Katrina and the Authorities

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“This is a national disgrace,” said New Orleans’ emergency operations chief Terry Ebbert. “We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”

We are getting used to national disgraces and the official whitewashing that follows. Katrina is truly a natural calamity, but human failure is also present. We can only hope that investigative reporters will do their jobs in the months to come, because we cannot expect much from official investigations. Maybe they will follow the lead of Lew Rockwell.

Maybe we will get lucky. Maybe some courageous individuals, moved by what they have seen, will reveal what they know about the human failures that contributed to this tragedy. Maybe they will send their comments to this web site or others. What they know should not be buried and lost.

Before time passes and erases the living history of what is happening, before the officials find their scapegoats among the lack of supplies, someone else’s deficiencies, the severity of wind and water, the unexpected, the poor, the black, the looters, the rapists, the armed and dangerous, the dying and dead, and the victims, let us gather at least a few of the spontaneous reactions of those in and around this tragedy who are in a position to comment. The statements beside each number are quoted from a variety of news reports followed by a few inadequate reactions of mine.

1. FEMA director Michael Brown said the agency just learned about the situation at the convention center Thursday and quickly scrambled to provide food, water and medical care and remove the corpses.

Were people herded into the convention center without food and water? Was communication so poor between the local authorities and FEMA that days passed before FEMA "learned about the situation?" Were local authorities present at the convention center?

2. “Some people there have not eaten or drunk water for three or four days, which is inexcusable,” said Joseph Matthews, the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Preparedness.

“We need additional troops, food, water,” he begged, “and we need personnel, law enforcement. This has turned into a situation where the city is being run by thugs.”

Can looters locate supplies but not city officials? What is the real story behind this statement?

3. Eight thousand or so refugees in this uninhabitable city stretched in a long line across down Convention Center Boulevard, demanding help from police and military who kept moving past.

“They treat us like animals,” said Angela Perkins, who had fallen to her knees, clasped her hands and screamed out a prayer. “They can send me anywhere. They can send me to Africa.”

I take the lady at her word, that people have been treated like animals, probably worse. How did this happen?

4. Compass said that the federal government had taken too long to send in the thousands of troops — — as well as the supplies, fuel, vehicles, water and food — — needed to stabilize his now “very, very tenuous” city.

How bad is the coordination between local and federal officials who have responsibilities in disasters? How poor is their planning? How slow are their reactions?

Disasters by definition call for emergency responses that are rapid. It is one thing to criticize a line at the airport for being slow, but to criticize FEMA for taking too long is to say that it has failed at its fundamental mission.

5. Col. Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for New Orleans, concurred and was particularly pungent in his criticism. Asserting that the whole recovery operation had been “carried on the backs of the little guys for four goddamn days,” he complained that “the rest of the goddamn nation can’t get us any resources for security.”

“We are like little birds with our mouths open, and you don’t have to be very smart to know where to drop the worm,” he said. “It’s criminal within the confines of the United States that within one hour of the hurricane they weren’t force-feeding us. It’s like FEMA has never been to a hurricane.” FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There is nothing I can add to Colonel Ebbert’s statement.

6. Citing the magnitude of the disaster, federal officials defended their response so far and promised that more help was coming, including promises of thousands of extra troops and billions of dollars for recovery and rebuilding efforts.

The situation will be alleviated, but it will be a mistake to think that money and relief is all that it calls for because it could be repeated again. When it does, it will again reveal the deficiencies in our whole approach to emergencies through something like FEMA or other local and state agencies. They may do their very best. Their personnel may try their hardest. They will do some good. But the overall results will still fall far short of what can be accomplished without them, by organizing ourselves in many other and different ways to face emergencies like these.

7. We’re just a bunch of rats,” said Earle Young, 31, a cook who stood in a throng of 10,000 outside the Superdome, waiting in the blazing sun for buses to take them away from the city. “That’s how they’ve been treating us.”

8. "These are the families who listened to the authorities, who followed directions, who believed in the government. They were told to go to the Convention Center. They did. These are law-abiding citizens, who have been left behind. They did everything they were told….There’s no support here. There’s no foundation. There’s no plan B, plan A."

The above is transcribed and excerpted from a longer video report by Tony Zumbado of NBC, who ended close to tears from what he had seen. Seeing and hearing his report is what prompted what you are reading.

Painful as it is to witness people suffering and even led to their deaths, we must look this in the face and acknowledge squarely what it means. We cannot listen to the authorities. We must not follow their directions. We should not believe in the government. We should not do everything we are told. We cannot count on officialdom for security. We have to find better ways to cope with the exigencies of life.

Our country is filled with anonymity. Instead of horizontal relationships within communities, who maintain their own security and emergency measures, where many people are involved and know what to do because they have prepared themselves to do it, because they share common knowledge and bonds, we depend on vertical relationships. We pass the buck to nameless unknown and official authorities. We numbly rely on them to help us when we need help, and we do not even know who they are or what plans they have or have not made.

