08 September 2005

Hurricane Katrina

As the President says, there will be plenty of time in the months ahead to assess the government's performance. But it seems safe to say a few things:
  • It is correct to hold disaster response to a very high standard. There is nothing special about Katrina (its severity, suddenness, or unexpectedness; or the problems presented by New Orleans' unique geography) that should deflect criticism or excuse mistakes. Handling worst-case scenarios is FEMA's mission.

  • To date, criticisms of the response have been short on plain facts. A dispassionate timeline of events and responses is needed.

  • The mandatory evacuation probably saved tens of thousands of lives. Thousands more could have been saved by a determined effort to evacuate everyone. (It has been suggested that the city should have been evacuated much sooner, but that smells of hindsight.)

  • Barring the Red Cross from New Orleans while thousands of people were still desperate for food and water was unnecessarily cruel and likely cost lives. (More broadly, turning back individuals who went there to help seems like a bad idea to me, but I am apparently the only one.)

  • Every government account of anything related to the hurricane has been appallingly politicized, from Mayor Nagin's sleep-deprived rant to Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly's revised account of the Bataan's response. The President's observation that there will be time for criticism later hasn't prevented him or anyone else from conspicuously passing the buck.

  • The key people in the government didn't grasp the magnitude of what was happening. Neither did the media, which reported Katrina Monday and Tuesday with about the same tone as they reported Andrew (which killed about 65 people; Katrina probably killed thousands). Undoubtedly if the right people in government had been smart enough, prepared enough, and confident enough to ignore the media and proceed with the certain understanding that things were soon to get much worse, many lives could have been saved and much suffering avoided. Whether this is too much to expect from a government agency is an open question. More on this later.

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