Thursday, September 01, 2005

Bridges were unbuilt, and trouble coming.

At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires:
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.

--- W.H. Auden, 1928

        The horrendous flooding of New Orleans is raising many questions that need to be answered. The most obvious is why. Clearly, this was bound to happen. Perhaps preventing the actual breach of the levees would have been impossible, as working on them could potentially temporarily weaken them, a dangerous concession in a densely populated metropolis. It seems plain that if the flood cannot be prevented, at least the damage and resultant loss of life could be mitigated by a well coordinated evacuation, rescue and cleanup plan. Officials are copping the argument that no one could have predicted the severity of this disaster. Since under that assumption it would be impossible for anyone to fathom the extent of this catastrophe, no one can really be held accountable for not doing so. Unfortunately for the politicians and the stranded citizens of New Orleans, that isn't really the case.
        Not only was there clear warning about the impending potential disaster, there is easily accessible data on the gravity of the situation. Dr. Ivor L. van Heerden of the LUS Hurricane center published a paper titled Coastal Land Loss: Hurricanes and New Orleans in 2004. Using supercomputing to create simulations and collect data, vanHeerden and his team came up with this portentous discovery:
        Recent research reveals that a slow moving Category 3 hurricane, or stronger, could cause levee overtopping and complete flooding of New Orleans, with the West Bank even more susceptible. Floodwaters would have residence times of weeks. The resultant mix of sewage, corpses and chemicals in these standing flood waters would set the stage for massive disease outbreaks and prolonged chemical exposure. Estimates are that 300,000 persons would be trapped and 700,000 would be homeless; thousands could perish.

*For the complete .pdf of this paper (all 17 pages) check here. For a summary of this article, check out this link to the LSU Research Newsletter.

        A lot of money was spent attempting to predict the damage of a flood situation. People were aware that this would happen. Why then was there not a sufficient infrastructure in place to help get the people out? Why did some not know how dangerous failing to evacuate could be? The University of New Orleans released a study in which up to 60% of New Orleans residents said they would not be scared of a flood, and would not evacuate for a Category 3 hurricane. Furthermore they found that the people who did evacuate for previous hurricanes such as Lili and Georges did not go far enough to escape the danger. A neat little summary of that study can be found here.

        The persistance of many citizens is apparent, especially in blog entries prior to storm such as this chilling entry, dated July 08, 2005 on why this writer will not be evacuating for any subsequent storms:
I will admit that I said similar things when Ivan was on its way, then proceeded to evacuate, but this time I'm serious. I'm not leaving. Not. Leaving. Nagin can go on TV and talk about body bags being delivered and try to scare the living shit out of the city, but I'll take my chances.

        Even with the intentional stubborness in regards to evacuating, the people who are really at risk are the ones who could not evacuate. Watch fifteen seconds of any news channel right now and you will notice one unifying factor. Almost every single person on the screen (except for Wolf Blitzer) is black and poor. It is now Thursday. This began almost five full days ago. The obvious excuse made by officials for the lack of representation around the SuperDome, Convention Center and flood areas is that they could not have anticipated this, and that it takes time to mobilize a response. Unfortunately, there is no more time. People are going to continue to die at exponential rates. Decomposition will further ensnare rescue attempts as the plethora of diseases like cholera and typhoid fever begin to develop.

        When looking at the demographic of the stranded citizens, it is easy to make several generalizations. An overwhelming percentage (98% according to someone recently interviewed on CNN) of the remaining people are black. Many of them are ill, many are elderly, and most could not afford to evacuate. One obvious initial objection would be to question whether if these people were white suburban Old Metairie types would they still be stranded inside the SuperDome or Convention Center. The problem with that objection is that it fails to acknowledge that the reason these people aren't white suburbanites is because those types of people were able to flee. If a city orders an evacuation, especially a city with such a great potential for natural disaster, the city should do everything to help everyone who feasibly can to evacuate. Certainly there are people who must, for whatever reason, stay behind. Not only emergency personnel, police and doctors but the very ill and otherwise immobile people might not be able to escape, but certainly many more could have been transported out than were.
        The next question to raise is why, given that these officers and EMT and such remained behind are they not able to mobilize more effectively. Today I saw that a man was arrested for stealing a car and attempting to drive himself, a female, and four children out of the city. The man was stopped by officers, removed from the car, and handcuffed. For what conceivable reason are officers wasting time preventing people from leaving by whatever means possible? the Chief of Police needs to reprioritize their operating procedures and stop focusing on thefts and instead work on rescue, recovery and containing the armed gangs that are now patrolling Border Town New Orleans.