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September 02, 2005

After the Storm

Voluntary evacuation is an oxymoron.  More important, a partial evacuation is an invitation to disaster.  We’re seeing that now in New Orleans.

Forty years ago I was in the National Guard (when it was a possible alternative to Viet Nam so I’m not boasting about my motivation).  The various units I was in were called up for several “race riots”, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, a power failure, The Bobby Seale trial in New Haven, and some small natural catastrophes.  We weren’t well trained - it’s amazing there weren’t more incidents like Kent State; but we did learn some lessons about human behavior in a crisis.

  • Any breakdown in law and order attracts looters.  It always happens.
  • Looters are hardest on their own neighborhoods.
  • The threat of looters stops law-abiding people from leaving their homes unguarded.
  • Shooting to kill is the only effective way to stop looting
  • It is very difficult to stop looting when looters and defenders are both present and both armed.
  • It is relatively easy to stop looting when there is no one in the affected neighborhood except potential looters.
  • Therefore, evacuations must be mandatory.  It must be possible for people to comply with an evacuation order.  People must have the assurance that, if they comply, looters will not be allowed to take over.  People will leave their homes to the mercy of a hurricane; they will stay and die to prevent it from being looted.
  • Gun shops and liquor stores need to be secured immediately in ANY emergency.

We were usually deployed prior to an evacuation order to help with the evacuation, to enforce the order, and to give people a sense that their homes and businesses would be protected.  This may have been impossible or unwise in New Orleans given the threat of the hurricane; I don’t know.

I also don’t know whether people without cars could have complied with the order.  I didn’t see any busses in the pictures of streams of cars leaving New Orleans before Katrina hit.  Are the people who are now in such dire straits in trouble because they decided not to leave or because they couldn’t leave?  We have to help them either way, of course; but it does make a difference in understanding what went wrong.

As it was on 9/11, the flow of information through the media is faster than it is through bureaucracy.  Through a combination of seatback and cell phone calls from passengers and flight attendants on the first three planes to be hijacked and quick pickup by the news networks, the passengers on the fourth plane – the one headed for the capitol – knew that the rules had changed, that complying with hijacker demands was no longer a way to a safe landing.  Good thing because official channels had managed to send the jets which could have intercepted the United flight out to sea and muddled whether or not they had the authority to shoot down a civilian airliner.

(update - the portion below was accidentally left out of the original post)

Officials have to be more responsible in passing on information than the press.  And they have to verify that they are acting on the basis of accurate information.  That slows things down. Nevertheless, there is a lot to learn from the news networks about how to use technology and motivated, pre-positioned people to get information fast from disaster zones.  The old, slow hierarchical structures for information flow are not needed given modern technology and the Internet.

Unlike 9/11, our response does not seem heroic.  After 9/11, we were angry and proud.  Today we are frustrated and appalled.  This is partly because of the same media I just praised.  Where are the stories about the Red Cross and Salvation Army run shelters which are successfully caring for the people who DID evacuate?  Mary is volunteering at the local Red Cross chapter and, along with many wonderful offers to help, they are getting too many angry calls asking “why aren’t you feeding those people at the New Orleans Convention Center?”

The new Department of Homeland Security seems to have flunked its first test.  We responded better to the World Trade Center attack without such a department than we are to Katrina now that we have this super-bureaucracy.  But the disasters are very different.  There is no comparison between the number of survivors who need help in New Orleans and the tragically small number of survivors of 9/11.  We need to know what went wrong, not primarily to assess blame but because we know there will be a next time.

And we need to help.  In the off chance that you can use my help in helping, you can contribute to the Red Cross by clicking here or on the Red Cross logo on top of the right sidebar of my blog. 

If you’re a blogger and want to run any one of a number of charitable logos and links on your blogsite, go to www.wordofblog.net to pick up an easy-to-install snippet of html.  You’ll even be able to track how many helpful click-throughs you made possible.

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