Wall Street Journal Commentary

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Wall Street Journal COMMENTARY


By BOB WILLIAMS
September 6, 2005; Page A28


As the devastation of Hurricane Katrina continues to shock and sadden
the nation, the question on many lips is, Who is to blame for the
inadequate response?


As a former state legislator who represented the legislative district
most impacted by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, I can fully
understand and empathize with the people and public officials over the
loss of life and property.


Many in the media are turning their eyes toward the federal government,
rather than considering the culpability of city and state officials. I
am fully aware of the challenges of having a quick and responsive
emergency response to a major disaster. And there is definitely a time
for accountability; but what isn't fair is to dump on the federal
officials and avoid those most responsible -- local and state officials
who failed to do their job as the first responders. The plain fact is,
lives were needlessly lost in New Orleans due to the failure of
Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco, and the city's mayor, Ray Nagin.


The primary responsibility for dealing with emergencies does not belong
to the federal government. It belongs to local and state officials who
are charged by law with the management of the crucial first response to
disasters. First response should be carried out by local and state
emergency personnel under the supervision of the state governor and
his/her emergency operations center.


The actions and inactions of Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin are a national
disgrace due to their failure to implement the previously established
evacuation plans of the state and city. Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin
cannot claim that they were surprised by the extent of the damage and
the need to evacuate so many people. Detailed written plans were
already in place to evacuate more than a million people. The plans
projected that 300,000 people would need transportation in the event of
a hurricane like Katrina. If the plans had been implemented, thousands
of lives would likely have been saved.


In addition to the plans, local, state and federal officials held a
simulated hurricane drill 13 months ago, in which widespread flooding
supposedly trapped 300,000 people inside New Orleans. The exercise
simulated the evacuation of more than a million residents. The problems
identified in the simulation apparently were not solved.


A year ago, as Hurricane Ivan approached, New Orleans ordered an
evacuation but did not use city or school buses to help people
evacuate. As a result many of the poorest citizens were unable to
evacuate. Fortunately, the hurricane changed course and did not hit New
Orleans, but both Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin acknowledged the need for
a better evacuation plan. Again, they did not take corrective actions.
In 1998, during a threat by Hurricane George, 14,000 people were sent
to the Superdome and theft and vandalism were rampant due to inadequate
security. Again, these problems were not corrected.


The New Orleans contingency plan is still, as of this writing, on the
city's Web site, and states: "The safe evacuation of threatened
populations is one of the principle [sic] reasons for developing a
Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan." But the plan was apparently
ignored.


Mayor Nagin was responsible for giving the order for mandatory
evacuation and supervising the actual evacuation: His office of
Emergency Preparedness (not the federal government) must coordinate
with the state on elements of evacuation and assist in directing the
transportation of evacuees to staging areas. Mayor Nagin had to be
encouraged by the governor to contact the National Hurricane Center
before he finally, belatedly, issued the order for mandatory
evacuation. And sadly, it apparently took a personal call from the
president to urge the governor to order the mandatory evacuation.


The city's evacuation plan states: "The city of New Orleans will
utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate
threatened areas." But even though the city has enough school and
transit buses to evacuate 12,000 citizens per fleet run, the mayor did
not use them. To compound the problem, the buses were not moved to high
ground and were flooded. The plan also states that "special
arrangements will be made to evacuate persons unable to transport
themselves or who require specific lifesaving assistance. Additional
personnel will be recruited to assist in evacuation procedures as
needed." This was not done.


The evacuation plan warned that "if an evacuation order is issued
without the mechanisms needed to disseminate the information to the
affected persons, then we face the possibility of having large numbers
of people either stranded and left to the mercy of a storm, or left in
an area impacted by toxic materials." That is precisely what happened
because of the mayor's failure.


Instead of evacuating the people, the mayor ordered the refugees to the
Superdome and Convention Center without adequate security and no
provisions for food, water and sanitary conditions. As a result people
died, and there was even rape committed, in these facilities. Mayor
Nagin failed in his responsibility to provide public safety and to
manage the orderly evacuation of the citizens of New Orleans. Now he
wants to blame Gov. Blanco and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In an emergency the first requirement is for the city's emergency
center to be linked to the state emergency operations center. This was
not done.


The federal government does not have the authority to intervene in a
state emergency without the request of a governor. President Bush
declared an emergency prior to Katrina hitting New Orleans, so the only
action needed for federal assistance was for Gov. Blanco to request the
specific type of assistance she needed. She failed to send a timely
request for specific aid.


In addition, unlike the governors of New York, Oklahoma and California
in past disasters, Gov. Blanco failed to take charge of the situation
and ensure that the state emergency operation facility was in constant
contact with Mayor Nagin and FEMA. It is likely that thousands of
people died because of the failure of Gov. Blanco to implement the
state plan, which mentions the possible need to evacuate up to one
million people. The plan clearly gives the governor the authority for
declaring an emergency, sending in state resources to the disaster area
and requesting necessary federal assistance.


State legislators and governors nationwide need to update their
contingency plans and the operation procedures for state emergency
centers. Hurricane Katrina had been forecast for days, but that will
not always be the case with a disaster (think of terrorist attacks). It
must be made clear that the governor and locally elected officials are
in charge of the "first response."


I am not attempting to excuse some of the delays in FEMA's response.
Congress and the president need to take corrective action there, also.
However, if citizens expect FEMA to be a first responder to terrorist
attacks or other local emergencies (earthquakes, forest fires,
volcanoes), they will be disappointed. The federal government's role is
to offer aid upon request.


The Louisiana legislature should conduct an immediate investigation
into the failures of state and local officials to implement the written
emergency plans. The tragedy is not over, and real leadership in the
state and local government are essential in the months to come. More
importantly, the hurricane season is still upon us, and local and state
officials must stay focused on the jobs for which they were elected --
and not on the deadly game of passing the emergency buck.