John Dawson reports from Beaumont with Marvin Olasky in Austin
Duck, dodge, weave . . . duck, dodge, weave," Guy Goodson, 54, said as he made his way past chairs, cans of food, bottles of water, and elected officials at Beaumont's downtown emergency center near the end of a long day. He might as well have been talking about his city and the entire state of Texas, which survived Rita with only 10 direct hurricane fatalities, six of them resulting from faulty generators that led to carbon monoxide poisoning and electrocution.
The hurricane did wipe out some small coastal towns in southwestern Louisiana; all that Rita left in Holly Beach, a vacation and fishing retreat of 300, were the stilts that used to hold homes out of the surf. In Lake Charles, La., which lost its electric grid and suffered flooding, police arrested 15 people for looting. The biggest disaster: An explosive bus fire during the evacuation of Houston and coastal cities took 23 lives. But those bracing for death and devastation spoke during succeeding days about witnessing deliverance-and that afforded time to think about what officials and citizens alike have learned.
The mayor's Saturday began at 3:30 a.m. when he awoke from restless rest on a small thin mattress in the windowless microfiche room of a downtown office building. He had shared the space with the county judge, who snores, but it would have been hard to sleep, anyway. Wearing a blue rain jacket, a gray power company cap, and blue jeans tucked into knee-high rubber waders, the mayor hopped into a white Ford F-350 with yellow lights on top.
The hurricane, a Category 3 storm in Beaumont with winds of around 120 mph, had just passed through the city, and Mr. Goodson looked down one residential street where fallen trees outnumbered those still standing. A few people were also looking around: The mayor believed that about 100,000 of his constituents had left town, so "that leaves us with about 11,000 people that stayed. They're going to want us to take care of them now, but we're set up to handle and fix the infrastructure."
The fixing began quickly. Two days before the storm hit, the mayor and Beaumont's city manager were talking about how to protect city vehicles vital for recovery they feared might be destroyed by the storm. "We went past the ships and I had a thought," Mr. Goodson said, so he drove into the port area and within an hour or so arranged with two U.S. Navy captains to load Beaumont's fire trucks, ambulances, bulldozers, and other vehicles, 200 in all, aboard their massive cargo ships, the 631-foot USS Cape Victory and its twin the USS Cape Vincent.
The vehicles, loaded on Friday, paraded out on Saturday as soon as the bulk of the storm had passed. The bulldozers cleared streets of downed trees and retook the city that had been given over to Rita for a few hours. The situation in Beaumont was of course far different from that of flooded New Orleans, but Mr. Goodson and other officials gave no opportunity for criminals to become kings. Every Beaumont police officer able to walk-254 in all-spent the post-hurricane hours out on the streets patrolling; they also arrested upwards of 20 looters.
Beaumont's fixing escalated as Texas state authorities delivered the resources he needed-generators, MREs, cots, and extra front-end loaders-a little later than the mayor would have liked. He was using his Motorola cellphone so much that the battery was dying and he had to plug it into a generator-powered socket. "Big cities like Houston or Dallas can stockpile everything they need," Mr. Goodson said. "But cities like ours really depend on the state for reinforcements."
Even with the reinforcements, it still took time for normality to return. Beaumont had a "boil water" notice for days. The evacuation of Houston and other coastal cities led to 100-mile traffic jams on Texas freeways, with many motorists running out of gas. Not until Tuesday, Sept. 27, did many residents return home, with Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw admitting he was wrong when he assured motorists that extra fuel would be available for their evacuation. He said officials had 100 refueling vehicles on the road but didn't anticipate the trucks being caught so long in traffic.
With so many unanticipated events, groups that became part of the solution rather than part of the problem were usually those most nimble and adaptable. Let's examine the growing or shrinking reputations of some key institutions and ideas.
Before Rita struck the Texas coast, local officials were planning throughout the night: "Everyone's worn down tired," Mayor Goodson said, but at least there were no photos of hundreds of unused buses lined up. Officials knew that the cavalry would arrive, with the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief all making plans to deploy across the affected areas, including Beaumont. When communications equipment and generators did not come from the state of Texas as quickly as Mr. Goodson hoped, he refrained from blaming others and instead said, "I don't want to jump to conclusions."
Katrina, of course, did far more damage and displayed New Orleans' unique vulnerability, yet even so the performance of that city's mayor, Ray Nagin, deserves a place in Louisiana's crowded political hall of shame. He jumped to conclusions and cast blame like confetti, but he wasn't alone among local demagogues who would do Huey Long proud: Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, embellished a widely publicized story of a nursing home mother who begged her son for four days to rescue her from rising waters. New Orleans Police chief Eddie Compass, who resigned after Katrina's chaos subsided, passed off still-unsubstantiated and apparently false claims of child rape at the Superdome.
Reports of official pilfering of emergency aid bring to life FBI agent Lou Riegel's description of Louisiana public corruption as "epidemic, endemic, and entrenched." If Congress moves ahead with a Hurricane Katrina investigation, columnist Mark Alexander suggested that "the committee's first witness should be Bill Nungesser, a former Levee Board chairman who tried to reform the system. Mr. Nungesser says of the levee failure, 'Every time I turned over a rock, there was something rotten. I used to tell people, "If your children ever die in a hurricane, come shoot us, because we're responsible." We throw away all sorts of money.'"
