Mayor Ray’s Amazing Vanishing Responsibility

As I’ve tried to explain in the comments section of some of the recent Katrina postings, this event had a ripple effect across every level of US Government in exposing the incompetence, confusion, communication failures, and logistical nightmares that occur when a high-level disaster strikes a major city and a large geographical region. Truthfully, the specter of this nightmare scenario has likely haunted the dreams of every New Orleans Mayor for generations. Each Mayor passing it on to the next, like a game of russian roulette. However, once the resonsibility is in the current Mayor’s hands, he is obligated to provide the best safeguard for the people during an emergency, regardless of how it may have been done in the past. In the last 25 years or so, our ability to track hurricanes and predict their path and strength has been greatly improved. And so has our ability to prepare for the arrival of such storms. Every section of the country that is prone to such weather has some kind of emergency plan in place for use. Most community leaders review, audit and/or rehearse it regularly. This article gives a telling critique of what seemed starkly different about how the local and State leadership in Mississippi and Louisiana viewed its emergency plans and the basic requirements to make it work. New Orleans, because of its density of population, location below sea level and its volume of people with limited options for transportation, has an even bigger obligation to its citizens to have a reasonable, coordinated, thorough and rehearsed procedure that gives everyone a fair opportunity, at minimum, to be moved out of harm’s way and to a more secure area.

The delays, confusion and neglect of procedure within the Mayor’s office and in its dealings with the Governor’s staff (which had their own issues of bureaucratic paralysis), cost precious hours within the compressed timeframe of an impending disaster. The results were thousands of the most vulnerable of the City’s population either stuck in facilities that were never intended for use other than a last resort simply for riding out the hurricane itself, or forced to try to survive in homes destined for destruction and flooding.

Which left the Federal sector with the uneviable task of trying to understand what was needed, where it was needed and then dealing with the logistics of gathering and dispersing all those assets to their proper places. The mistakes made early on at the local/State levels rippled through to affect the reaction and response of these Federal agencies (which aren’t exactly nimble by nature), which were likely further crippled by the exposed ineptness of their own organizations. My point is that these initial failures created situations that greatly affected the way decisions were made and actions were taken all the way down the line.

But the Mayor Nagin is having nothing to do with accepting any real blame in any of this:

MAYOR NAGIN: You know, I’m sure I could have done a lot of things much better, but I will tell you this, Tim: I was there. I was among the people in the Superdome. I knew what was going on every minute. I did not have air conditioning nor shower facilities. I made decisions based upon facts and not what I thought was going to happen. So history will judge me based upon those actions. But I will tell you something: I think I did everything possible known to any mayor in the country as it relates to saving lives. And I think as this continues to unfold, history will say that we did some things to save thousands and thousands of lives. Now, could we have done things better? Absolutely.

MR. RUSSERT: What’s the biggest mistake you made?

MAYOR NAGIN: My biggest mistake is having a fundamental assumption that in the state of Louisiana, with an $18 billion budget, in the country of the United States that can move whole fleets of aircraft carriers across the globe in 24 hours, that my fundamental assumption was get as many people to safety as possible, and that the cavalry would be coming within two to three days, and they didn’t come.

MR. RUSSERT: Many people point, Mr. Mayor, that on Friday before the hurricane, President Bush declared an impending disaster. And The Houston Chronicle wrote it this way. “[Mayor Nagin's] mandatory evacuation order was issued 20 hours before the storm struck the Louisiana coast, less than half the time researchers determined would be needed to get everyone out. City officials had 550 municipal buses and hundreds of additional school buses at their disposal but made no plans to use them to get people out of New Orleans before the storm, said Chester Wilmot, a civil engineering professor at Louisiana State University and an expert in transportation planning, who helped the city put together its evacuation plan.” And we’ve all see this photograph of these submerged school buses. Why did you not declare, order, a mandatory evacuation on Friday, when the president declared an emergency, and have utilized those buses to get people out?

