Tags: Every | Level | Government | Failed | New | Orleans

Every Level of Government Failed New Orleans

Tuesday, 20 September 2005 12:00 AM

A superb article written by Wil Haygood and Ann Scott Tyson in the Washington Post last week described the chaos that took place at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The article reminded me of Mel Gibson's "Mad Max" and Kevin Costner's "Waterworld," films that showed the human depravity that global catastrophes may unleash.

In New Orleans we saw 20,000 people crammed into the convention center in order to be bused out of the city. The buses never came and people remained stranded there for five days without food or water or adequate sanitary facilities. During that period, no effort to help them was made by the city of New Orleans or the state of Louisiana.

The Post reports one victim as saying: "It was as if all of us were already pronounced dead. ... As if somebody already had the body bags. Wasn't nobody coming to get us."

While the starving refugees were at the center, reported another victim, "Everywhere I went, I saw people with guns in their hands. ... They were putting guns to people's heads."

Most appalling in retrospect is the fact that in the first three days, there were those who were raped, assaulted, murdered and totally terrorized on the premises, in which the Louisiana National Guard was posted. The Post reported:

"That futility was symbolized by the presence in the convention center for three of the most chaotic days of at least 250 armed troops from the Louisiana National Guard. They were camped out in a huge exhibition hall separated from the crowd by a wall, and used their trucks as a barricade when they were afraid the crowd would break in. The troops were never deployed to restore order and eventually withdrew, despite the pleas of the convention center's management. Louisiana Guard commanders said their units' mission was not to secure the facility, and soldiers on the scene feared inciting further bloodshed if they had intervened. 'We didn't want another Kent State,' said Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of the active-duty military forces responding to Katrina. 'They weren't trained for crowd control.'"

The Post article continued: "Almost as soon as they arrived, Guard commanders became concerned enough about the safety of their troops that they ordered more weapons and ammunition. On Wednesday night, there was kicking and banging on the doors to Hall A, where the guardsmen were. 'They were trying to break the doors and get us,' said Anderson. 'They knew we were there.' 'About 9 that night, we started barricading the doors,' said Staff Sgt. Bryan Lowery, a supply sergeant with the 527th battalion. Guardsmen parked at least three dump trucks next to the doors to block them, and Lowery began dispensing weapons and ammunition. 'It scared me,' Spillers recalled. 'Everyone went to get their weapons from the backs of the trucks.' That night, Guard commanders figured the convention center was untenable as a staging base. And they, too, left the center despite what Fiore said were his plans to stay."

Those Louisiana Guardsmen were under the command of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.

The Post described the actions of the New Orleans police in the convention center: "Even police officers were afraid, [Troy] Harris said. 'I saw police officers in the bathroom taking off their uniforms!' he said. 'I'm telling you, they were taking off their uniforms and throwing their badges down!'" Those police officers were under the jurisdiction of Mayor Ray Nagin.

Those National Guardsmen and, in particular, their officers should be court-martialed. Those police officers should be prosecuted criminally or dismissed from the force.

An incident supporting the notion that racial discrimination occurred was also described in the Post:

"A Jefferson parish police deputy had appealed to SWAT team Capt. Jeff Winn for help in bringing out his wife and a female relative from the center. 'He knew they were there and was hearing nightmarish stories,' said Ganthier, who declined to identify the officer for security reasons. Winn approved the mission. When the SWAT team entered at 11 a.m., the Jefferson Parish officer called out his wife's name. She heard him, and along with the relative rushed to his side. The SWAT team put the women in the middle of the team, then backed out the door. Once it became clear that the SWAT team had come with the single goal of rescuing two white women, anger exploded. 'Racists!' one man cried out. 'Some people were upset we weren't rescuing them,' said Ganthier. 'It's hard to leave people behind like that, but we were aiding an officer.'"

What happened in New Orleans shames all levels of government. We do not know how many died unnecessarily because of official incompetence. It is imperative that an independent report be commissioned and made public for all to see. This is not a "blame game." This is holding up in front of us warnings that our nation is not prepared to deal with natural disasters or terrorist acts. It will show the moral failures and frailties of first responders in New Orleans.

There are always heroes and cowards when crises occur and leadership is needed. In New York City our first responders – firefighters and police officers – were heroes. Seventy-one New York City police officers and 37 Port Authority police officers died at the World Trade Center, along with 343 firefighters. Many died after rushing into the burning skyscrapers to save fellow citizens.

In Louisiana, at the convention center, many first responders – cops and National Guardsmen – were cowards, caring only for themselves and allowing their fellow citizens to pillage and others to be terrorized.

Every level of government failed the people of New Orleans. The most essential and immediate of all governmental actions is that of the first responders, who are under municipal and state control. According to the New Orleans emergency evacuation plan, providing buses was the job of the mayor. The mayor was also responsible for control over police officers and stocking places of refuge like the Superdome and convention center with food and water.

That was not done. Mayor Nagin talks a good game, but he failed when it counted.

Governor Blanco is responsible for the National Guard, both for what they do and for what they fail to do. Having the National Guard available in New Orleans based on their performance at the convention center was like having the Iraqi army standing by, unable to keep order.

Before Katrina hit, President Bush called Governor Blanco and offered to federalize the Louisiana Guard. In cases of local emergency, governors must request such action. Governor Blanco waited 24 hours before saying "no" to the president's offer. She made that decision because federalized Guard units cannot be used for law enforcement and the governor wanted to preserve that option. But then she failed to use it.

The president's failure, for me, was viewing the catastrophe on the third day from the comfort of Air Force One. I believe he should have made his presence known to the frightened people on the ground by using a vehicle capable of traversing land and water.

His other major failure – after Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco and Michael Brown, head of FEMA, established that they were incompetent – was in not taking immediate action to replace Brown and to organize the relief and rescue effort. But the negligence and indifference displayed was overwhelmingly that of the local officials.

A decision has been made by local and federal authorities to rebuild New Orleans in its current location, much of which is below sea level. Two hundred billion dollars has already been authorized by the Congress and president. What will become of all that money?

Those familiar with Louisiana and its politics know that it is a state with a history of unlimited patronage and authoritarian government. Remember Huey Long and his brother Earl, both governors of the state. Edwin Edwards was also elected governor three times. He ultimately ended up in jail. The bumper sticker in his race against David Duke, well-known demagogue and racist, carried the slogan "Vote for the crook. It's Important!" That summed up the choice.

What we need now is the most able, patronage-free and honest federal administration placed in charge of planning the new city and administering and executing that plan. Since three states are involved in the rebuilding – Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama – a federal operating authority comparable to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which had a history of great success, should be created.

The key to getting construction done is the power to cut bureaucratic red tape, which is often imposed by government to reduce corruption through multiple oversight measures and public hearings.

There is great danger, in providing such authority, that corruption and abuse will take over. Former Governor Pete Wilson commenting on CNN over the weekend said that a rebuilding project after the worst earthquake in California history took merely eighty days under a California Legislature's plan eliminating red tape, paying bonuses for producing ahead of schedule, and imposing penalties for delays, along with the authority to waive hearings.

There must be a way to rebuild New Orleans and the other affected areas honestly and fast.


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A superb article written by Wil Haygood and Ann Scott Tyson in the Washington Post last week described the chaos that took place at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The article reminded me of Mel Gibson's "Mad Max"...
Tuesday, 20 September 2005 12:00 AM
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