Natural Disaster Preparedness

This is perhaps a few weeks late in terms of the blogosphere commentary flurry — if Internet-years were similar to dog-years, the lifespan of hot topics on blogs resembles that of mayflies — but, arguably, this is for my own thinking in the form of future reminders than anything else.

Anyway, what New Orleans experienced was not the worst case. The worst case was the levees not failing, but with a hurricane pushing so much water into the bowl in which the city sits that New Orleans gets flooded a dozen feet above sea level, all the while experiencing Category 5 winds. People who in reality fled the floodwaters by escaping to roofs or attics would have found the top of their houses shattered. There will perhaps be a thousands deaths attributed to Katrina; in the worst case, the 25,000 body bags ordered by Louisana would have been filled.

A disaster was unavoidable once a faraway butterfly fluttered its wings. In the hours before Katrina’s inevitable landfall, someone poetically saw New Orleans existing in a state of indeterminancy, a horrific, real version of Schroedinger’s cat: we wouldn’t know whether the city was destroyed until the next day, but the dice determining its fate had already been rolled. You can read some of the frantic despair on Brendan Loy’s weather blog, as he tracked Katrina’s approach. You can see the professional alarm at this meteorologist’s Weather Underground blog. These are pieces of history, just as much as newspapers and magazine articles are, but they foresaw what would happen more clearly than, say, the New York Times, whose Sunday 8/28 front page didn’t even mention the approaching hurricane. Part of the media’s absence before the storm may have had to do with all the breathless reporting done before each hurricane, with one hyped up as the storm-of-the-century every year or so. “Wolf” has been cried too often.

“Wolf” may also have been part of the reasoning for the late evacuation call by the city and state governments: they had heard that a killer storm was going to wipe New Orleans off the map just too many times, even though there were fairly accurate models predicting what would happen. We perhaps wander into public choice economics when we observe that the incentives were against Mayor Nagin to call an evacuation until it was too late: if the hurricane hit the Florida panhandle instead, he would have been run from office for wasting hundreds of millions of dollars because of perceived alarmism; similarly, if he doesn’t call an effective evacuation and the hurricane hits, at worst he’ll just lose his job, though perhaps gaining the ability to blame the Federal government for his own haplessness.

In terms of private choices, individuals have to make a decision to leave the city, whether or not an evacuation is called by the government. For poor people in particular, this is a hard choice, as a false alarm will cost them significant earnings and possibly their job because they left town for a few days. Further, “wolf” causes people to not appreciate the costs of staying, as they will believe that they have already survived even bigger, badder storms; more people will stay than otherwise, though, when the Weather Channel reporter bugs out, you should know you’re in trouble. (I had read that some of the local governments in the Carolinas “incentivize” people to leave by going door-to-door to tell people to get out before a storm, and if they don’t leave, they’re given magic markers and told write their Social Security numbers on themselves to help identify their corpses later. This succinctly crystalizes the situation for evacuees.)

To some extent, these private choices to evacuate were even further undercut by the city government’s incompetence. In particular, available local resources were not used to evacuate the indigent, and became truly wasted assets as these working buses became flooded. You will note that private organizations moved their assets of the threat zone: Greyhound got its buses out, and Amtrak moved trains away from the city, even offering to take hundreds of people out at the time. This offer was declined. The thousands of additional refugees in the city would strain rescue resources after the storm.

But the governments of New Orleans and some of these Gulf Coast states resemble corrupt Third World governments in the best of times, so stunning incompetence may not be unexpected. Whither our Federal government? Four years after 9/11, shouldn’t we be able to handle disasters a bit better? Granted, there’s federalism, and Washington can’t simply take over without the state governors acceding, but shouldn’t FEMA have better lines of communication with the necessary people in different parts of the country? Shouldn’t the areas of responsiblity have been more clear, rather than watching the state waiting for the Federal government to offer help while the Feds were waiting for the state to ask for it? And why was an apparent political hack in charge of FEMA? Yes, this was a large scale disaster, and disasters make things hard to do (or else it would be an inconvenience), but, again, this is four years after 9/11, and we should be better at this. As Bruce Schneier points out, the aftermath of a disaster, whether intentional or natural, is handled similarly (though the specific Hollywood-esque scenario of a hurrican hitting New Orleans had been predicted and should have specifically been prepared for (Brendan Loy as the voice in the wilderness who foresaw what was coming! Mayor Nagin as the corrupt politician more interested in votes than the survival of the town! But there was no Hollywood ending; Superman didn’t come down and turn the storm away.)). For this, Bush is to blame: not for the particulars of what happened in New Orleans (which are primarily the fault of local authorities), but for our nation’s apparent lackadasical attitude towards emergency management in our day and age. Here’s a useful summary of the actions of the various levels of government here.

What is to be done? The people of New Orleans and Lousiana have to look at their political structures; it’s their responsibility to make their local governments work better. It’s our responsibility to make the Federal government work better. I voted for Bush in November to fight this war, and disaster preparedness is a part of this war, and am disappointed by FEMA’s ineffectiveness and political hackery. But perhaps we can make federalism work better by having local emergency management offices grade FEMA and vice-versa, all before disaster strikes and not in the orgy of finger-pointing we’re now seeing. Self-criticism is one of the strengths of our society, and we should be better at setting up institutions to use this strength. We may also want to call on private entities to help with recovery, with FEMA serving more as a coordinating role and as the channel through which to ask for military muscle if necessary to restore civil order. It should be noted that Wal-Mart’s inland stores were ready with supplies for refugees loaded on dozens of containers, demonstrating the power of one of the world’s finest logistics systems. With Katrina, public assets were wasted, but private assets were better preserved and able to help in the aftermath.

In terms of private preparations, Instapundit has a useful checklist: basically, don’t expect help to arrive for a few days (because it’s a disaster, not an inconvenience), so make sure you have supplies on hand to last until help does come. There’s a pointer to a $50 survival kit that can be accumulated over time. The main items are potable water, or at least ways to make potable water. And canned food is probably better than dried beans, if only because you may not have a way of cooking said beans. One should have a can opener or Leatherman in that case. There should also be planning on where to go and how to make contact with people afterwards. But the basic notion is to rely on yourself and not wait for help: your government may be too overwhelmed or incompetent to provide it.

Comments are closed.