“Why can’t they drop water on these people?”
I repeatedly shouted that question to my TV as I watched the heart-wrenching news coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s attack on New Orleans. Washed from their homes as Lake Pontchartrain poured into the Crescent City through the 17th Street Canal, thousands of evacuees at the Superdome and nearby Convention Center soon ached for as little as a Dixie cup of water. High humidity, searing sunshine, and 90-plus-degree temperatures intensified their thirst. And yet there was not a drop to drink.
Answers to this mystery are gradually surfacing.
“We were ready from literally the time the storm blew through,” American Red Cross president Marty Evans told Fox News Channel’s Major Garrett last Thursday. “We were ready to go. We just were not given permission to go in.”
“The state Homeland Security Department had requested–and continues to request–that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane,” a statement on the Red Cross’ website explains. “Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.”
“Acess [sic] to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders,” the statement also notes.
Salvation Army Major George Hood told FNC’s Garrett that his group was ready to help, too. “We were prepared,” Hood said. “The intent and the will was definitely there.”
The Red Cross’s Evans added: “We understood that the thinking was that, if we were to come in, that, one, it would impede the evacuation. They were trying to get everybody out. And, secondly, that it could possibly suggest that it was going to be OK to stay.”
So, while the Red Cross and Salvation Army were able and eager to deliver water, food, medicine, and other relief supplies to those suffering at the Superdome and convention center, Louisiana officials rebuffed them, for fear that hydrating and feeding these individuals would chill an already glacial evacuation while encouraging others to get cozy and settle in for the long haul. In short, Louisiana officials starved their citizens out of town.
Amid ample federal fumbling as the Katrina crisis unfolded, this was just one of numerous instances where authorities in Baton Rouge and New Orleans City Hall appear to have neglected their constituents, amplified their pain, and surely cost some their lives.
Early on, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco should have requested federal troops to quell or at least deter the chaos in New Orleans as flood damage took its toll, looters stole electronic gear and luxury items as well as groceries, and rifle-wielding sociopaths fired on rescue boats and medical helicopters. Not until Thursday, September 1 did Blanco say, “I’ve actually asked for uniformed troops of any sort,” either National Guard or active-duty GIs. The White House apparently hesitated, as federal troops are prohibited from conducting domestic policing under the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act.
“At a meeting on Air Force One outside Baton Rouge,” the next day, “Mr. Bush offered her [Blanco] the full force of every federal relief agency including the military, he claims,” the Times of London reports. “Fearful of losing control of the relief effort and of being blamed later for doing so, she asked for another 24 hours to think about it.”
Blanco “needed 24 hours to decide,” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told reporters, as he said President Bush outlined the situation to him after Blanco resisted Bush’s offer to federalize the state National Guard. Blanco rejected Bush’s offer the next day.
Blanco’s leisurely decision making exacerbated much that shocked the eyes of the world for the last two weeks.
You Need Leadership, Man
While state-level intransigence kept New Orleans’ evacuees parched, famished, and menaced for days, City Hall’s incompetence left them marooned. New Orleans Port Police director Cynthia Swain “ordered all harbor officers to abandon their posts and flee to higher ground” as the city flooded on Tuesday August 30, NBC’s Lisa Myers reported September 8.
“I sent them to high ground because I did not want them to become victims of rising floodwater,” Swain explained. Of course, the citizens of New Orleans were not crazy about becoming victims of rising floodwater, either. That is why their taxes financed these boats in the first place. “There were no harbor police rescue boats in the water for rescues for four days,” Myers concluded.
“I need 500 buses, man,” Mayor Nagin bellowed the evening of September 1 on local radio station WWL-AM. “We ain’t talking about–you know, one of the briefings we had, they were talking about getting public school bus drivers to come down here and bus people out here. I’m like, ‘You got to be kidding me. This is a national disaster. Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans.’”
While Nagin awaited the relative comfort of Greyhound motor coaches, he could have filled at least 80 percent of his expressed transit needs simply by employing buses already in his control.
At least 146 municipal mass-transit buses, plus 255 school buses, could have been deployed to whisk car-less evacuees to Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Houston, or any number of places more appealing than the Superdome. Assuming a fairly comfortable 50 people each, these buses alone could have evacuated 20,050 New Orleanians per trip.
But rather than speed toward safety, these buses languished in parking lots where they now are waterlogged. Fuel and oil seep out of their submerged engines, deepening the city’s monumental clean-up challenge.
“Sure, there was [sic] lots of buses out there,” Nagin explained Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “But guess what? You can’t find drivers that would stay behind with a Category 5 hurricane, you know, pending down on New Orleans. We barely got enough drivers to move people on Sunday, or Saturday and Sunday, to move them to the Superdome. We barely had enough drivers for that. So sure, we had the assets, but the drivers just weren’t available.”
Nagin and company should have planned for this Category 4 (not 5) contingency. School and mass-transit drivers could have been assigned to start their buses, bring their own families, collect evacuees, and then leave town. Or, the city could have improvised. Among local citizens and tourists eager to escape, volunteers could have been recruited to drive buses. Almost any idea would have trumped drowning 401 buses in a lake. Wags have nicknamed this the Mayor Ray Nagin Memorial Motor Pool.
