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The human disaster in New Orleans is likely the worst in United States history. The inevitable questions began as the situation deteriorated and escalated to accusations as the human suffering reached unbearable. With the emotional finger-pointing going on by those suffering, the news media, and many others, the chain of responsibility seems to be forgotten. Let us try to determine who was responsible from before the storm to the evacuation of New Orleans.
Three days before the storm struck the Mayor of New Orleans and Governor of Louisiana knew there was a category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico headed for the gulf coast, possibly Louisiana. Both the Mayor and Governor knew the levee system was designed for hurricane strength of category 3. It is a worst case scenario. As the hurricane neared the Mayor announced the evacuation of New Orleans. He stated the levees would not hold. What was missing from his plan? And why did the Governor not call up the National Guard then? Where was assistance from the federal government?
Did New Orleans have a hurricane disaster plan? Was it practiced? The Mayor and Governor knew 25% of the residents in New Orleans lived below poverty level, thus without transportation or money for evacuation. What was the plan to evacuate these people to shelters? Obviously there was none, and the Mayor and Governor knew most of these people would be horribly affected in the event of levee failure.
The hurricane struck as a strong category 4. Initially New Orleans appeared to be damaged but largely intact. Then the levee failure became reality. Knowing the location of the levee failures and the areas affected, where was the plan or order to evacuate as many as possible before the flood water got too high? Where were vehicles with PA systems and people with bull horns announcing the evacuation so those who could get out by themselves could do so? Where were the vehicles of all types to evacuate as many as people as possible? It is Tuesday and the Governor has still not called for the National Guard. Why not? The first military response, by law, is the National Guard and its call-up is the responsibility of the Governor.
By Wednesday the situation has become desperate in New Orleans and living conditions unbelievable. Rescue helicopters are operating. Wednesday the Governor finally activates the National Guard. Wednesday, why did it take so long? What does it take for the Governor to think the National Guard is needed?
The news media is now broadcasting the human suffering all over the world. The first movements in the federal bureaucracy begin. The finger pointing starts growing, and the finger is pointing toward the President.
Thursday and the federal government is responding. The first large scale operation began. Food, water, medical, and transportation arrive along with troops to restore and maintain order. Work also begins on the damaged levee system and a plan to remove the water from New Orleans becomes reality. New Orleans starts to hope again.
In days since Monday it seems many have blamed the federal government in general, and the President in particular, for the lack of response to the crisis in New Orleans. Let us remember the events prior to and just after the hurricane’s arrival. The failure of the system was not at the federal level, it was at the state and local level. Much of the human suffering could have been avoided if the Mayor and Governor had made preparedness plans and made timely decisions. Therein lays the blame, if any, and the actual area of focus to prevent another occurrence. In spite of actual or implied promises by the federal government about the levee system, it is still the job of state and local officials to address the issue. The federal government should not necessarily be the finance provider of this type project. And if the financing does not come from the federal government, state and local officials have the responsibility to protect the citizens at risk. It also seems the citizens lacked the ability to do what was necessary to evacuate themselves. Was the survival instinct they used wait and someone, sometime will help? That is how it seems. The dependence on others may have made the human tool far higher.
Not that the federal government was without blame. The statement by a FEMA representative they did not know about the situation in the Superdome until Thursday is difficult to believe. Even Saddam Hussein had CNN. The President, in violation of a few laws and violation of many political protocols could have acted Wednesday morning. By taking the lead first and asking forgiveness later, he could have averted many deaths and much suffering. The same assets there now and still arriving could have arrived sooner. In the end the people of the United States would have supported his actions over any law or protocol.
Hindsight is always 20-20. Mistakes often cause suffering and loss of life. That situation is played over and over in the world every day. In general this disaster resulted from lack of leadership at the local and state level and those people should be disciplined accordingly. The President will pay whatever price the voters decide. The citizens of New Orleans have paid already with loss of life and home. In this case maybe it would be easier to be in government. May God be with them all.
© 2005 o. dell