Paying the price of feckless local government

New Orleans is a grasshopper city. That’s its charm.
Eventually, though, winter comes.

Mike O’Hare has been wondering about all those city-owned buses that were left parked in New Orleans until the storm swamped them.

school buses.jpg

(AP Photo/Phil Coale)

O’Hare writes:

If the Mayor and the Governor, and the governments they run, had been on their toes, those buses would have been rolling on Sunday at 6 AM full of the people we watched being plucked off roofs and drowning all last week, because they would have had a tested plan to execute.

Part of the plan would be a contract for contingent bus parking on (possibly) city-owned land out of town and above the flood plain, rented out for pasture otherwise, with a dormitory and dining room for, say 300 drivers. The fairgrounds of an upland county would be good for this. You could have two such locations, one east and one west, and decide which to use when the storm committed itself.

Or you could skip the dormitory and dining room and just have the drivers stay in the buses playing pinochle for the 12 hours the actual storm lasts, then use a few of the buses to bring them back to whatever part of the city was dry to wait either for the “all clear” or for the order to pick up the buses again and start shuttling evacuees back home, if the levees held and the power and water were on, or to more remote longer-term sites if necessary.

Any competently-run city in the hydrological and geomorphological situation of New Orleans would have a constantly updated register of contract drivers and extra sets of keys at City Hall, and every school bus and transit driver would have in his or her contract that she was to report to the garage with a lunchbox and her assigned emergency route map when the mayor said Boo.

In fact, I think it would have had a full-scale drill, combined with a big concert, fish fry, and bonfires when everyone came home in the evening. One more time: for decades this has been “a city that will at some point fill with water to the eaves.”

The Israelis (and the Swiss) can get an army in the streets in a couple of hours: butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers ready to shoot. Having evacuation transportation lined up at all times ready to roll is, I believe, exactly the same sort of basic government survival function for New Orleans, like the self-sufficient hospital up on a platform.

I certainly don’t think Louisianans dropping the ball makes national incompetence any less reprehensible, because I don’t believe in the death penalty by drowning or dehydration for voting wrong in the last election. But that they did in fact drop the ball is obvious, and was about as predictable as the storm itself.

Louisiana generally, and New Orleans in particular, have a distinctive culture. Along with the charming parts tourists get all moony about are some really ugly aspects: the state is a sinkhole of corruption, incompetence, racism, and crime with an insufferable smirking attitude towards all of it.

I don’t know enough about New Orleans politics to judge whether a feckless citizenry has the government it deserves, or that a heartless elite has just left the poor in misery; probably at least some of both. Being marginalized tends to breed fecklessness.

If you’re an ant, you have less fun this summer and you live until next summer. If you’re a grasshopper, especially if you make a point of it, you die when (not if!) winter comes. Inactions and goofings-off have consequences.

I’d ask a question: Given that, obviously, neither New Orleans nor Louisiana had such a plan, and given that FEMA had spent money on contractors to develop contingency plans for a big New Orleans flood, why didn’t FEMA or its contractor notice that the local government had neglected something so elementary? Didn’t the bus question come up in the FEMA New Orleans flood wargame last summer?

But O’Hare reports that not everyone in New Orleans was derelict in duty:

NPR just had a great interview with a doc at Charity Hospital, which is finally evacuated. The patients went first, then the staff, then the nurses, then the residents, then the staff doctors: professionals being professional.

Things were so bad the medical staff was using IV drips to stay hydrated.

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