None of this should have surprised Nagin, assuming he happened to read the “City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.” Among its instructions:
Conduct of an actual evacuation will be the responsibility of the mayor of New Orleans. …The city of New Orleans will utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas. …Special arrangements will be made to evacuate persons unable to transport themselves or who require specific life-saving assistance. Additional personnel will be recruited to assist in evacuation procedure as needed. …Approximately 100,000 citizens of New Orleans do not have means of personal transportation.
Page 13 of the January 2000 “Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering Plan” also chose buses as latter-day arks for the poor and immobile of New Orleans.
The primary means of hurricane evacuation will be personal vehicles. School and municipal buses, government-owned vehicles and vehicles provided by volunteer agencies may be used to provide transportation for individuals who lack transportation and require assistance in evacuating.
So, even as undertakers gather those who Katrina extinguished, why spend time documenting where state and local officials failed the embattled people of New Orleans?
This is no whitewash of the federal contribution to this catastrophe. President Bush can blame no one but himself for appointing Michael Brown to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The former equestrian-competition executive was a college roommate of Bush pal Joe Allbaugh, his predecessor at FEMA, who he served as deputy for two years. That seems his most obvious qualification for this critical job, from which he resigned on Monday.
FEMA’s tragicomic highlight reel includes flying evacuees to Charleston, West Virginia rather than Charleston, South Carolina. Between August 28 and September 8, FEMA shuttled an experienced medical assessment team from Alabama to Biloxi, then Dallas, and Galveston. “We joined the team to help people who need it, and we’re not helping anybody,” Tim Ward complained to NBC News before FEMA jetted him and his colleagues to Houston. Far less itinerant is a mobile communications unit that a German concern is prepared to fly into the disaster zone. FEMA, they complain, has yet to return any of the hundreds of calls they have left.
Publicly detached at first–despite declaring an emergency the Saturday before Katrina hit and pressuring Governor Blanco for a mandatory evacuation that Sunday morning–Bush seems increasingly hands-on and should stay so. He also should ditch his boundless loyalty to loyal but hapless underlings. Having fired essentially no one after September 11 (i.e. former CIA Director George Tenet) Bush should dismiss those who fell on their fannies when this calamity hit. FEMA’s Brown is thought to have jumped; as for others, Bush should not be afraid to push.
That said, it is vital for Americans to understand that many fannies hit the floor–from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to Washington–both Republicans and Democrats. This fact unravels the corrosive narrative that the American Left has woven furiously since the moment Katrina exited Orleans Parish for points north. From their perspective, this whole mess is Bush’s fault, and his misdeeds were fueled by anti-black bigotry.
Consider just a few of vicious statements:
‐Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean told the National Baptist Convention in Miami on September 7, “We have to come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age, and economics played a significant role in who survived and who did not.” He added, “The question, 40 and 50 years after Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, is: How could this still be happening in America?” Dean spoke as if New Orleans succumbed to Hurricane Jim Crow.
‐Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights alluded to Plessy v. Ferguson, the notorious 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case that established the “separate-but-equal” rationale for Southern segregation. Said Ratner, “The legacy of that thought is what we saw at the Superdome.”
‐”There’s a historical indifference to the pain of poor people and black people,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson fumed as the Big Easy sank beneath the waves. He visited the New Orleans Convention Center and announced: “This looks like the hull of a slave ship.” One wonders, had Katrina smashed into Boston, forcing thousands of white evacuees into Faneuil Hall, would Jackson have sauntered in and said: “This looks like the Irish Potato Famine?”
Thousands of Americans have toiled and even died to heal this country’s racial wounds. Turning Katrina from an epic story of widespread government ineptness into an indictment of anti-black genocide perpetrated by the president of the United States is beyond pernicious.
The wild-eyed theory that Bush hates blacks so deeply that he would engineer their wholesale starvation, dehydration, and asphyxiation pries the scabs off these still-healing wounds and grinds fresh pepper into them. Either such explosive nonsense is a warm pile of lies, or Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, FEMA’s departed Michael Brown, Democratic Governor Blanco, and Democratic Mayor Nagin (who is black) share Bush’s anti-black animus and helped him harm and kill black Americans on live, international television.
This is best-described scatalogically. But to keep it polite, the race hustlers who are exploiting this tragedy are beyond contempt. They are polluting the public square with nitroglycerine. Their twisted view of a bigoted America is belied by the 18,000 mainly black New Orleanians rescued by the Coast Guard, the $762 million in Katrina-related donations Americans of all colors have offered so far to our disadvantaged countrymen, along with free housing, schooling, and more. Thousands of volunteers, many with white faces, raced to comfort the tempest-tossed, many with blacks faces.
“When those Coast Guard choppers, many of who were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn’t check the color of a person’s skin,” President Bush told reporters Monday after surveying flood-damaged neighborhoods in New Orleans. “They wanted to save lives.” Bush added: “The storm didn’t discriminate, and neither did the recovery effort…The rescue efforts were comprehensive, and the recovery will be comprehensive.” Some 71,000 federal personnel are now on the ground returning the Gulf Coast to normal.
Let us concur that many public officials from New Orleans City Hall to the Oval Office, overwhelmed by America’s biggest natural disaster ever, performed far below expectations, but without malice. Let us marginalize the wretched racial arsonists before they burn anything else to the ground. And let us magnify the heroism and generosity that already are helping Hurricane Katrina’s survivors reassemble their shattered lives.
–Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Arlington, Va.