MAYOR NAGIN: You know, Tim, that’s one of the things that will be debated. There has never been a catastrophe in the history of New Orleans like this. There has never been any Category 5 storm of this magnitude that has hit New Orleans directly. We did the things that we thought were best based upon the information that we had. Sure, here was lots of buses out there. 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.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Mr. Mayor, if you read the city of New Orleans’ comprehensive emergency plan — and I’ve read it and I’ll show it to you and our viewers–it says very clearly, “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.”

It was your responsibility. Where was the planning? Where was the preparation? Where was the execution?

MAYOR NAGIN: The planning was always in getting people to higher ground, getting them to safety. That’s what we meant by evacuation. Get them out of their homes, which–most people are under sea level. Get them to a higher ground and then depending upon our state and federal officials to move them out of harm’s way after the storm has hit.

MR. RUSSERT: But in July of this year, one month before the hurricane, you cut a public service announcement which said, in effect, “You are on your own.” And you have said repeatedly that you never thought an evacuation plan would work. Which is true: whether you would exercise your obligation and duty as mayor or that–and evacuate people, or you believe people were on their own?

MAYOR NAGIN: Well, Tim, you know, we basically wove this incredible tightrope as it is. We were in a position of trying to encourage as many people as possible to leave because we weren’t comfortable that we had the resources to move them out of our city. Keep in mind: normal evacuations, we get about 60 percent of the people out of the city of New Orleans. This time we got 80 percent out. We encouraged people to buddy up, churches to take senior citizens and move them to safety, and a lot of them did. And then we would deal with the remaining people that couldn’t or wouldn’t leave and try and get them to higher ground until safety came.

Did you get all of that. He vaguely admits to being able to do better, but when asked his biggest mistake, it was in depending on the Federal Government! When asked why no buses were used to move those with no transportation out of the most vulnerable areas, as per his own Plan, the answer is that we wouldn’t have drivers available! Oh okay, well we’ll just put an intention of having a way to move our poor or special needs population out of harm’s way to make them feel good and to fulfill our legal obligations of documentation, but we have no intent to actually follow through with it. Can you say “disregard of duty”?

And when asked what happened to the expectation of following the City’s Evacuation Plan, the Mayor just reiterates what the intention of the Evacuation was! …..Um yeah, we know the intent, why wasn’t it followed?

Then, when asked which viewpoint he took regarding evacuating people, based upon statements he made, he admitted he was responsible for moving those who couldn’t leave earlier, out of harm’s way.

Exactly Mayor, exactly.

Now, could he move everyone out? Realistically, no. Limitation of time, certain attrition of drivers (even in the best executed Plan), and simple stubborness or ignorance of those remaining, would cause that result. But that’s tens of thousands of people moved, who were instead left to their fates.

As I’ve said before, there will be many people and actions at fault, both before and after the hurricane and the subsequent flooding. No level of government will be unscathed. But those with myopic “all about Bush” tunnel vision are missing the scope of this bungled preparation and response.

And let me make this a little longer, with a side note. Does anyone who actually thinks seriously about issues and wants to truly advance race relations in this Country still even bother to listen to Rev. Jesse Jackson anymore?

Here’s a snippet of a interview he had on FOX recently (yes, yes, I know, just focus for me please…):

JACKSON: To make a mayor the fall guy, I think, is a misstatement. You had a five-day warning about the storm coming Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday by the meteorologists. And emergency preparedness was not even prepared for the emergency.
So that was no massive plan for rescue and for relocation and for relief and family reunification and reconstruction. That’s bigger than a given mayor.

And then this…..

