Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Painfully Right On Buses

When I read this Katrina response timeline a couple of things caught my attention.

First, to Mayor Ray Nagin's credit, he advised people taking shelter in the Superdome on Sunday morning to bring camping supplies and food and water for three-to-four days. On Sunday the Louisiana National Guard delivered ten truckloads of water and MREs--enough for 15,000 people for three days. But by Wednesday morning, just three days later, conditions at the Superdome were described as "desperate". The disorder and lack of sanitation may have warranted that description, but news reports indicated that food and water supplies were exhausted as well. At that point the dome held about 20-25,000 refugees, which indicates that almost none of them bothered to bring food and water supplies. In hindsight, no one should have expected those who depend on government to meet their basic needs in the best of times to suddenly become self-sufficient in the worst of times.

Second, much to Nagin's discredit, on Saturday night after issuing a voluntary evacuation order he consulted with his legal staff to determine the city's liability for closing hotels and other businesses before issuing the mandatory evacuation order on Sunday morning :

Nagin said late Saturday that he's having his legal staff look into whether he can order a mandatory evacuation of the city, a step he's been hesitant to do because of potential liability on the part of the city for closing hotels and other businesses.

"Come the first break of light in the morning, you may have the first mandatory evacuation of New Orleans," Nagin told WWL-TV.

It's stunning that Nagin would even admit such a thing and indicative of the exact mindset that, as I said on Monday, likely prevented the use of school and municipal buses to evacuate the city. This is worth pondering for a moment: If Nagin's lawyers had failed to assuage his liability concerns would Nagin have declined to issue the mandatory evacuation order? Shouldn't such legal questions have been thoroughly considered months, years, or decades ago? A cat-5 hurricane is bearing down on New Orleans. The real worst-case scenario that's been feared for decades--worse even than the terrible disaster we've watched unfold in the past week--is probable, and Mayor Nagin punts the mandatory evacuation decision to his lawyers!

That's not all. Minutes from a June 2005 Orleans Parish school board meeting show that the city and school district have been wrangling over a plan to use school buses for hurricane evacuations for some time. (The minutes were first posted here and mentioned at JunkYardBlog. UPDATE: The Google cached copy of the minutes has disappeared along with copies of many other board meeting minutes I reviewed when I wrote this. The link now points to a complete copy of the meeting minutes I archived on my own server.) Here are the highlights:

Regina Bartholomew (General Counsel):
If a hurricane should come to the City in order to save the school buses, those assets, the City had asked if we would loan the school buses to be utilized for those persons in New Orleans. A lot of the citizens of New Orleans do not have transportation and have no way of evacuating from the City if a hurricane should come this way. He had been talking with Dr. Kevin Stephens from the Health Department because the Red Cross said that they would not commit to opening any shelters in the City of New Orleans if a hurricane comes this way. It would be all for naught. They wanted to utilize school buses in order to transport those persons out of the City. I believe that the City had agreed to indemnify and hold harmless the School Board if any of those persons got hurt on the buses because that was one of my concerns. But after speaking with Ms. Bowers, who had spoken with certain persons at the City as well, they indicated they would release us of any liability.
Torin Sanders (Board President):
The children are even more important in terms of making sure they are safe. We know many of our children and families don't have transportation and even though it is a City responsibility to plan for emergencies and hurricane preparedness, we need to look at working even more cooperatively or seeking a more cooperative relationship with the City on behalf of the students that we serve. I did talk with Dr. Kevin Stephens in the Health Department of the City. It is our interest to get buses and other vehicles that we may own out of the City in the event it is being evacuated. So those buses should not be empty. It was also his suggestion and call that they should be filled with families and children that may need a ride out of City and may perhaps designate certain high schools in different neighborhoods as staging grounds for families to go to should the need arise for an evacuation. The City is working on arrangements with different Civic Centers in Houma and depending on where the hurricane is coming from, where we need to go. They are making arrangements with institutions in those areas such as Baton Rouge, Mississippi, or Hammond to wait out the hurricane.
Phyllis Landrieu (Board Member?):
I just wanted to remind you that if we are going to include buses, which are not part of this plan, then we need to include the personnel and communication with personnel.
Ms. Bowers (Not identified):
We have been meeting with City entities about the hurricane preparedness and we have talked to them about our buses. We still have not defined how many they want. They have agreed to indemnify the School Board for using the buses. They said if our bus drivers volunteer then they will make arrangements to take the families of the bus drivers and offer them secure places. They are talking about having City Officers on buses also.
Phyllis Landrieu: Ms. Bowers, please also include in here fuel preparations.
Ora Watson (Assistant Deputy Superintendent):
Not to the extent that it probably should. All of our SASE and student data is within the Technology so that is safe. But some of the written documents in the schools, the older documents, need to be protected. But all grades, all enrollment, all health records are completely being taken care of by the Technology Department. We do have things like books and other things that would be perishable in the schools. We do our best to make them safe in the event of a hurricane. I do want to assure you that the School District has worked with the City and worked with other entities within the community over the years when we are facing a hurricane. But we have always volunteered the use of our buses to evacuate citizens.

In my post Monday I predicted that exactly these types of concerns likely prevented use of the buses:

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!"

The board members later agreed to update the hurricane preparedness plan and discuss it at the next meeting, but that seems never to have happened. Instead, the next few board meetings were filled with wrangling over the sorry state of the Orleans Parish school system. We all understand that this is, unfortunately, how government bureaucracies normally operate. But this wasn't a normal situation. And the Mayor Nagin who needed legal cover for his evacuation order simply wasn't willing to take responsibility for seizing the school buses or even to use city transit buses to evacuate the city--the same buses that were already being used to fill the Superdome. But he was willing to dish out double portions of blame just a few days later on Thursday:

Nagin explodes -“You know the reason why the looters got out of control?” Nagin said. “We have most of our resources saving people. They were stuck in attics, man, old ladies. You pull off the doggone ventilator and look down and they’re standing there in water up to their fricking neck.”

“I need reinforcements,” he said. “I need troops, man. I need 500 buses.

The relief efforts made so far had been pathetically insufficient, Nagin said.

“They’re thinking small, man, and this is a major, MAJOR deal,” Nagin said. “God is looking down on this and if they are not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price. Every day that we delay, people are dying, and they’re dying by the hundreds, I’m willing to bet you.”

Rolling now, Nagin described distress calls he’d heard. Nagin mocked the efforts to block the 17th Street Canal breach.

“I flew over that thing yesterday and it was in the same shape it was in after the storm hit,” he said.
“There is nothing happening there. They’re feeding the public a line of bull and they’re spinning and people are dying down here.”

What else is there to say, except, what a disgrace.

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