A tough row to hoe

Even with more competent performance than we’ve had, cleaning up after Katrina wasn’t going to be easy.

John Cole of Balloon Juice, in an email from which he has given me permission to quote, makes an underappreciated point: yes, the governmental performance at every level in dealing with Katrina has been lamentably poor, but everyone was working against unbelievably bad conditions:

I still do not think that people understand the magnitude of the destruction. I think people get the human suffering, but I don’t think they understand that every road had to have debris cleared, etc., before meaningful relief could get through.

Everyone who has survived previous hurricanes is simply shocked at how strong this hurricane was, yet you keep hearing people say things like this: “I was here for Betsy; this was so much worse than Betsy!” and “The government was here 48 hours after Betsy; why weren’t they here after this in 48 hours?” I’ll let you examine the disconnect between the two statements.

Update But the Times-Picayune says there was always access to the city and wonders why everyone but FEMA seemed to be able to find it:

Despite the city’s multiple points of entry, our nation’s bureaucrats spent days after last week’s hurricane wringing their hands, lamenting the fact that they could neither rescue the city’s stranded victims nor bring them food, water and medical supplies.

Meanwhile there were journalists, including some who work for The Times-Picayune, going in and out of the city via the Crescent City Connection. On Thursday morning, that crew saw a caravan of 13 Wal-Mart tractor trailers headed into town to bring food, water and supplies to a dying city.

Television reporters were doing live reports from downtown New Orleans streets. Harry Connick Jr. brought in some aid Thursday, and his efforts were the focus of a “Today” show story Friday morning.

Yet, the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach.

We’re angry, Mr. President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.

John Cole responds:

All the media attention has been on the flood damage in New Orleans. The real hurricane damage is in Mississippi, in which several places simply got wiped off the map. They took the brunt of the brute force of the hurricane, and they(Gulfport, biloxi, etc.), for all intents and purposes simply cease to exist. They are no more. A great deal of the aid efforts had to be sent there as well.

We simply can’t look at this in the vacuum of the slow response to people in shelters in New Orleans. On Monday, we all thought New Orleans had dodged a bullet, and it was only after the levee flooding happened that we realized that New orleans was hurt as bad (and worse, in the long term) as the other places.

There was simply mind-numbing catastrophic damage all over the coast. Those casinos aren’t just damaged buildings in Biloxi. They are damaged floating buildings, essentially, which got lifted up ovewr the highway and thrown hundreds of yards inland.

Look around at the Mississippi papers. They are still yanking people off of rooftops in areas of Mississippi.

Again, I really don’t think people understand the sheer magnitude of this event. And having spent a few years in the Guard doing flood relief duty, I really appreciate the high esteem the public holds the Guard, but I really think they are radically overestimating the response time and the capabilities of the Guard.

The Hurricane Pam exercise they did last year predicted ten days needed for a full evacuation after the catastrophe of the type that happened. And that is not taking into consideration the other areas devastated.

I think there have been some major breakdowns. The fact that communications was a problem is inexcusable to me; how many dead fireman does it take to figure out how vital comm is? The same for the fact that no one had supplies in the Superdome, or that there was no real nuts-and-bolts plan for evacuation of the poor and the ill, etc. From what I can tell, there were plans about plans, but no concrete “You go here and do this…”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com