JACKSON: Wait a minute. Mayors do not fix levees. That’s what the Corps of Engineers do.
HANNITY: Mayors are supposed to have used buses and evacuate people, and this mayor didn’t do it.
JACKSON: But he had no place to relocate them. That becomes a state function.
HANNITY: You leave them in the wake of a hurricane because you don’t know the exact location of where the bus is going to go? I’d get them the heck out of town. Get them out of the way.
JACKSON: And land them where? There must be some reception.
HANNITY: Dry land, away from the hurricane.
JACKSON: But then you have to be received on dry land. You have to have a rescue operation, but you must also have a relocation plan.

Now, beyond Jesse’s misstatements about the City’s Plan and some just plain confusing sentences, does anyone really believe that he would have gone out of his way to make such excuses for a emergency Plan’s failures if the New Orleans administration was white? Seriously, a white administration and an affected population that was largely poor and black? Please! He would have held the administration to their Plan by THE LETTER. Shouting “racism” the whole way.

Now, contrast this with another Black Leader (and Reverend):

“Mayor Nagin has blamed everyone else except himself,” said the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, founder and president of the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny.
“The mayor failed in his duty to evacuate and protect the people of New Orleans. … The truth is, black people died not because of President Bush or racism, they died because of their unhealthy dependence on the government and the incompetence of Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco,”

And there you have it. One person who reflexively parrots his one-note song for any and all occasions. And one person who acknowledges that injustice and incompetence comes in all colors.

14 Responses to “Mayor Ray’s Amazing Vanishing Responsibility”

  1. Sven Says:

    Craig, I’m starting to think you have a crush on Mayor Nagin. So when is George Bush going on Meet the Press to discuss his roll, or lack there of, in this mess?

  2. ymatt Says:

    I’m willing to pin the first 48 hours on Nagin and the governor. The next 48 hours I’m still pinning on Bush for trashing FEMA and putting a complete boner in charge of it.

    And no, nobody listens to Jesse Jackson — at least in the sense that nobody listens to Pat Robertson.

  3. Rise Against Says:

    I agree with your statement ymatt. How it could take 5 days for the feds to arrive is beyond belief.

    “Brownie” resigned, clearly indicating where the bulk of the failure lies.

  4. J.A.Y.S.O.N. Says:

    I think we really need a failure pie chart here.

  5. Steve Says:

    Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson has it wrong. It is not “unhealthy dependence on the government” to expect your government to mitigate natural disasters. I depend on my government to defend me from forces beyond my control.

    What was the timeline of the deaths here? How many died, and when did they die? If they died in the first 48 hours, then you’re probably right that it’s the fault of the locals. If they died after that, it’s the Feds.

    I think it’s also natural for most of us to focus on the federal government in this tragedy because most of us don’t live in Louisiana. Sure, I wouldn’t vote for Nagin or Blanco if I lived there, but the only bastards I can vote out of office in response to Katrina are the national politicians.

    The best way I can see of limiting Bush’s ability to further harm this country is to bring Democratic majorities to Congress.

  6. openended Says:

    I’m not clear on whos responsiblity it is to create highend leeves? Local, state, or national?

    Thats issue number one, because its been 40 years of neglec.
    Issue number two as just state would be the lack of a plan by the local officals for getting people out. Knowing damn well they have crap leeves.
    Issue number three would be why in the world the national gov/FEMA didn’t have a relief plan, because anyone could make the evalution that the local officals and the people in the city don’t have the know how or the ablities to get out 80,00 people.
    Issue for of course it took way to damn look for FEMA to react, as state.

    Once again the real issue is national and state govs need to put huge amounts of money in leeve systems like they have in europe. America is basiclly a big loose ass. Anything and everything can penitrate it. And we welcome a lot of shit into it, however we get pissed whenever it hurts. Its time to stop trying to catch bullets and start building a hell of a local defence.

  7. jbc Says:

    Thanks, Craig, for posting that. I’m grateful for the evidence that I’m not the only one obsessing about this.

    For what it’s worth, i basically agree with most of what you say, including agreeing that Nagin is doing his best to escape what is rightfully his responsibility for poor execution of a flawed evacuation plan.

