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Thursday 1 September 2005

Hurricane Katrina - Crisis Mismanagement [Beej]

I am quite fascinated by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the United States. The richest, most technologically advanced, most powerful country on the planet has shown many of the signs of a massive breakdown in society at a city-wide level. It's a rare sight. The last failure of law and order must have been the LA Riots? That doesn't even compare to this monumental cluster of a crisis operation.
And the reason for screwing up? Well it's Piss Poor Preparation and Planning isn't it.
There's just doesn't appear to be a coordinated emergency plan in evidence at all. Plucking 100,000+ people from rooftops one by one just cannot be done with helicopters alone. You cannot leave thousands of people in a sports stadium in the middle of the damn city. Where are the tent cities? The buses? The portaloos? Drops of food and bottled water? The enhanced law enforcement posture? It's a flood - how about Marines or the Navy? There are so many things gone wrong it is hard to know which ones to point out first.
Now I have an understandable bias against incompetence because of time I've spent in the military. In the UK, an event of this scope would swiftly result in Civil-Military cooperation under Military Aid to the Civil Community which is a lot easier to say if you make it sound like fast food, so "MAC-C" as in "Mac See". There are others - MACP and MACM, it's all in the same vein and you can mix and match depending on the situation. Here are some key phrases which in the UK would result in the always undervalued British military to be turned to, to "make shit happen":
  • Incident is beyond the capability of the local authorities
  • Emergency Services cannot cope
  • Civil disorder beyond the capability of the Police
  • Authorities cannot maintain services essential to life and health
  • Imminent threat to life
  • I can't remember any others... :-)

So I probably don't need to ask you if you think any or all of the above would apply to a Hurricane Katrina scenario on British soil. The Americans have failed to respond quickly and effectively, and if there's one thing you don't have enough of under pressure it's time. In the UK, the policies and doctrine is written such that the aid can happen very very quickly. Additionally, terrorism wakes a lot of countries up to streamlining a coordinated emergency response. When the hurricane was approaching, and in the immediate aftermath, I don't recall reading or seeing much about getting what you might call strategic level support. No massive preparation, no logistics chain assembled, no C-17s disgorging soldiers. Perhaps the Federal model might be restricting them - the Governor can call out the National Guard, but I didn't see them up to much in days prior and immediate aftermath. Now Dubya is blabbing about needing to "raise money". That's just mad - this isn't a charity fundraise in the Senate, you need to be working down a checklist of A, B, C and Z in order to prevent needless loss of life and you need to be doing it yesterday!
If you ask me, the authorities in Louisiana are in way over their heads and it's a big big fuck-up.


  1. Good blog Beej, I agree whole-heartedly. Pretty comical state of affairs really.

  2. Don't be a bawbag.
    The whole thing is horrendous, hardly comical.
    As usual yes they could have done better, but only 40,000 remained behind. They did manage to evac a whole lot of people.
    Many of these 40k would be low-lifes who want to stay behind to pillage anyway! Look at all the nutters jumping around with stolen semi-autos the now, think these guys would have left of their own accord?
    I just feel despair for the poor fuckers caught up in it. Write the city off, rebuild a new town somewhere more likely to survive in the future. Then bulldoze whats left of new orleans when the water has receeded.

  3. What I find particularly astonishing is the rapid decline of structured society into absolute chaos, an event which underscores my belief that the world's "greatest democracy" is held together by little more than luck, and lots of rich white folk with guns. Witness as hurricane Katrina exposes the true extent of social division and disparity of wealth in the so called Land of the Free. The idea that one fifth of New Orleans' population were too poor to evacuate (a fact backed up by many a TV interview) is criminal; doubly so when it is now obvious that the State and Federal authorities hadn't a brain between them sufficient to move the people away to safety.
    It simply boggles the mind that the authorities have allowed this, and nothing I have seen counts as anything but wanton negligence, to happen. Hurricane Katrina was on the weather radar for over a week before it struck, and once the scale of the problem became apparent the United States emergency preparedness infrastructure simply fell apart.
    Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless, and thousands are dead; "heroic" (a word trotted out as quickly as possible in any event affecting Americans) emergency services found themselves without reliable communications, without support, and facing a veritable army of armed looters desperately taking advantage of a situation unparalleled in recent American history.
    Where is the co-ordination and leadership? Where is FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the National Guard? Why are 88 policemen being sent into the Superdome to 'sort out' riots amongst a corralled, confused and desperate refugee population numbering in the tens of thousands? Why is the President so completely inept and unable to discharge his duties as laid down by his own precious Constitution? Why is everything taking so long?
    This tragedy is a direct result of mind numbingly stupid political machinations at State and Federal level; and whilst New Orleans sinks into a lawless toxic swamp, attention should be turned to those who oversaw the precursors to this event (refusing to fund much needed repairs to the levee system for example) and accountability must be sought.
    America is not a super power. America is a country dying from within.