Some local reporters performed heroically in getting out information, but the national press often served as a megaphone for hysteria and propaganda. Journalists circulated rumors of hundreds of gang members killing people at the Superdome and "30 or 40 bodies" stored in a Convention Center freezer. The reality was different: Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said authorities found four murders in the entire city in Katrina's aftermath-making it a typical week in a city that anticipates over 200 homicides per year.
Reports of police in multiple shootouts within shelters and racing toward muzzle flashes through the dark to disarm criminals, with snipers firing at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises, kept volunteers and rescue workers from moving in as quickly as they otherwise could have. The sensational reports were also demeaning toward the overwhelmingly African-American part of the population that remained in New Orleans and received branding as savages. None of that labeling occurred in Rita's less-ravaged aftermath, but Texas media could have done a better job in broadcasting information about evacuation routes and perhaps reducing the day-long tie-ups.
Federal government civilians
If anyone expected Washington to move quickly and effectively, capital-G Government certainly proved itself not to be God, as WORLD's coverage in recent weeks has shown. Congressional investigations may help us learn whether help came as quickly as it could have to New Orleans, given destroyed roads and reports of violence, but President Bush initially showed that he is not as good as Bill Clinton in serving as the nation's First Emoter. He then tried to counter criticism by promising a spending spree that could out-Clinton his predecessor while at the same time making Louisiana officials happy and their friends rich.
Even if officials manage to skirt the Scylla and Charybdis of pettiness or overpromising, the Rita experience raises questions about whether bureaucrats far from the scene can ever be in a position to deal with problems as efficiently as sharp-eyed locals. Mayor Goodson took advantage of a unique opportunity to shelter Beaumont vehicles in U.S. Navy ships; Washington edicts could promote such arrangements, but since each city has unique circumstances, decentralized management backed up by outside support works best (unless the local political culture is exceptionally corrupt).
The U.S. military became an exception to the federal government's poor disaster reputation: During September nearly 65,000 active-duty military personnel helped out in saving lives and offering help, with best results often obtained by entrepreneurial officers who saw immediate problems and decided to act. Some wonder if the armed forces are suffering mission creep as during the Clinton years, but there's a big difference between peacemaking projects that stretch on for months and years, and emergency help intensively proffered over a few days that makes use of troops still available to be deployed elsewhere the following week.
On Sept. 22, 66-year-old Travis Maynard slept in a real bed amid air conditioning for the first time in three weeks. A leader in the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief network, Mr. Maynard and his wife, both retired, deployed to Lafayette, La., to feed folks at the Cajun Dome. Then it was on to Slidell, La., and then the relief staging area in Hillsboro, Texas, and at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. The commitment doesn't make his cardiologist happy: Three years ago, while Mr. Maynard was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation to treat cancer, he had a massive heart attack.
"That's what I like-the rough stuff," said Mr. Maynard, who prefers to be right in the middle of the disaster aftermath. "I'm here to serve. This is my calling, but I like to be in the thick of it too. It's an adventure" that includes heading up a 24-person crew capable of serving 10,000 to 16,000 meals a day. Thousands of other Christians were also serving in hundreds of venues, as were members of other religions, in a way that won favorable notice even from a skeptical press.
Texans are supposed to be self-reliant, but many headed inland without food, water, or extra gas, thinking they could buy what they needed on the road. Everyone should have a "grab-and-go" backpack with water bottles, medicines, cash or traveler's checks, and other necessities, along with three days of nonperishable food (rotated periodically). Maps, planned-in-advance escape routes and destinations, and an extra five gallons of gas can also come in handy. For stay-at-home situations, it's not hard to keep extra water and cans of food, along with flashlights and lanterns. Those in hurricane, tornado, and earthquake zones have the most obvious need, but the next terrorist attack could strike anywhere.
Environmental and defense sensitivity
Environmentalists have made a good case that draining wetlands around New Orleans has been part of the problem, and rational city planners are noting that rebuilding a city below sea level is not a solution. That's particularly true because of concerns about terrorism: At least Katrina provided some advance notice, although the available time was not always used well, but a terrorist who explodes a levee using a truck bomb is unlikely to send engraved notices. It's hard enough to defend American cities generally without also having to defend sitting ducks.
Confusion over compassionate conservatism
While the work of faith-based volunteers seems like proof of the usefulness of a compassionate conservative approach, some conservatives annoyed with President Bush's post-Katrina promising are lambasting the philosophy. Peggy Noonan has it right: Compassionate conservatism meant spending "not to avoid criticism, but to make things better. It meant an active and engaged interest in poverty and its pathologies. It meant a new way of doing old business. I never understood compassionate conservatism to mean, and I don't know anyone who understood it to mean, a return to the pork-laden legislation of the 1970s. We did not understand it to mean never vetoing a spending bill. We did not understand it to mean a historic level of spending. We did not understand it to be a step back toward old ways that were bad ways."