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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

I'm a software engineer / partner working for a young company in Austin, Texas, USA. I spend most of my free time hanging out with friends and family, eating out, and partying in the Warehouse District. I should spend more time working on my house....

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A Katrina wrapup

After receiving a few emails recently about Federal gov vs. State/Local gov on who is to blame for the mess after Katrina hit I decided to post some thoughts.

First, School buses. Various pundits and others have wondered why the flooded school buses shown in a famous AP photo weren't used to evacuate people. There are some fairly simple answers:

  • Numbers: There weren't enough of them: You would have needed about 2000 buses to evacuate the 100,000+ New Orleans residents without cars. The city only had (at very best) 700 buses available to them.

    • http://www.nola.com/news/t-p/metro/index.ssf?/base/news-10/1120800316204660.xml
    • http://mediamatters.org/items/200509120005?is_gsa=1&final=1
    • http://www.snopes.com/katrina/photos/buses.asp

  • Logistics: Even if you had 2000 buses you would still have a logistical nightmare. You would need 2000 drivers able to drive the buses around the city to pick people up, and then drive them at least 50-100 miles to some shelter outside the city. Where are you going to shelter 100,000 people brought by bus? Where are you going to gas up 2000 buses? How are the buses going to get to the shelters outside of town on the already gridlocked highways?

    • http://www.snopes.com/katrina/photos/buses.asp

  • Money: Evacuating 100,000 people on 2000 buses with paid drivers going 50+ miles to temporary shelters on short notice would be extremely expensive. Especially if the storm turned and didn't hit the city. Or weakened significantly before landfall (see Hurricane Rita). Not only would this be a massive financial loss for a city in already terrible financial shape it would have been political suicide for the mayor and governor. In the wake of Katrina the mayor of Corpus Christi and others down the Texas coast ordered mandatory evacuation of their cities about 2 days before Rita was expected to hit. It made landfall over 200 miles away.

Another issue that has been brought up was why the Mayor didn't call for a mandatory evacuation earlier. There are two simple and related answers to this, both mentioned above:

  • Money: Ordering a mandatory evacuation is extremely expensive for a city of any significant size. Especially one with a large population without access to transportation. The costs include, but are not limited to: transportation (gas, drivers, vehicle maintenance), food and food preparation for those evacuated to shelters, shelter maintenance (including on-site security, water, electricity), city services (overtime for city emergency workers and security personnel), Legal liability from closing hotels and other businesses, etc. I'm sure one of the reasons why the mayor used the Convention Center and SuperDome as shelters was to mitigate these costs.
  • Politics: There are lots of political risks associated with calling for a mandatory evacuation. First,the financial considerations above. Second, the fear,frustration, and anger created by evacuation orders to the average citizen with a car and means to evacuate themselves. The inevitable mistakes that will occur when something this complicated occurs (see Texas evacuation issues with Rita). Imagine if they were wrong, like the Mayors of the south Texas coast were with respect to Rita. If an evacuation were ordered and the hurricane hit far away, or weakened sufficiently to be much less damaging, it would be a political disaster for officials involved. Remember the traffic coming out of Houston when Hurricane Rita was bearing down on them? People don't like having their whole lives upturned, especially for no good reason.

Finally, there is a myth about the governor not asking for National Guard help early enough.

I think the NY Times hit the nail on the head:

The New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, and the former police chief, Edwin Compass, share blame for Katrina's dreadful aftermath. But at the moment of crisis, the buck stops at FEMA. The quality of help that victims of a disaster receive cannot be determined by their location, or their incomes. If Mr. Brown was so dedicated to coordination, he should have been coordinating the effort to get those refugees to safety, not waiting for the church ladies and the Rotarians - who were also flooded out of their homes.

Here are two pretty good timelines of the event:
Think Progress


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