  4. The thing that surprises me and shocks me about this is when I see the pictures of the crowds of hungry people, they're all black. You could be looking at pictures of Mogadishu or Harawi or somewhere. Okay, so it's not that much of a surprise, but just seeing something like this really underlines the massive rift in wealth that exists between blacks and whites in the US. Shocking.
    And I usually shy from crying racism for the sake of racism, but does anyone believe this blog would be criticising the response if it was 50,000 mostly white folk caught up in New York or LA? I suspect not.
    Shit world ain't it?

  5. Minor additional point. To cope with natural disasters such as this, the US does have a plan to fall back on one particular body of reservists - the National Guard. However Dubya has gutted out the Guard and has them serving double tours of duty in Iraq.
    There's also the huge problem that no one in America will do anything for free, even if it's an emergency (such as treating you in an hospital). Hence they need to work out how to pay for anything. This is where the basic needs of their own citizens in their darkest hour suddenly runs full steam into the unbreachable wall of capitalism that America is so proud of.
    Even now they're getting some emergency budget approved by the senate in 24 hours or something. Just get on with it you penny pinching cunts?

  6. Tiger Brigade from Louisiana has a whole Battalion from New Orleans. By coincidence, after a year in Baghdad exposed to hostile fire almost ev-ry day, they fly home this week to the clusterfuck that is their home town. I met a girl from Louisiana when getting coffee this morning. She told me that some of the soldiers have not heard from their families and have no idea where they are.
    If I was a one of the armed civilians shooting at helicopters or the police, I'd be a little concerned right now about these boys and girls flying straight home from 11 months in The 'Raq. They're primed, ready to go, and I'd bet that they're also somewhat pissed off.

  7. Anyone care to play devil's advocate on what those scumbags were thinking when they fired at rescue choppers?

  8. You can't approve the actions of the looters, but you can understand why they are looting; it's a direct reflection of America's huge problem with domestic poverty.
    We rarely see America's problems in such crystal clarity, and executive soundbites serve only to deflect prying eyes from what is a well documented yet almost taboo subject - the simple fact that America continues to maintain a racial status quo at levels designed to keep the white elite in power, and the ethnic 'minorities' towing the party line. The last time the race issue came so heavily into the wider public consciousness was the beating of Rodney King, and the LA Riots - the only difference being that this time Mother Nature has opened the can of worms.
    Over 65% of New Orlean's population are categorised as Afro-American (read:black) and over 27% of the city's population are considered below the poverty line (US Census Bureau stats, 1999/2000). With a city population of 484,000 (y.2000) that makes a black population of 325,000 and assuming a total 50/50 split for poverty statistics (which of course it isn't) that gives us roughly 43,000 black residents living in near abject poverty. Note that I've rounded these figures up/down for sake of saving keystrokes...
    To my mind, that means for the last 5 years, New Orleans has had over 40,000 desperately poor citizens who have been unable to move themselves up the ladder, howsoever you would do that in a nation (in)famous for its approach to services; essentially you pay for absolutely everything. How would an unemployed resident fitting the poverty profile sort themselves out? They can't.
    So, with this in mind it is more than understandable that such wide spread looting has occurred - it was expected. With the advent of the flood deluge and the instant breakdown in law, order, communication and community boundaries, the clock was ticking; here is the only opportunity many of the looters will ever get to grab the things they otherwise know they'll never be able to have.

