Just. Plain. Blew. It.

A lot of the finger pointing going on right now over Hurricane Katrina is pretty silly. More importantly, it isn’t helping anyone in trouble right now and most of it won’t help anyone in the future.

But–and there’s always a ‘but’ when someone starts a post like this…But I’m getting more and more angry the more and more I think about the half-assed evacuation of New Orleans.

We all saw the coverage of the highways jam-packed with cars headed north in the days before the storm hit. One reporter (maybe for the Weather Channel) gave a report with a major highway in the background. Cars streamed past while she gave us the update. As she finished, I said “You know, I didn’t see one single bus go by this whole time.”

At the time I thought it was curious, but I didn’t think too much about it. There was a steady stream of evacuees and things seemed to be proceeding fairly orderly, with little of the anarchy and chaos that we usually fear will strike as certain doom approaches a large urban center.

But as the number of folks remaining in the city became clear, I wondered why more hadn’t been done to assist those without transportation or the means to get themselves out of harm’s way. Sure, there are always those that refuse to evacuate, but 100,000? This wasn’t an FYI. This wasn’t an official recommendation. This was a mandatory evacuation of a city long-known to be in danger of being wiped off the map by a major storm. A storm like that one bearing down a week ago.

Reports before Katrina hit indicated that the evacuation order had only been given after President Bush personally appealed to the Louisiana Governor and Mayor of New Orleans to take the step.

The City of New Orleans Emergency Preparedness’ General Evacuation Guidelines bullet points this:

If you need a ride, try to go with a neighbor, friend, or relative.

They need to append to that “Really. Try very, very, hard. It might be your only hope.”

In the Hurricane Annex of the Comprehensive Plan, we find this:

D. Regional Transit Authority

* Supply transportation as needed in accordance with the current Standard Operating Procedures.

* Place special vehicles on alert to be utilized if needed.

* Position supervisors and dispatch evacuation buses.

* If warranted by scope of evacuation, implement additional service. [emphasis mine]

Now, I don’t know exactly what the “current Standard Operating Procedures” were, but the fact that the plan notes “evacuation buses” that are to be dispatched indicates that this sort of thing wasn’t totally ignored when the plans were made.

In any large city you’re going to have a large number of folks who just plain don’t have wheels. Maybe they can’t afford it. Maybe they work two blocks from home and just don’t bother with a car. Maybe they’re unable to get a driver’s license. Many of these people are just going to be out of luck in this sort of situation.

The basic plan (as put into practice) seems to have been a statement to the effect of “every man for himself…try the Superdome”.

According to a story in today’s WaPo:

Tragically, authorities in New Orleans were aware of this problem. Certainly the numbers were known. Shirley Laska, an environmental and disaster sociologist at the University of New Orleans, had only recently calculated that some 57,000 New Orleans Parish households, or approximately 125,000 people, did not have access to cars or other private transportation. In the months before the storm, the city’s emergency planners did debate the challenges posed by these numbers, which are much higher than in other hurricane-prone parts of the country, such as Florida. Because a rapid organization of so many buses would have been impractical, the city’s emergency managers considered the use of trains and cruise ships. The New Orleans charity Operation Brother’s Keeper had tried to get church congregations to match up car-owners with the carless, and it had produced a DVD on the subject of hurricane evacuations that was to be distributed later this month. Unfortunately, none of these plans was advanced enough to have had much impact this week.

To be honest, I’m not ready to admit that “a rapid organization of so many buses would have been impractical”. Difficult, yes. But not impractical. Using cruise ships, to me, seems “impractical”.

What would make the use of buses impractical would be the failure to have a plan and the capability to put that plan into action. I think that’s what’s going to be the finding: They didn’t have a plan, they had a guideline. They noted that buses could be used, but they had no strategy to use them. They knew that over 100,000 people wouldn’t be able to get out, but they had no policy to address this.

FEMA is basically a reactionary organization. While there certainly seems to have been a number of dropped balls at the federal level, it’s the responsibility of the state and local governments to cover the first couple of days after a major emergency. They are supposed to be the pro-active ones. When their efforts have been overwhelmed, then the feds send in the troops.

I just cannot stop fuming over the lack of busing for those unable to get themselves out. If even an uncoordinated last-ditch effort had been made in the eleventh hour, many thousands of refugees would be sitting high and dry somewhere where aid could more easily be delivered.

With an estimated 100,000 folks stranded in New Orleans, any relief effort is going to be almost instantly swamped. The sheer scale of the crowd and the difficulty of getting supplies and personnel to where they’re needed is making this a herculean task.

What if, instead of 100,000 people in the city needing food, water, shelter, and medical aid, it was 20,000? That would still be tragic and difficult, but the capability of agencies coping effectively would be far, far greater.

Via Junkyard Blog we have this photo:

nobuses.jpg

You know what those narrow yellow and white things are? Buses. About 15,000 people’s worth of buses. Each bus makes three trips to Baton Rouge and half the people in New Orleans have three hots and a cot in some shelter or park or field. And the National Guard doesn’t have to wade through a city’s worth of crap to get them some supplies.

My guess is that there are more buses sitting unused somewhere in New Orleans.

I don’t believe that this was intentional. But it wasn’t an accident.

UPDATE: More on the buses at Wizbang.