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.
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.
The Times-Picayune on its weblog first noticed the Convention Center's huddled masses on Wednesday, Aug. 31; federal and state authorities, paying attention to their plans, had no idea what was going on. Networks the next day discovered the oversight, and NBC initially presented a low-key report from a photographer, Tony Sambato, who had actually been in the building: "These are the families who listened to the authorities, who followed direction, who believed in the government. They were told to go to the convention center. They did. . . . They've been behaving. They have not started any melees, any riots, nothing. They just want food and support. There's no hostility there, so they don't need to be bringing any guns or anything like that. They need support."
Outside the Convention Center network reporters hysterically passed along every rumor they heard. CNN's Chris Lawrence stood on a tall building and went live with a story that "helicopters are literally just completely surrounding the city. . . . There have literally been groups of young men roaming the city, shooting at people, attempting to rape women. . . . We were at the New Orleans Convention Center today and saw mothers with their babies literally living in raw sewage. . . . People are literally dying at the Convention Center.' The show's anchor, Paula Zahn, then chimed in about "literally, people walking around in feces."
The Convention Center was a miserable place, but these "literal" events weren't happening. A month later The New York Times sheepishly acknowledged that "the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations." A contingent of National Guard troops was sent to rescue a St. Bernard Parish deputy sheriff who radioed for help, saying he was pinned down by a sniper. Accompanied by a SWAT team, the troops surrounded the area. The shots turned out to be the relief valve on a gas tank that popped open every few minutes.
Those supposed shots, though, were heard around the world. Agence France-Presse triumphantly told the story of "gunbattles and fistfights in the southern jazz capital . . . with some gunned down outside the local convention center." An Australian report claimed that "rescuers and police were shot at as New Orleans descended into anarchy today. . . . Police chief Eddie Compass said he sent in 88 officers to quell the situation at the Superdome, but they were quickly beaten back by an angry mob." None of that happened, but such reports harmed the reputation of America abroad.
Reports also harmed domestic race relations. Mayor Nagin said many of his constituents were in an "almost animalistic state," and African-American political organizer Randall Robinson said "thousands of blacks in New Orleans . . . have begun eating corpses to survive." CNN's Wolf Blitzer talked of those who were "so poor and so black" as if they were helpless children, but Coast Guard Lt. Chris Huberty, who flew a rescue helicopter, resented TV's negative characterizations of black New Orleans residents: "There were plenty of people sacrificing for others, regardless of their demographic."
CNN and other media spread rumors of African-Americans at the Convention Center and elsewhere raping and murdering at will. Times-Picayune editor Jim Maoss later noted that if media had been characterizing the attitudes of "sweaty, hungry, desperate, white people, middle-class white people, it's hard to believe that these kinds of myths would have sprung up quite as readily." But they did, and one result was that the first responders arriving at the Convention Center were not bus drivers but heavily armed soldiers: With rescue operations transformed to military ones, buses did not come there until Friday and Saturday.
With that exception, the federal response came in 72 to 96 hours as planned, but reporters and politicians were furious after 48. New Orleans homeland security director Terry Ebbert had said before the hurricane that survival was at stake, so "I'm not worried about what is tolerable or intolerable. I'm worried about whether you are alive." Several days later, Mr. Ebbert was lambasting the federal government: 'It's criminal within the confines of the United States that within one hour of the hurricane they weren't force-feeding us."
There was little criminality but lots of paperocracy. Air Force Reserve Col. Tim Tarchick told CBS that his unit "could have been airborne in six hours and overhead plucking out people . . . but between all the agencies that have a part in the approval process it took 34 hours to get three of my helicopters airborne."
ABC's John Stossel reported that 400 doctors, nurses, and first responders were ready to head into New Orleans. "Then FEMA gave them something to do: fill out 60-page applications that demanded photographs and tax forms." The doctors and nurses wanted to bring with them bandages, splints, and medicine, but "FEMA said they needed two state permits to transport these items from Tennessee to Mississippi. The supplies were only sent when two guys showed up with a church van and volunteered to take them-as rogue responders without FEMA's permission."
Rogue responders saved thousands of lives. Coast Guard and Louisiana National Guard chopper pilots flew in right behind Katrina and performed thousands of rescues. So did volunteers in their own boats called into action by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. They didn't wait for paperwork from FEMA, the governor, or the mayor.
Few journalists knew or reported this story because the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries wasn't on press call lists. But former reporter and firefighter Lou Dolinar, noting a Louisiana death toll of about 1,000 rather than the 10,000 or more Mayor Nagin had predicted for New Orleans alone, credited the volunteer response that "was immediate and massive-it just wasn't the response the media wanted, expected, or was spoon-fed at a press conference. [Since] there was no central clearinghouse for information on rescue efforts, what looked like a hurricane relief breakdown was in fact a press release breakdown."
Paperocracy ruled the press as well.