Friday, September 02, 2005

Where Were the Buses?

In the immediate wake of the crisis that has been unfolding this week in the "Big Easy," focus needs to remain on helping the victims. Canadians can donate to the Canadian Red Cross online or by telephone at 1-800-418-1111. All major Banks will also be accepting donations as of September 6th.

Nonetheless, I'm still trying to figure out why those same convoys of buses, sent to rescue thousands of stranded refugees after Katrina, weren't dispatched before this deluge to stop this human tragedy, before it ever started.

It's not like we didn't have a pretty good idea of what was coming. Even CNN was onto that.

An estimated 1 million people evacuated New Orleans and surrounding areas as Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast Sunday. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said 75 percent to 80 percent of residents had been evacuated by Sunday evening. Some 30,000 people were taken to the Louisiana Superdome, reported CNN.

"We are in lockdown mode now," Nagin said on WWL-AM.

Walter S. Maestri, director of the Jefferson Parish Department of Emergency Management, estimated 1 million people had been evacuated. Approximately 1.3 million people live in the New Orleans metro area.

On Sunday evening, the hurricane was about 130 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River and expected to hit land early Monday. Conditions were already beginning to deteriorate along portions of the central and northeastern Gulf Coast.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, told CNN Katrina is the strongest hurricane he has ever seen. "Not just because of the intensity but the size of this and the area that it`s hitting," he said.

Mayfield said there is a lot of attention on the threat Katrina poses to New Orleans, but western Mississippi is also going to get hit hard. New Orleans lies below sea level, separated from the Mississippi by huge levees.

I'll have more to say about Katrina in future days. But to give you an idea where I am heading, read a bit of this from Alan Eisner of Reuters News:

Virtually everything that has happened in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck was predicted by experts and in computer models, so emergency management specialists wonder why authorities were so unprepared.

"The scenario of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was well anticipated, predicted and drilled around," said Clare Rubin, an emergency management consultant who also teaches at the Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management at George Washington University.

Computer models developed at Louisiana State University and other institutions made detailed projections of what would happen if water flowed over the levees protecting the city or if they failed.

In July 2004, more than 40 federal, state, local and volunteer organizations practiced this very scenario in a five-day simulation code-named "Hurricane Pam," where they had to deal with an imaginary storm that destroyed over half a million buildings in New Orleans and forced the evacuation of a million residents.

At the end of the exercise Ron Castleman, regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared, "We made great progress this week in our preparedness efforts.

"Disaster response teams developed action plans in critical areas such as search and rescue, medical care, sheltering, temporary housing, school restoration and debris management. These plans are essential for quick response to a hurricane but will also help in other emergencies," he said.

In light of that, said disaster expert Bill Waugh of Georgia State University, "It's inexplicable how unprepared for the flooding they were." He said a slow decline over several years in funding for emergency management was partly to blame.

In comments on Thursday, President George W. Bush' said, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

But Louisiana State University engineer Joseph Suhayda and others have warned for years that defenses could fail. In 2002, the New Orleans Times Picayune published a five-part series on "The Big One" examining what might happen if they did.

Also on my mind is this hard-hitting story, posted August 31, 2005, at Editor And Publisher:

Even though Hurricane Katrina has moved well north of the city, the waters may still keep rising in New Orleans. That's because Lake Pontchartrain continues to pour through a two-block-long break in the main levee, near the city's 17th Street Canal.

With much of the Crescent City some 10 feet below sea level, the rising tide may not stop until it's level with the massive lake.New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane.

In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.

Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside. Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle.

The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain.

At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

Newhouse News Service, in an article posted late Tuesday night at The Times-Picayune Web site, reported: "No one can say they didn't see it coming. ... Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation."

In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to a Feb. 16, 2004, article, in New Orleans CityBusiness.

On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."

Also that June, with the 2004 hurricane season starting, the Corps' project manager Al Naomi went before a local agency, the East Jefferson Levee Authority, and essentially begged for $2 million for urgent work that Washington was now unable to pay for. From the June 18, 2004 Times-Picayune:

"The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don't get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can't stay ahead of the settlement," he said. "The problem that we have isn't that the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that we can't raise them."

Garry J. Wise

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