    The only place where I think I have a problem with what you’re saying (and it’s more a question of emphasis and implication than anything you’ve said outright), is when you quote Rev. Peterson saying, “The mayor failed in his duty to evacuate and protect the people of New Orleans… The truth is, black people died not because of President Bush or racism, they died because of their unhealthy dependence on the government and the incompetence of Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco,”

    The truth is, despite the human brain’s desire to see the world in terms of stark alternatives, it’s not an either/or proposition. The Hurricane Katrina deathtoll is a floor wax _and_ a dessert topping. Black people died because Nagin didn’t have a plan for getting the poor out of New Orleans, but rather relied on the federal “cavalry” to come rescue them after 48-72 hours. They died because he didn’t have a coordinated plan with the governor to relocate those people outside the city before the storm. They died because he inexplicably didn’t order a mandatory evacuation on Saturday, but instead waited until Sunday.

    They died because Gov. Blanco didn’t have a better idea of what National Guard troops should be assigned where, and didn’t coordinate more effectively with both Mayor Nagin and with the federal authorities.

    They _also_ died because Bush has systematically gutted FEMA of the competent leadership that was the result of Clinton-era reforms, replacing them with mediocre fuckups cast in his own mold. They died because Bush, and the more-intelligent members of his administration who are better than he is at thinking on their feet and making good decisions in a crisis, were on vacation, insulated from unfolding events that it is their sworn duty to be aware of.

    They died because (and yeah, I actually believe this is an accurate statement), “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Just as George Bush doesn’t care about Democrats, and Californians, and people who think he’s not qualified to be president, or pretty much anyone who’s not in his little circle of sycophants. George Bush basically doesn’t care about _anyone_ other than George Bush, and in this crisis the stunted nature of his emotional development really showed.

    But more than any of those reasons, the residents of New Orleans died because people are really, really good at lying to themselves. They ignore the evidence of their own senses, the workings of their own miraculous brains, which have the ability to make a model of the world and predict with a fair degree of accuracy that if A and B, then C (but which also have the ability to pretend that C won’t in fact happen, if that fantasy is more convenient than the truth).

    If you build a city on a subsiding delta in the path of hurricanes, and chanellize the river to send its sediment out to sea, the city will predictably sink. If you pull money away from levee construction and maintenance so you can lard more pork-barrel spending elsewhere, if you develop coastal estuaries to make short-term profits for real estate developers, you hasten the day when disaster will strike.

    We’re like a trail of ants going back and forth across a driveway. Twice a day a car drives over us, crushing a bunch of us, and for a minute or so we scurry around waving our antennae in the air, pumping out alarm pheremones, hyperalert to every danger. Calamity! Disaster! Woe betide us!

    Then the effect wears off, and we go, “Huh, no big tires have crushed anyone lately. I guess we’re safe.” And we go back to our former habits. Until the next time.

    This happened to us because we weren’t honest with ourselves. And to the extent we aren’t honest about what happened, it will happen to us again. When Nagin seeks to preserve his own political skin by obscuring his own role, he’s helping to make sure it will happen again. When Bush seeks to preserve _his_ political skin by obscuring _his_ role, he’s helping to make sure it will happen again. Both of them are clearly doing that.

    And when we give in to our too-human tendency to believe the comforting lies told by “our” side, as they seek to lay the blame on the “other” side, we’re helping to make sure it will happen again.

    It’s our fault.

  8. ethan-p Says:

    “Brownie” resigned, clearly indicating where the bulk of the failure lies.

    Rise, I don’t mean to pick on you, but I do not believe that Brown’s resignation alone clearly indicates anything. In his mind, it was likely a reaction to public preception and the growing criticism. In this case, I am certainly left with a feeling of ‘good riddance’, but he certainly defended his reposne in his resignation announcement:

    “This was a catastrophic disaster, and in every disaster, there are mistakes, and it’s not always smooth and pretty,” Brown said of Hurricane Katrina. “I’m at ease knowing I was doing everything I could.”

