captioned: Washing Away; on the likelihood of catastrophic flooding following a relatively mild hurricane. This was way back in 2002. According to John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein, the authors of the article:
“The combination of sinking land and rising seas has put the Mississippi River delta as much as 3 feet lower relative to sea level than it was a century ago, and the process continues. That means hurricane floods driven inland from the Gulf have risen by corresponding amounts…”
Thus, the city has been depending on a system of levees and sophisticated pumps to stay dry. Then some levees failed following Katrina’s assault and everything went haywire.

There have been numerous warnings in the past!

Earlier this year I understand the local and state officials worked on a tabletop exercise involving a hypothetical “Hurricane Pam”. This group was billed to examine the resultant effects of a major hurricane. Unfortunately they did not finish their exercise before Katrina came roaring in.

There have been some warnings in the past detailing the impact of category 3 storm on the levee system and the city in general. This excerpt from an US News article (7/18/05) titled: Big Blow in the Big Easy is an example:
“The city's levees, meanwhile, aren't intended to protect from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane..., and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at least a decade away from upgrading to that level of protection. The corps says the current levee system doesn't provide full protection from even Category 3 storms, which could be the scariest scenario of all. "If a Category 5 storm enters the Gulf, I don't think we'll have to encourage people to leave--it'll be an easy sell," says New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.”
Heck no! It did not happen as you thought Mayor.

Then there was the New Orleans paper (2002) referenced earlier. Excerpt from the report:
“Once it’s certain a major storm is about to hit, evacuation offers the best chance for survival. But for those who wait, getting out will become nearly impossible as the few routes out of town grow hopelessly clogged. And 100,000 people without transportation will be especially threatened…”
According to the report, Jefferson Parish Emergency Preparedness Director Walter Maestri said: “Evacuation is what’s necessary: evacuation, evacuation, evacuation."

Going by the aforementioned, one would have expected a better-orchestrated show from the authorities than we saw a couple of days ago. Instead, there were glaring signs and display of finger-pointing, in-coordination and confusion. It was as if they never had the exercise and warnings!

A botched evacuation, “what is mandatory evacuation”?

The 2000 census put New Orleans metropolitan area's population at 1,337,726. The median household income is $27,133. The per capita income for the city is $17,258. 28% of the population and 24% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total population, 40% of those under the age of 18 and 19% of those 65 and older are living below the poverty line. Blacks constitute 67% of the population. This statistics depicts a cash-strapped populace.

It is a fact known to the local authorioties that many depend on welfare checks, and that a sizable chunk of the population depend on public transportation. Since there weren’t any concrete assistance from the authorities, I wonder how in hell these people were expected to get out and away from the looming disaster?

A nation with misplaced priorities?

I think the bulk of resources (money & manpower) that should have been spent and used in strengthening the basic infrastructure and the public safety-nets nationwide have been grossly reallocated to pursue the war in Iraq! The feds drastically cut FEMA’s budget and that needed to maintain the levee system. It wasn’t a surprise that the failed. In addition, a sizable portion of the army reserves in Louisiana are unavailable when they are needed most. Yet, we keep hearing from President Bush that the nation has enough resources to fight two wars and deal with the largest natural disaster in American history. I hope the paltry $10.5 billion approved by the congress for relief efforts is just mobilization money.

The ever-ubiquitous race card

No doubt, race, class, and poverty played huge roles in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans. And it should be expected given that the more wealthy citizens have vehicles, and live on higher ground compared to the poor. But given that the majority of the city’s officials are blacks, and the fact that there have been series of warnings in the past, it is somewhat tragic to inject racism into this fiasco. As Earl Ofari Hutchinson aptly states in this post captioned Playing The Katrina Race Card on
“…New Orleans was indeed the classic tale of two cities, one showy, middle-class and white, and the other poor, downtrodden, and largely low-income blacks. It was a city that didn’t wait for a disaster to happen. The city’s grinding poverty and neglect had already wreaked that disaster on thousands. Katrina only added to the misery. What happened next was predictable. Federal bumbling, bungling, and cash shortages turned relief efforts into a nightmare.”
Earl adds further that:
“The heavy handed rush to openly or subtly to paint the tragedy of New Orleans as yet another terrible example of the black-white divide in America does a horrible disservice to the poor and needy that are suffering. Admittedly a majority of them are black, but many of the victims are white too... That kind of talk smacks of defeatism. If one screams racism and deliberate neglect, and when it happens scream even louder, I told you so, it becomes a grim self-fulfilling prophecy…”
In a broader sense, the aftermath of Katrina as showcased live on the world stage, was yet another example of leadership failure that have been ravaging the United States of America in recent times. It was an unfortunate, unprecedented, unforgettable, and tragic fumbling of the world’s only superpower at the most crucial time in history; at a time her very own people were in dire strait and needed her most.

Food for thought

After all said and done, what if Katrina had maintained her course and made a landfall in New Orleans as a category 5 hurricane as predicted earlier?

Well, your guess is as good as mine!