- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The city of New Orleans issued a “Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan” for hurricanes well before Katrina arrived, and the document gives a window into how city officials saw their roles in the aftermath of a hurricane. The city envisioned itself taking charge of issuing a warning, ordering and managing evacuation, arranging for busses for those without any other transportation, setting up and maintaining shelters, and other critical duties. Given the corruption in municipal agencies — one not necessarily cynical Louisiana politician remarked that “half the state is under water and half is under indictment” — it was inevitable that a picture of responsibilities unfulfilled would emerge after a storm like Katrina.

There appears to have been one success: If New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s estimate that 80 percent of the city was evacuated is correct, that exceeds by 20 percent the number authorities had imagined possible. Otherwise, the picture is grim.

Among the most notable unfulfilled self-imposed responsibilities: The mayor was meant to order an evacuation 48 hours before the hurricane landfall, not 24, hours, as he in fact did; the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority was meant to “position supervisors and dispatch evacuation buses” to evacuate at least some of the “100,000 citizens of New Orleans [who] do not have means of personal transportation,” but it did not, and the flood claimed the buses, as the photo opposite shows; the city was responsible for establishing shelters co-ordinated with “food and supply distribution sites” which the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and others were to provision, but the city did not.

City officials appear to have been well-apprised of these responsibilities. As late Aug. 1, officials close to the planning confirmed to the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the transit authority had developed plans to use its own buses, school buses, and even trains to move refugees from the city when disaster struck.

What’s most troubling about this document is what it leaves out. Part of its “Future Plans” section, for example, is about the levees. “Future Plans” also includes discussion of “the preparation of a post-disaster plan that will identify programs and actions that will reduce of eliminate the exposure of human life and property to natural hazards.” In 9,000 words, there are only four references to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Nowhere, not even in a section on catastrophic events, do the words “Department of Homeland Security” appear. Washington will demand a full accounting.

The city declared that its hurricane-preparedness procedures were “designed to deal with the anticipation of a direct hit from a major hurricane.” Such a hurricane hit, and New Orleans was not prepared. The first questions that legislators in Washington and in Baton Rouge should be asking are simple: Why didn’t the buses run? Why were people left to starve? Where did all those dollars go?


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