Monday, September 05, 2005

For the Want of a Driver?

"Funerals are for the living, not the dead," goes the old folk-saying, perhaps adapted from the more cynical version penned by La Rochefoucauld. And post-disaster presidential speeches are for the unscathed, being of greatest utility to those who, like the New York Times, confuse talk with accomplishment.

While the Times and other newspapers were preoccupied with important matters such as sorting presidents by the number of vacation days taken per term and grading presidential speeches, more serious journalists like Bryan Preston of JunkYardBlog worked this weekend to uncover the mind-boggling chutzpah of New Orleans officials like Mayor Ray Nagin and Terry Ebbert, head of emergency operations for the city. Nagin, Ebbert, and, to a lesser degree, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, vacillated between vituperation and tears last week as they blamed federal officials and President Bush for a "slow and inadequate" response to hurricane Katrina. But Preston and other bloggers have uncovered the following facts:

  • The city of New Orleans had an evacuation plan that called for the use of municipal and school buses for removing residents without other means of transportation.
  • Previous evacuations were voluntary because some citizens lacked means of transport. The Katrina evacuation was also voluntary until President Bush called Nagin and Blanco and urged them to make the evacuation mandatory (and according to one report even suggested earlier mobilization of the Louisiana Guard, which Blanco resisted). (UPDATE: According to this timeline the mandatory evacuation decision had already been made before Bush called. But there was some legal wrangling over the decision by Nagin: He was worried about the city's liability for closing hotels and businesses.)
  • Post-Katrina satellite photos show hundreds of municipal and school buses sitting waterlogged in depots just a couple of miles from the Superdome. See here, here, and here.
No one seems to know yet why the buses weren't used to evacuate more people from the city as described in the plan, instead of sending thousands to the Superdome and other shelters. I've done some consulting work for the state of Georgia (unrelated to emergency planning), and in my experience these types of bad decisions are often driven by very mundane budgetary or legal considerations--exactly the types of roadblocks an effective executive must be poised to clear in an emergency situation. In the midst of a crisis, cutting red tape is the most important job of a president, governor, or mayor--certainly more important than making speeches, holding press conferences, or touring for the television cameras.

The buses may sit waterlogged instead of having been used to ferry people from the city because no one knew who's budget would be billed for driver time or fuel costs; or there weren't any licensed bus drivers available; or someone was worried about insurance liability or security for the drivers or some other simple consideration that wasn't detailed finely enough in the evacuation plan. At that point a Mayor Nagin needs to say, "Budgets, licenses, and insurance be damned! Get me 300 policemen to fuel-up and drive these buses. Call the TV stations and announce pickup points around the city--and tell people to bring food and water for a day! Call Houston and other cities and tell them we're coming!"

I emailed Preston Saturday night to point this out and asked him if anyone had figured out the real reason the buses weren't used. He disagreed that drivers or budgets might be the issue, responding:

I've wondered about the drivers issue too, but I came to the conclusion that since they're school buses, NO had a cadre of qualified drivers right there--school bus drivers. Since they're employed by the school system, and they have a supervisor, the city knows that it can reach them through that supervisor, who knows how to reach them. So the supervisor calls a pre-determined group of 5, who all then call a group of five each, etc etc until the city has at least tried to reach all of them. It's not perfect, but you'd get a majority of them. And in driving everyone else out, they drive themselves out too. Let them bring family, whatever. Just get them behind the wheel.

But as Preston agrees today while recounting our exchange (He's guest-blogging at Michelle Malkin's blog, but no link--guess next time I'll blog first and email later! UPDATE: That was just an oversight--thanks for the link, Bryan!), a smooth mobilization of school bus drivers can't be assumed since the school system is no exception in New Orlean's panoply of governmental dysfunction:

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AP) -- Students return to class Thursday in a school system in such turmoil that no one is sure how many employees it has, the new budget is millions of dollars out of balance, and the buildings are old and deteriorating.
"We've had to start over in some cases and recreate data from scratch," said Sajan George, an executive of New York-based Alvarez & Marsal. The rate of payroll errors when he arrived was around 20 percent, he said.
Budget problems forced closure of some schools and elimination of some classes at schools that remained open. It was unclear until a few weeks ago which schools would shut down.
Last spring, when the district appeared close to missing its payroll, the federal government said $70 million of its money couldn't be accounted for.
When a new budget was adopted in July, 800 jobs had to be eliminated. Five schools were to be closed, numerous others were involved in consolidations or relocations and some lost classes because enrollment has declined. And just two weeks ago, the budget adopted in July was found to be out of balance -- by perhaps as much as $48 million -- because revenue was overestimated and salaries and benefits were undercounted.
School board president Torin Sanders, who is black, denounced the plan as a means of "disenfranchising" those who elected him and other board members. But the board voted 4-3, with the three black members dissenting, to hire the firm.

UPDATE: More on the Orleans Parish school board and Mayor Ray Nagin's legal dickering over buses and liability.

No comments: