Dispelling Lies, Damn Liars, and Myths of Katrina
Laying the blame for Katrina is a curious phenomenon to watch. Local officials blame state officials, who, in turn blame federal officials, who turn around and place the blame back on the local level. This dosey-do is now in its second week.
In a now infamous interview with WWL, as things unraveled rapidly after the storm, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin blasted the federal response by firing the first salvo. “I don't want to see anybody do anymore goddamn press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don't do another press conference until the resources are in this city. […] Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here.They're not here. It's too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country,” exclaimed the mayor, who is not a career politician and found the grandstanding and political posturing to be reprehensible.
A rebuttal to Nagin’s harangue came via Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, several days later on “Meet the Press.” “The way that emergency operations act under the law is the responsibility and the power, the authority, to order an evacuation rests with state and local officials," Chertoff countered after days of negative PR. And so it became blame me, I’ll blame you back.
“There'll be plenty of time to play the blame game - that's what you're trying to do. You're trying to say somebody's at fault. Look, I want to know, I want to know exactly what went on and how it went on and we'll continually assess inside my administration,” President Bush decried as he toured New Orleans on Monday.
Although the finger pointing oscillated the past two weeks, Nagin is becoming the scapegoat in all of this, quite possibly because he is not a shrewd politician, but rather a man who is trying to save the city he loves.
Immediately after things marginally stabilized in New Orleans, Nagin was rebuked for not using buses from the RTA and the Orleans Parish School District to get stranded citizens out of the city. An aerial photo of hundreds of submerged school buses accompanied this charge. To wit, Nagin replied, ““It’s up for analysis. But we didn’t have enough buses. I don’t control the school buses, and the RTA buses as far as I know were positioned high and dry. But 80 percent of the city was not high and dry. Where would we have staged them? And who was going to drive them even if we commandeered them? If I’d have marshaled 50 RTA buses, and a few school buses, it still wouldn’t have been nearly enough.”
The logistics that Nagin speaks of are daunting: Was there enough time to get everyone out, and would that take away from other needs? Has any other major city ever attempted to do something on this large of a scale? Who would drive the buses? Where would the people go? What about the cost, especially if the storm doesn’t hit? Maybe those that accost the mayor are unfamiliar with the state of finances in New Orleans, but the cost alone of busing such a large poor population out of the city every time a major storm looms would be awesome.
One only needed to witness the sad caravan of cars jammed with poor people in automobiles that barely ran on the road to Baton Rouge on Sunday afternoon and hypothesize that more people would have probably stayed and relied on the city to evacuate them. That is a frightening scenario.
Also, as callous as it sounds, the question that begs to be answered is does a city have an ethical obligation to get its poor out of harms way? Yes, without a doubt. But just who is going to pay? Are these critics going to help pay every time we need to flee? Ironically, those that make the charge against the mayor happen to align themselves with the philosophy that personal responsibility rules the day, unless, that is, if it is politically advantageous to take the other side and deflect from the President.
In the midst of the Monday morning quarterbacking, pundits curiously forget this is Mother Nature, an unpredictable, violent old lady when she wants to be, and one cannot apply science to her and expect simplicity. Remember, this storm went from a category three to a category five overnight. Damn, that impetuous, unconscionable old trollop. And before the mayor issued the first-ever mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, Kathleen Blanco, the governor, declared a state of emergency on Friday. For those that are keeping score at home, that is a full two days before the storm.
For those that are under the impression that the mayor did not do enough to get the message out, those of us that actually live in the Gulf region know, as officials and media inculcate us every year, to pre-prepare for potential hurricanes. The reason being, as Katrina showed, the window of opportunity can be small. Another tidbit people forget is that Katrina was not initially projected to hit New Orleans; instead it was that already-battered Florida/Alabama coast.
A look before Katrina reads like the Oracle at Delphi, as Gordon Russell wrote in a Times-Picayune piece, “Around 112,000 Orleanians do not own cars, according to census data. Nagin urged those people to seek rides with friends, family, neighbors and church members. Those who could not find rides were urged to get to the Superdome as quickly as possible.”
“I want to emphasize, the first choice of every citizen should be to leave the city,” the mayor stated unequivocally. Russell reported further that the mayor warned “that the Dome is likely to be without power for days — and possibly weeks — after the storm hits, and said it will not be a comfortable place.” In the same story, the mayor was quoted as calling Katrina’s approach “an unprecedented event.”
For those that cry that not enough was done by Nagin or local officials prior to the storm, a few things might enlighten those rather dark minds. First, Ron Thibodeaux from The Times-Picayune reported that Nagin said “about 60 percent of the city has evacuated for prior storms, but about 80 percent got out this time.”
The moral of the story: If someone or something is to blame, it is Katrina and no one else. Yet, there has been a political swath of destruction similar to Katrina’s wake, as Mike Brown, the director of FEMA, who was stepped down, and everything and everyone—from welfare to homosexuality—has been in the crosshairs of the blame.
And, now it seems as clearer heads begin to speak, President Bush, Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Nagin have all begun to accept responsibility, which they should. That is a step in the right direction, as the efforts could, and should, have gone better. Rather than laying the blame at the mayor’s feet, we could learn a little from the disaster.