Preparing(?) for disaster in the Big Easy
The horrific situation in New Orleans has spawned the usual accusations: Bush's fault, the city government is to blame, and what about the state--why didn't it do more? In this case, I'm sure there's plenty of blame to go around. But the blame game is, to a certain extent, an ex-post-facto no-brainer that anyone can play, and the old truth is that hindsight is always 20/20.
That said, this particular horror does seem to feature an entire host of spectacularly bad decisions all coming together to create the nightmare that is now New Orleans. There were apparent errors of planning, particularly on the local and state level (or, seemingly, an almost total lack thereof), errors of evacuation timing, errors of rescue effort timing, inadequate funding for repairs (some of this on the federal level and some more local), rampant city corruption, city and state bureaucracy of an unusually Byzantine nature, poorly-controlled crime (even preceding the hurricane)--but even better planning would only have gone so far.
There is no doubt that evacuation planning could, and should, have been much more extensive. But there are limits to what can be done. Can a city of this size be evacuated in two days, even with planning beforehand and the absolute knowledge that a disaster will happen? I used to live near a nuclear power plant in New Hampshire, an area far less populated than New Orleans, and I remember reading that, were an accident to happen and the area evacuated, bottlenecks would almost immediately occur and the roads would become impassable, trapping us all (this problem is, strangely enough, somewhat in line with certain facts about crowd flow in my stampede article of yesterday).
Nowadays we imagine we can plan for everything and that we should be protected against everything, even though we don't (and really can't) spend the money to do everything that would actually be needed. And then, when something happens, we say "Oh, of course, that's the very thing that should have been funded above all the others that compete for our attention.". But all of this involves cost-benefit ratios and predictions that are partly based on science and partly, quite frankly, a crapshoot.
Another truth seems to be that people never prepare on that enormous and costly scale for something that is merely theoretical--it always seems to take a great disaster to make them realize what should have been done. Such a huge output of funds and energy doesn't ordinarily seem justified for something that's only a projection and prediction--we can't prepare for all exigencies that might happen, and the billion-dollar question is: how to pick and choose among all the competing doomsday scenarios?
And then there's the issue, not of governmental and community preparedness, but of individual and aggregate human response. Scientists are so fond of predicting disaster that people have learned, for the most part, to tune them out. After all, so many predicted disasters never happen, or are far less disastrous than expected. Remember the Millienium Bug? The Jupiter Effect? Comet Kohoutek? The Swine Flu? Not to mention all the predicted storms and blizzards and hurricanes that ultimately fizzled out, after the big predictions made everyone rush to the grocery to stock up?
So it's no surprise that, although New Orleans has been described for a number of years as uniquely and catastrophically vulnerable to a category 4 or 5 hurricane, many people stayed put, either through inability to leave, or because they thought the threat was overhyped. But tragically, this is one of those times that the scientists' predictions have come eerily true, even in some of the smallest details.
Going back in time and reading old articles that talk about what could happen if a large hurricane ever hit New Orleans is a strange experience. While reading pieces that are a few years old, I kept checking the tenses and the dates--surely these weren't written in the future tense; surely they are describing the events of the last few days, written after the fact? But no, they were predictions that came almost exactly true.
This one, for example, is three years old (via Michael Totten), but it describes what happened in New Orleans a few days ago almost as though reading from a script. This series of articles is similar in its haunting prescience.
In addition to this human predilection to discount dire predictions, there are other reasons New Orleans was ill-prepared: to have protected the city against a Category 5 hurricane would undoubtedly have cost many billions of dollars (estimates differ, but that it would have been in the billions is not in dispute), and the best ways to go about doing so were unclear--as the aforementioned articles, as well as this one and this one, attest. I've already alluded briefly to these facts, but New Orleans--the Big Easy--is famous for graft and corruption in city government. The comments in this thread from Chicagoboyz discuss this at some length. This City Journal article (via Ed Driscoll), as well, talks about the sad state of civic affairs in New Orleans even prior to Katrina, and why it will make it doubly hard to rebuild and recover. And this comment on LGF makes some excellent points about "levee boards" and why it may not have mattered even if more federal funds had been given in advance.
This lethal stew of prohibitive cost, corruption, competing ideas about what was necessary, and denial that something so dreadful was likely enough to justify all that expense, proved to be a deadly mixture that led to the shocking lack of preparedness. As blogger "Laurel," who fled the New Orleans area with her family just before the hurricane hit writes, it was "The day I thought would never come." And if a day will never come, why spend billions of dollars in a very poor state to prepare against that day?
Laurel describes her own skepticism at the early storm reports, based on prior experience with false alarms:
There are storms in the Gulf all the time and they always get everyone excited around here, especially the media. You'd think the fricking sky was falling every other week. People have pretty much gotten used to their hysteria and don't pay too much attention to it...
I went to bed that night mad that our fun camping trip had been cut short, and upset that we had to listen to hysterical media sensationalists again. It just seems like they are always crying wolf and it gets a little old.
This is a very understandable mindset. But, fortunately, this time something cut into Laurel's skepticism, and she got going. As she writes:
But, I guess they were finally right this time. By morning the storm was a category 5 storm and we got a phone call from the St. Tammany Parish president that had a recorded message telling us to evacuate immediately.
"They were finally right this time." So at least "they" get to say, "I told you so." But that won't help the people of New Orleans right now. Maybe later--maybe, if and when the city is rebuilt--but not now.
[NOTE: My post focuses on preparedness. But for an excellent discussion of what may have gone wrong, and why, in the response, see this post by Aziz Poonawalla along with its comments. Found at Dean Esmay's. And the Anchoress sums it all up with her usual combination of eloquence and strength, and says what needs to be said about the Bush-blamers.]
[NOTE II: Just found another post that goes into helpful and informative detail on why building an adequate system of physical protection against a hurricane of such magnitude would take so very long and be such a complex task. See this by Tigerhawk, who also links to this excellent post from Belmont Club, on the same topic.]