Top stories of 2005 | Disaster defined

Issue: "News of the year," Dec. 31, 2005

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some said New Orleans' problem was lack of planning. Then the truth emerged: At least three different bureaucracies had produced lots of plans and succumbed to rule by paperocracy.

  • The city of New Orleans' "Comprehensive Emergency Disaster Plan" was not comprehensive enough to call for evacuation of the sick, the elderly, and the poor.
  • The State of Louisiana's comprehensive plan assumed movement of New Orleans residents to shelters outside the city: Relief agencies were not to bring food and supplies into New Orleans because that would only slow down the evacuation.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency's comprehensive plan was based on national disaster standards that tell local and state officials not to expect federal aid for 72 to 96 hours. Up to then, FEMA wanted residents to depend on themselves and on local leaders, with a disciplined police force responsible for preventing looting and assault. The overall plan was to cross-pollinate these comprehensive plans to create something truly comprehensive and realistic, but that wasn't done.

Instead, we had government by acronym. According to the New Orleans emergency plan, "The Office of Emergency Preparedness [OEP] will coordinate with the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness [LOEP]" and the Association of Contingency Planners (ACP), with OEP and LOEP working together to conduct workshops at the Emergency Support Function (ESF) level, prepare Mass Casualty Incident (MCI) scenarios, and learn Emergency Operating Center (EOC) procedure.

Since "unified disaster planning" was the goal, OEP, LOEP, and FEMA officials, with ACP and EOC input and MCI and ESF experience, attended 'intensive work sessions." Got all that? Neither did those who were supposed to lead the paperocracy into battle. The plans went awry, of course, as plans often do in the face of rapidly changing conditions.

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Problems began even before Katrina hit. At least 80 percent of New Orleans residents escaped in their cars on Saturday, Aug. 27, enduring long delays on the road but eventually getting away. Some of the 100,000 or so who remained, though, boarded buses that took them to the Superdome, which by Sunday evening had 26,000 residents. Most had not brought food and water with them as requested. The Louisiana National Guard made things tolerable by delivering truckloads of enough food and water Sunday evening to supply 15,000 people for three days.

The hope was that after a day or two those 26,000 could go home, and it seemed at first that hopes would be fulfilled. Although Katrina packed 120 mph winds when it struck New Orleans at 8 a.m. Monday morning, Aug. 29, the hurricane path edged east at the last moment. That was apparently good news for the city, bad news for Louisiana east of New Orleans and for the Gulf shores of Mississippi and Alabama. WORLD issues in September covered well the travail of those areas, but national and world attention focused on New Orleans' misery, and that's the story we'll tell here.

The news was largely positive on Monday, as FEMA director Michael Brown arrived at the LEOP in Baton Rouge at 11 and said everything was "very smooth." In the afternoon he sent to Washington a request for 1,000 FEMA employees to report in two days to help, primarily to help residents fill out disaster relief forms. Isolated reports of trapped people emerged, but it looked like paperocracy might work.

Then levees broke in seven places and reports of grave danger rose with the water. Mayor Ray Nagin responded by emphasizing paperwork, telling reporters, "We're giving [FEMA] a hell of a list" of city needs. By Tuesday much of New Orleans was under water, and paper boats did not suffice. Thousands followed city instructions and headed to the Convention Center, a "Shelter of Last Resort" noted in the city plan but not in the state or FEMA plans.

On Wednesday, Aug. 31, the Superdome was a hot, smelly, miserable place that was running low on food and water, but (rumors to the contrary) no murders occurred there. Misery could have been reduced if relief groups had brought in supplies and portable toilets, but the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security told responders not to bring in anything because their presence "would keep people from evacuating." The plan was to bus evacuees to Houston and other cities, and that's what happened on Thursday and Friday.

The larger problem was twofold. First, some people (particularly the sick and elderly) were trapped in houses, hospitals, and other buildings. Second, the Convention Center became a disaster within a disaster. Mayor Nagin dropped in on it, reported that people "were panicked," and then sounded panicked himself, saying he would not return because "my security people advised me not to go back." Meanwhile, policemen on duty (many were AWOL) kept telling those looking for food to head to the Convention Center, where there was no food.


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