First water, then fire for New Orleans

Fires broke out all over New Orleans Friday as 7,000 troops finally arrived to bring much needed food, water and order to a besieged city.

George W. Bush showed up, too.

Firefighters were largely unable to do anything but watch structures burn as there is no water pressure in the city available to fight fires. In some cases, fireboats were able to attack fires which broke out near the water.

In one case, looters cleaned out, then set fire to a shopping mall and then shot at firefighters who responded. They were forced to watch the mall burn to the ground.

People from virtually every government agency were finally seen in the streets of New Orleans Friday attempting to restore order. Even DEA agents were helping to patrol and secure the city.

“This place is going to look like Little Somalia,’ Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force told Army Times Friday as hundreds of armed troops under his charge prepared to launch a massive citywide security mission from a staging area outside the Louisiana Superdome. “We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.’ — Army Times

People are being evacuated from the Superdome, and then from the Convention Center and elsewhere in the city. Evacuees are being taken to places as far away as San Antonio, Texas, and Indianapolis, Ind.

However, as of this morning, buses had stopped arriving, and nobody seems to know quite why. Up to 5,000 people remain in the Superdome, with an unknown number remaining at the Convention Center.

New Orleans mayor Ray Gavin said earlier this week he was “pissed’ at the government’s slow response to the disaster. Now two key Senators are launching an investigation.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who heads the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the panel’s top Democrat, said they plan to begin an oversight investigation next week when the full Senate returns from a summer recess.

“We intend to demand answers as to how this immense failure occurred, but our immediate focus must and will be on what Congress can do to help the rescue and emergency operations that are ongoing,’ the senators said in a joint statement.

“It is also our responsibility to investigate the lack of preparedness and inadequate response to this terrible storm,’ they said, adding that it was “increasingly clear that serious shortcomings in preparedness and response have hampered relief efforts at a critical time.’ — Reuters

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been criticized for not responding to the disaster quickly enough.

“There was a time when FEMA understood that the correct approach to a crisis was to deploy to the affected area as many resources as possible as fast as possible,’ Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said. “Unfortunately that no longer seems to be their approach.’

And the disaster had been foreseen. In fact, it had been foreseen years ago.

Watching the TV images of the storm approaching the Mississippi Delta on Sunday, I was sick to my stomach. Not only because I knew the hell it could unleash (I wrote an article for Scientific American in 2001 that described the very situation that was unfolding) but because I knew that a large-scale engineering plan called Coast 2050 – developed in 1998 by scientists, Army engineers, metropolitan planners and Louisiana officials – might have helped save the city, but had gone unrealized.

The debate over New Orleans’s vulnerability to hurricanes has raged for a century. By the late 1990’s, scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of New Orleans had perfected computer models showing exactly how a sea surge would overwhelm the levee system, and had recommended a set of solutions. The Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levees, had proposed different projects.

Yet some scientists reflexively disregarded practical considerations pointed out by the Army engineers; more often, the engineers scoffed at scientific studies indicating that the basic facts of geology and hydrology meant that significant design changes were needed. Meanwhile, local politicians lobbied Congress for financing for myriad special interest groups, from oil companies to oyster farmers. Congress did not hear a unified voice, making it easier to turn a deaf ear.

Fed up with the splintered efforts, Len Bahr, then the head of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, somehow dragged all the parties to one table in 1998 and got them to agree on a coordinated solution: Coast 2050. Completing every recommended project over a decade or more would have cost an estimated $14 billion, so Louisiana turned to the federal government. While this may seem an astronomical sum, it isn’t in terms of large public works; in 2000 Congress began a $7 billion engineering program to refresh the dying Florida Everglades. But Congress had other priorities, Louisiana politicians had other priorities, and the magic moment of consensus was lost. — Mark Fischetti (Via Irregular Times)

From almost the day George W. Bush took office in 2001, he has been slowly dismantling FEMA and cutting back its ability to respond to emergencies. It then started cutting off New Orleans from disaster preparedness money, which was diverted elsewhere, as FEMA was downgraded and became part of the Department of Homeland Security.

The plan apparently was to move FEMA’s former disaster planning and response functions to the private sector. Normally something I’d support, but in this case it was done improperly: they should not have stopped providing those functions until the private sector was fully prepared to take them over.

Preparing for natural disasters came in a distant second to preparing for terrorism, even though natural disasters are far more frequent, and as we’ve seen, far more devastating than anything terrorists have ever been able to do here.