We do not know our neighbors, and we do not know those above us. We have not organized to defend ourselves against looters or any other serious threats. And if we try to do any of these things, what happens? We are stymied by our own governments. We are bound to run afoul of some laws or some red tape, some environmental hazard, or some ordinance, some safety measure, or some employee rule. We are told that this is the work of professionals who know how to give first aid or handle a weapon, as if a 10-year old could not learn these skills. We are being reduced to a population of helpless idiots.

It may be that some of these activities remain beyond the average person’s scope. It may be that they are handled more efficiently by private businesses or private organizations. It may be that there is profit — yes, profit — to be made by companies who specialize in insuring against or handling emergencies, who may offer evacuation services, or who can evaluate the safety of infrastructure like bridges, canals, levees, airports and harbors. It may be that private companies can plan ahead to obtain food and supplies quickly and fly them where they are needed — for a fee.

It may be that we will wake up and realize that we do not have free markets and that free markets are good. Maybe we will understand that when a company makes a profit in a free market, that means it is doing something right. When we realize enough, maybe then we will say "Government, go away and get out of the way!"

9. Orleans Parish Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau acknowledged the chaos and said communication, even among emergency personnel, is impossible. There is a plan to bring buses to evacuate people at the convention center, he said, but he doesn’t know when those buses will arrive.

If emergency personnel do not have communication systems that work during an emergency, how can they do what they are supposed to do?

10. Kupperman said that the hospital had been counting on the federal government, but “when FEMA didn’t show, somebody got in touch with a private ambulance service and got the patients out,” he said.

Is the message here clear enough? Both communications and help were gotten, without FEMA.

11. In hopes of defusing the situation at the convention center, Mayor Ray Nagin gave the evacuees permission to march across a bridge to the city’s unflooded west bank for whatever relief they could find.

This situation, which sounds like it was virtual imprisonment, cries out for illumination.

12. Lt. Col. Douglas Mouton of the Louisiana National Guard, said: “A lot of us have been overseas. In the war on terrorism you’re used to seeing suffering, but when you see it in your own city, it’s an extremely powerful experience.”

Simply an acknowledgment by one who has been there that the "war on terrorism" has created so much "suffering" that the soldiers are used to seeing it.

13. Looters also chased down a state police truck full of food. The New Orleans police chief ran off looters while city officials themselves were commandeering equipment from a looted Office Depot. During a state of emergency, authorities have broad powers to take private supplies and buildings for their use.

In another incident, two officers drew their guns on looters, but the thieves left without incident. One of the officers said he was not going to arrest anyone for snatching up food and water.

“It’s really difficult because my opinion of the looting is it started with people running out of food, and you can’t really argue with that too much,” Nagin said. “Then it escalated to this kind of mass chaos where people are taking electronic stuff and all that.”

Not only is looting for gain wrong, but also looters have interfered with relief efforts. The growth of looting is a breakdown in order. In the absence of a community of good people around who are against such crimes, and even better who might be willing and able to stop them, it will take thousands of armed troops to police the streets.

14. Gov. Kathleen Blanco called people who committed such crimes “hoodlums” and issued a warning to lawbreakers: Hundreds of National Guard troops hardened on the battlefield in Iraq have landed in New Orleans.

“They have M-16s and they’re locked and loaded,” she said. “These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will.”

Was this message directed to the ears of the looters to scare them? That, of course, might make some sense. But it is interesting that the Governor mentioned that the troops "are more than willing" to kill and even that she expects "they will." Although New Orleans is an emergency situation, this is a sign that our domestic life is deteriorating into an acceptance of brutality and excessive use of force. We should not accept this. Looting must be stopped, but there are certainly methods of controlling looting that stop short of using trained killers.

15. Outside a looted Rite-Aid drugstore, some people were anxious to show they needed what they were taking. A gray-haired man who would not give his name pulled up his T-shirt to show a surgery scar and explained that he needs pads for incontinence.

“I’m a Christian,” he said. “I feel bad going in there.”

In life and death emergencies, life is more dear than a property right, which can be repaired afterwards. And many people maintain the moral order as best they can. If the authorities have the power to seize goods, it is understandable that ordinary people in need might do the same. I hope they are not shot along with the bad guys.

16. The Bush administration’s slow response has been criticized and Bush’s approval rating has dropped to 41 percent, matching the lowest ever recorded, according to a poll today by CBS News.

Bush’s approval ratings are of no importance.

What matters is that a severe stress has strained the system, and it has revealed its underlying weakness. That weakness is there day in and day out, even when our lives go on in a seemingly benign fashion.

We are too reliant on government at every level to handle problems that are better handled by the private business sector, by private relief organizations, or simply by loose organizations of willing and able members of our many communities. We have blundered badly to give officials power they never should have, to place our faith in them, to allow them to monopolize many vital activities, and to place roadblocks in our way at every turn so as to make us dependent and helpless.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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