September 7, 2005

Post-Katrina Shame

An excerpt from an opinion piece by the NY Times' John Tierney, entitled "Magic Marker Strategy.":

We can learn more by listening to men like Jim Judkins, particularly when he explains the Magic Marker method of disaster preparedness. 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.

Here's my letter in response:

I’m not even from New Orleans or the Gulf Coast, so I don’t have a personal axe to grind. I am a human being, however, and I’m completely outraged by the terrible, unnecessary suffering I have seen and read about. Your remarks about how local authorities should have taken care of evacuating locals were way off base, especially when you said that local authorities needed to be able to take care of refugees, and that they shouldn’t have expected assistance for at least 72 hours. Even if local government had bused people out, who could have paid for their gas, food and lodging without the official “disaster” designation that permits federal help? As you know, New Orleans has been begging for federal help with all manner of disaster preparedness, but has been coldly and efficiently refused by the Bush administration. Who knows if the “Sharpie strategy” would have worked, but the City of New Orleans did demand that people evacuate their homes, and pledged to shelter those too poor to leave the city in the Superdome and Convention Center. One or two days in the damaged Superdome might have been tenable, but how could local authorities foresee the sluggishness of the response? Evacuees were forced to stay there for at least 5 days, well beyond the 72-hour mark. Included in the number of people who died in those shelters were two babies who died from heat exhaustion. If those had been your grandchildren, you wouldn’t be calling for “cold effectiveness” -- you’d be raising hell! During the 1927 flood, Herbert Hoover, the then-Secretary of Commerce, managed to get help to the stranded within one day. ONE DAY. This was without planes or helicopters. Shame on our government!

Instead of taking advantage of the fully-provisioned hospital ship parked in the harbor outside of New Orleans, the many truckloads of food and water from Wal-Mart, from charities, and from private citizens, federal authorities actually SENT AWAY desperately needed supplies, while dickering over who was in charge. The New Orleans police and fire officials were overwhelmed and admitted early on, i.e., Tuesday morning, that the lack of electric power, plumbing, and telephone service was severely hampering their efforts, and that they needed manpower on the ground immediately. There has always been one open highway into NOLA, and there was sufficient dry land for helicopters to land and set up emergency shelters, evacuations, medical care, and feeding stations. This was not done until the following Friday or Saturday. That’s 126 hours, not 72. On NPR I heard the head of Homeland Security, the catastrophically inept Michael Chertoff, insist that correspondent John Burnett’s first-person account of thirst, heat, starvation, and complete lack of sanitation in the Convention Center was merely an unfounded rumor. At all times, the media, even Fox News, had a better idea of conditions than anyone at FEMA or in Homeland Security. Shame, shame, shame.