  9. On balance I probably agree that "America continues to maintain a racial status quo at levels designed to keep the white elite in power". Sadly in a 100% capitalist society with no checks and balances, people with money can buy better stuff than everyone else and this includes things like education which means that people without money don't find themselves mixing socio-economic strata as it proves extraordinarily difficult to make a better life for yourself.
    The crazy thing is that they cling to the 'American dream' ideal of being one that essentially says that hard work ultimately is rewarded with succcess and a lifestyle superior to anywhere else in the world. This is actually bollocks and has been for a very long time - at least as far as your average citizen. Why not ask a Mexican illegal immigrant just what chances they really have at the American dream?
    There is a happy medium between capitalism and socialism and that is demonstrated in Europe by and large while American represents everything that is bad in a money-obsessed capitalist extreme culture and places such as France, for example, show that a socialist culture leads to much the same problems.
    At some point I would hope the United States of America stopped their preaching freedom bollocks because as we can see on our television screens right now, America isn't a better place to live than any of the rest of the developed world and has no better idea of how to run a society than anyone else. If, in Europe, government policy was essentially up for sale by powerful money-rich lobby groups driven by business interests, it would be a scandal! And yet this is the accepted norm in the US. Isn't it just astounding that a country so self-absorbed and inward-looking as the United States just seems to incapable of fixing what is so desperately wrong with their country? I guess the problem has to be fixed by the general population becoming educated about exactly how their own system of government works. Maybe they could learn this during the five minutes they spend holding fist to chest chanting out their national anthem on occasion?
    Maybe with another few hundred years and a couple of extra civil wars they might stop being the teenager that knows better than everyone else and start being the world wise young adult. We can only hope.

  10. Anyone who has worked with the Americans will know how good they can talk up a project and how poor they are at delivering. I love their optimism - can do attitude etc. I've never have them deliver on my projects, neither has my wife, neither have any of my friends in similar IT roles. I'm not suprised they have been caught short.
    Also, today they said that an area of the UK has been flooded. It's hard to comprehend how you deal with that. They can't turn on power 'til they get rid of the water. They think it will take months to do that! Going to be an even poorer place to live than it was before (and I gather it was pretty poor before - hence that lack of focus too. All the better off left, leaving all those without cars to be on the TV news).

  11. As for sheds comment, there was no evacuation at all. The ones left behind were the ones that couldnt afford to leave. As in couldnt afford even a busticket or a tent to live in. The only organised thing was the shelter in that arena.
    Fucking pathetic the whole shit, we are actuallly preparing to send freshwater pumps and crap like that. To a western country of 250 mill. Thailand had better functioning aid up after the tsunami ffs.
    Rich elite and poor masses, could just as well be an african "developing" country ruled by warlords.
    Of course, that interview with the major or new orleans rocked. Havnt heard an official swear that much, well, ever.

  12. Maybe they should get the Green Godesses out

  13. One of the many things which has to be done in Louisiana in order to bring about New Orleans' return to a habitable city is to repair the flood defences and to pump the water out of the low-lying urban area. Today on the news they're talking about corpse recovery, but I don't see how they can do this effectively across the city without dealing with the water first (unless the News channels are showing stock footage of houses deep underwater).
    US Army Corps Engineers personnel are already out identifying and prioritising the "shovel end" of the crisis. USACE will probably be used to enable pretty much anything where infrastructure has been seriously compromised and is holding back widescale rescue operations, most likely jobs like reconstructing levees and waterways and planning the water pumping operations.
    News reports today state that whilst they were out and about on the ground making assessments, engineers were fired at by an unknown armed group who were killed by the Police. If it turns out to have been an armed gang of criminals then this is just one incident which parallels US-led operations in Iraq. By that, as well comparing the security threat, I mean American global reach, their huge presence and capability on the ground in Iraq, in comparison to their inability to plan and manage the crisis at home.

  14. One thing that bothered me was the idea that criminals somehow saw the flooding as a good time to wreak gun-totin' havoc on emergency services personnel. It didn't sit quite right, although being America I'm quite sure there are those who would kill anything that moved, for fun.
    After some digging (one thing I'll say about the Yanks; they put all their stats and reports online) I found the answer - New Orleans is a serious hardcore drugs spot; in fact, its known (in Federal parlance) as a "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area" and the stats are a window into the soul of a truly blighted city.
    23% of all male high school students report using drugs. 5.9% of those are using heroin (which is cheaper than crack cocaine and their favourite pharma hit, Oxycontin). The actual school drugs use by year grade is even more shocking; 27.6% of 9th graders use weed! By the time we're at the 11th grade, its 40.2%
    Now, tie this picture in with the one of domestic poverty I posted information on earlier, and the fact that real hardcore drug use is massively prevalent in New Orleans (fed by the unsanitary bedrock of a drugs fuelled school system, so it would appear) and you have, essentially, tens of thousands of very poor, very addicted smack/coke/etc. heads suddenly without their local support groups, pharma-replacements (methadone etc), and daily regime...
    Essentially, those 'criminals' shooting at the police, medical staff, breaking into hospitals etc. are for a large part, crazed drug addicts going 100% cold turkey en masse overnight. It all becomes a little clearer no?
    Whitehouse report on drug use in New Orleans

  15. If Al Gore is an idiot, how come I feel a renewed hope for America on reading a transcript of this speech?

  16. Which is all very well but the simple fact of the matter is that there has been no increase in frequency or severity of hurricanes in the region and those tying up this disaster with global warming are ignoring the facts in favor of making a political point.
    The editor of the Times put it well.
    So yes, Al Gore is an idiot and the reason you feel renewed hope is because he employs a tallented speech writer.

