"Tantamount to Negligence"

Is the Catastrophe in New Orleans a Catastrophe of Nature or Policy?

The disaster that was predicted to engulf the city of New Orleans in flood waters has happened. A catastrophe of enormous proportions is continuing in the New Orleans region of the US. Reports from the scene describe the condition of the people who remain in the area as turning from 'frustration' to 'desperation'. U.S. public officials, from the President of the US, to the Governor of Louisiana, to the Mayor of New Orleans, admit that it is a problem of tremendous proportions, something unlike anything that has been experienced previously. By Thursday, September 1, 2005. three days after the initial hurricane had hit on Monday morning, there was still no knowledge of how many people in the flood ravaged areas were still alive, or how many had died.

The crisis of the continuing flooding of the city, of the inability to repair the levees that had been breached which are responsible for the flooding, of the need to be able to feed and provide for the people who sought shelter in the Superdome or other places around the city, continues to grow more serious. Plans to evacuate people from the Superdome were complicated by many additional people arriving at the Superdome and hoping to be part of the evacuation, as well as by reports of shots being fired at some who were part of rescue operations.

The news from the disaster area site is intermittent and often involves hearing public officials giving their view of the situation. A few of the public officials blame the people who didn't leave for the enormity of the public disaster that is continuing. The provisions for evacuation before Hurricane Katrina, however, were advisory with little provision by public authorities for assistance for those who didn.t have the means to leave, or a place to go. Instead, people with difficulty leaving were told to go to the Superdomee. The conditions at the Superdome, however, soon deteriorated with grossly inadequate means of providing for the people who were there.

"It is possible to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane. But we've got to start. To do nothing is tantamount to negligence."
Al Naomi, senior project manager for the Corps of Engineers, quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 2004

The catastrophe of New Orleans, is a catastrophe of a major urban city that is flooded. Much of the city itself was built below sea level. Part of the mechanism to deal with the potential for flooding were levees and pumping stations. The erosion of the levees and the possible malfunctioning of the pumping stations were potential problems that had been recognized. A five part series of articles titled, "Washing Away". in the Times-Picayune, in 2003, and articles such as "New Orleans Growing Danger" published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, in October, 2004, document that there was an understanding not only of the problem, but also of the efforts it would take to prevent a disaster from taking place.

The great need for serious attention to the problem was identified. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the U.S. government agency that had been charged with the obligation to identify such problems understood that a catastrophe in New Orleans "was among.the three likeliest disasters facing" the US. Instead of being provided with the resources to deal with the problem, however, FEMA, previously a cabinet level agency reporting directly to the President, was absorbed into the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

Walter Maestri, director of the Jefferson Parish's Office of Emergency Management who had worked with FEMA for eight years, explained the difference the change represented for those in New Orleans. Under the previous system "you had access to individuals who were the decision-makers. The FEMA administrator had Cabinet status,' he explained. 'Now,' he noted, 'you have another layer of bureaucracy. FEMA is headed by an assistant secretary who now has to compete with other assistant secretaries of Homeland Security for available funds. And elevating houses is not as sexy as providing gases masks'. A recent article in the LA Times explains that under the organizational chart of the Office of Homeland Security, a different office has been assigned FEMA.s preparation and planning functions.

Similarly, the US Army Corps of Engineers, which had recognized the problems at least as early as 1995, and was exploring how to handle them in the long and short term, found its funding cut by the Bush administration. It was forced to institute a hiring freeze and to cutback its activities. Protesting these cutbacks, Mary Landrieu, Senator from New Orleans, complained that "the Bush administration is not making Corps of Engineers funding a priority".

Contrary to media reports, that the devastation in New Orleans was unexpected ("New Orleans is Inundated", New York Times, August 31, 2005, p. 1), or impossible to avoid ("Katrina's Awful Wake," WSJ, September 1, p. A10) articles like "New Orleans Growing Danger," published in the Philadelphia Inquirer less than a year ago, show that there was not only knowledge of the problem, but even more importantly, of the dire consequences of ignoring the problem. Terry C. Tullier, city director of emergency preparedness in New Orleans, described a small part of the magnitude of the disaster that ignoring the problem would bring : "The thing that keeps me awake at night is the 100,000 people who couldn't leave".

In the same article, Ivor van Heerden, Director of Louisiana State University.s Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, estimated that 300,000 people out of the 1.2 million people in the New Orleans. area, would not evacuate initially from the city. The need to evacuate these people from the flooded city would pose a logistical and humanitarian crisis of serious proportions, he warned.

Initially, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday morning, city officials and others felt they had been spared the worst feared scenario. By Tuesday, however, the problem that had been predicted, hit the city. Two of the levees that kept the city from flooding, were breached. Also several of the pumps malfunctioned.

The situation of a major metropolitan area being under water with no clear idea of how to stop the flooding or how to drain the water, is the situation currently facing officials in New Orleans. There are many people still stranded all around the city. There are bodies of the people who have died scattered around the city. There are the physical and emotional losses suffered by the survivors. These are only a few of the elements of the tragedy that add up to a crisis of immense proportions. This was a catastrophe just waiting to happen, a situation recognized as a problem, but deprived of the resources needed to address it. The gutting of the authority and funding of agencies like FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers in the name of 'homeland security' demonstrates the harm that the priorities of creating this agency have already caused. Four days after the hurricane, victims of the hurricane are condemning the US government for failing to provide them with food, water, or other basic forms of help. Other areas of the Gulf region ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, report similar frustration with the slowness of support from the federal government.

The disaster of diverting the funding and institutional support needed to prevent the flooding of New Orleans, is compounded as the federal government now fails to provide the critical immediate emergency aid to those in the disaster area. (Ronda Hauben)