    I definitely agree with Craig that the government failed the people of New Orleans at all levels, local, state, and federal. Not that it’s a big surprise to my government-fearing self. It’s inherent to our system of government, and I do not feel that there is any way to change it…we can only understand the bureaucracy (and its inherent limitations) and work within and around it.

    On a related note, today marks a historic occasion, where GW Bush actually accepted accountability for the fed’s fuckups. I don’t know how far it really goes, but it’s a whole hell of a lot better than “we won too fast” or regretting appointments (although it may all come down to the latter). I guess that it helps that he doesn’t have an election in sight.

  9. Craig Says:

    John, my reason for using those two quotes by Reverends Jackson and Peterson was more to highlight the difference in how one Black Leader is able to see problems and incompetence for what they are, regardless of race, while the other cannot. Not because Peterson implied that the deaths were due specifically to local and State leadership.

    I would also have to say I agree with most your own comments above, although I do have to part ways on the whole “Bush doesn’t care about blacks” which is generally the precursor to the argument that “the Federal Government responded slowly because it was just poor black people involved”.

    Maybe I’ll save that point for a future post.

  10. ethan-p Says:

    Craig, I’m totally with you on the poor black people bit. I think that calling the slow response a race thing is sort of a logical fallacy…in this case, confusing correlation with causation. (I’ve been citing that fallacy too often lately — I’d best stop after this to avoid tiring it out)

    The people in New Orleans who got the shaft are predominantly black, but they are also predominantly poor. I have a feeling that the poor and black coorelation have quite a bit to do with each other (the coorelation), rather than the slow response being directly because people were black. IMO, the slow response of the federal government was much more of a socioeconomic issue than a race issue (the causation). These people don’t have the same influence as those on Florida’s bling-bling shores. (They also don’t have a Jeb Bush, but that’s another story).

    So Craig, I’ve heard you describe yourself as a conservative before. Are you really a conservative, or just are relative to these guys…because I’m finding myself agreeing with you more and more, which is beginning to scare the crap out of me.

  11. ethan-p Says:

    Oh…as a side note, I can’t say that I entirely agree that it was the people’s fault for trusting the government. I mean…I know that it’s a horrible bureaucracy and that it’s sluggish and ineffective (among other things). However, it’s not like those people chose to be poor. What the government’s role there should be is a discussion left for later. However, the people had a reasonable expectation that they would be taken care of by the government. The local government had a plan, the state government had a plan, and the federal government should have had a plan, and the people thought that they were doing the right thing by heeding the government’s advice. The people were led to believe that they would be taken care of…and they weren’t.

    Now is when I’d normally bust out a tyraid about how our overbearing federal government has laid down all kinds of laws to make people not think for themselves and be automotons of the federal government’s laws. I’ll save it for later. However, I love spouting this kind of tripe, so if anyone trolls me, I’ll lay it on :)

  12. Craig Says:

    I’m not completely sure what Reverend Peterson meant by an “unhealthy dependence on the Government”, but I’d guess it’s related to the kind of paradigm shift that people like Bill Cosby have been crusading about recently regarding breaking the chains of victimhood and regaining self-respect and self-reliance. Using the Government as a tool to further oneself, not as a crutch to depend on for the essentials of life. Kinda like the “Black Pride” of the 70′s but without the militant aspect and the “white hate”.

  13. ethan-p Says:

    Craig, Peterson’s opinion is something that’s pretty agreeable. It can, however, be stretched out and twisted up when used by the wrong people.

  14. Rise Against Says:

    It’s all good ethan.

    “I’m at ease knowing I did everything I could.”

    At ease? Everything he could?

    Well, considering he didn’t have a drop of disaster response experience and was appointed to be the head of the federal disaster response agency, I guess he did do everything he could.

    Which was f*ck all.

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