  17. I agree that you can't specifically attribute Katrina to global warming, and those doing so are probably talking bunkum, but it is a fact that one of the predicitions of global warming is that hurricanes of this magnitude and greater will become more frequent.
    The truely disconcerting realisation to come out of Katrina is that event like this, where a western city is essentially destroyed, could go from being a one-in-a-century event, to being a one-in-a-decade event.

  18. Dave me old chap, do me a favor and link me off to one of these predictions? Obviously a man of science like yourself will have based this statement of fact of something and I'd quite like to see it. It certainly seems plausible alright but every time I dig about, all I can find is stuff like this;

    “There have been no published studies that argue for attributing an observed increase in hurricane intensity or frequency to global warming,” says Roger Pielke, director of the University of Colorado Centre for Science and Technology Research Policy.

    Even when turning to hard measured data:

    The US National Hurricane Centre says that an average of 19 hurricanes hit the US landmass each decade in the second half of the 19th century. In the second half of the 20th century, the average was 14. In the first half of this decade, the US is precisely on course to meet the stable average frequency of the most serious hurricanes (Category 3, 4, and 5) of the past 100 years.

    Of course your central point is basically "Look what a hurricane can do" which is fair enough to some degree and we have no wish to see more of this.
    I would also respectfully point out that New Orleans was a remarkably stupid place to build a city (the whole below sea level, sandwitched between a lake and the sea thing...) based on past threat, let alone any potential increased threat.

  19. Sure thing...
    Bear in mind that I am not a meteorologist, so I can't really put any kind of weight behind these citations, nor am I particularly familar with the journals they come from. Nevertheless, it's possible to gain a reasonably broad understanding of the field by conducting a literature search - and a wizard excuse to get stuck into Google's excellent Scholar Search to boot!
    As you say, the field is far from unified in this. Of the studies that I found my way to, a direct correlation between multidecadal frequency of hurricanes and the measured anthropogenic global warming was tenuous at best.
    This abstract: here concludes:

    'Regional and local frequencies could change substantially in either direction, because of the dependence of cyclone genesis and track on other phenomena (e.g., ENSO) that are not yet predictable. Greatly improved skills from coupled global ocean–atmosphere models are required before improved predictions are possible.'

    Which is hardly promising or conclusive. When you dig further, it seems that community remains this inconclusive on the subject of hurricane frequency, but the question of intensity seems a little better understood.
    Here's an article: here that models an atmospheric warming by CO2 and the effect of tropical storm intensity in the pacific basin. The conclusion reads:

    'For a sea surface temperature warming of about 2.2°C, the simulations yielded hurricanes that were more intense by 3 to 7 meters per second (5 to 12 percent) for wind speed and 7 to 20 millibars for central surface pressure.'

    This would seems to suggest that there is a correlation between the heat transfer mechanism between the sea surface and air and the hurricane wind speed. Hence, a correlation with global warming, given that increased precipitation is a consequence of a rise in sea surface temperature. I find this is supported in a number of related studies, for example: here. From the abstract:

    'In particular, we advance the hypothesis that the intensification and maintenance of tropical cyclones depend exclusively on self-induced heat transfer from the ocean.'

    Of course, with any literature search, it is possible to find papers to find exactly what you're looking for. The trick is to find consistency. The feel I get is that an increase of intensity and precipitation of about 5% seems to be an accepted consequence of "high" CO2 conditions. Here's an article that backs this up: here
    As a counter point, I tried to find an article that predicted a decrease or no-change in intensity. About as good as I could find was an article that predicts that the offset between sea surface temperature and atmospheric stabilisation caused by anthropogenic global warming results in an increase in intensity that is less than early predictions, but an increase nevertheless: here.
    As a disclaimer, I don't claim to be an expert in this field by any stretch of the imagination and the citations above may not hold water. However, as a veteran of these kind of cold literature searches, I would say that the general trend suggests some statistically significant increase in intensity.
    A point to bear in mind however, is that one effect of global warming that is far less contentious is that of a rise in sea levels caused by depletion of the polar caps. Since the prime destructive factor in Katrina seemed to be flooding, it seems reasonable to hold up the events of the last few weeks as a stern reminder of what awaits us - not just to cities in stupid places, but to just about all coastal regions in the world.