An Open Reply To Michael Chertoff

Aug 31, 2009 by

First, props and dammits to Bigezbear for directing our attention to this in the first place. I can’t get it out of my head, especially since Chertoff is using the four-year anniversary of Katrina to pander his hollow words.

If you haven’t read it yet, Former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff has written a little puff piece for Barry Diller and Tina Brown’s digital lovechild, ‘The Daily Beast.’ (Think of it as the interweb equivalent of USA Today.) He has chosen the title “How Katrina Saved Lives” which is an obvious attempt at spin and shock and a clear bullseye in the poor taste department. It doesn’t get any better after the title.

“In a heroic—and underappreciated—effort, the United States Coast Guard rescued more than 30,000 people, often maneuvering rescue helicopters through a treacherous urban landscape dotted with obstacles such as light and telephone poles. Rescue teams from Louisiana and other states saved thousands more. Despite this historic search-and-rescue effort, there was still significant anxiety and distress suffered by those awaiting help.”

Actually sir, no-one here in New Orleans, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, underappreciates the efforts of the Coast Guard. Of all the Federal, State and Local agencies charged with protecting the lives of the citizens of our country, the Coast Guard was the only group clearly on the ball. They did not wait for orders and they did not desert their posts. They put their game faces on and went above and beyond the call of duty to do anything they could to rescue anyone they found.

Significant anxiety and distress? You of course refer to the 50,000 people dropped in the no-mans lands of the Superdome and Morial Convention Center. The Coast Guard got the people there because that’s where they were told to bring them, but then they were stuck there for five days while Nagin, Blanco, Bush, Brownie and you each stood around expecting the others to do something.

“After the first weeks of the emergency passed, those of us responsible for dealing with the aftermath of Katrina at all levels of government and in the private sector faced a range of challenges”

Well, I suppose we should all be thankful it didn’t take you months. Lord knows after a week without power and fresh food I was certainly ready for a little vacation. Hope yours went well!

“First, the infrastructure of the City of New Orleans and the region as a whole was unnecessarily vulnerable. No one can stop a hurricane. But for those who live in a hurricane-prone region, that vulnerability must be reduced. This begins on the coast itself; however, years of flawed engineering decisions coupled with erosion have damaged the wetlands, which form a natural shock absorber against hurricanes, wind, and water. “

Figured that one out did you? All by yourself or did you accidentally come across one of the hundreds of white papers, scientific studies, blogs, books, news reports, magazine or newspaper articles or high school book reports that have been saying that for the last fifty years?

“Second, there was no well-thought-out and practiced evacuation plan for New Orleans. The problem lay at every level: individuals who took pride in “riding it out”; state and local officials who did not have a program to use or obtain mass transportation to expedite the exit of those without automobiles; a federal government which for years assumed that evacuation was a local problem and had no backup plan. “

So, basically you’re saying that in the 230 year history of this country, not one single elected official, be they Local, State or Federal, has ever thought about the possibility of a mass evacuation just in case? For your information, the Gulf States Region has had a contraflow plan in place since the 1990’s and while it does have it’s problems, it works reasonably well. This is an incredibly poor attempt by you to blame the locals for the failures of the Federal Government. The evacuation was not the problem; the failure of the authorities to step in and take charge after the system broke down was the problem.

“Third, the failure of communications left everyone unsure of the ground truth. The natural and physical obstacles to the response in Katrina were magnified by the perception that the city was in full disorder and that nobody was willing to take charge. To be sure, rumors of mass violence were exaggerated. But true or not, the general belief that New Orleans had degenerated into near anarchy seriously affected the ability to carry out rescue operations. All levels of government were either incapable or slow in marshaling the law-enforcement and military resources necessary to reassure the public that authority was in full control of the city, and undertaking rescues. Concern about the scope of legal authorities among the various levels of government also impaired the response.”

What makes you think the city was in disorder? Was it the news broadcasts of the NOPD watching looters cart off thousands of dollars worth of televisions and sneakers? I have a rule you can go by in the future: Fed trumps State, State trumps Local. If State Troopers see cops standing around with their thumbs up their asses while gangs ransack the local Footlocker, they should act! Likewise for the National Guard and Army. If a rescue chopper is being fired on by some whack-job, take the fucker out! You’re the goddamn Federal Government! You have guns and authority – use them for crying out loud! You mention that communication was a problem. Try this: “Drop the flat-screen and put your hands on your head!”

“So, have we fixed things? Have the points of failure of Katrina been remedied? Well, we have been tested. In 2008, approximately three years after Katrina, Hurricane Gustav formed as a massive Category 4 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico aimed directly at southeastern Louisiana, including New Orleans.”

Nice use of misdirection there, Mike. Yes, Gustav was indeed a Cat 4 storm as it passed over Cuba, but it formed in the Atlantic Ocean as a tropical storm. By the time it entered the Gulf of Mexico it had dropped down to a Cat 2 storm which it remained until it made landfall in Louisiana. By the end of the day it had lessened in strength to a tropical storm. While I don’t discount the damage it caused, do not attempt to inflate the power of the storm to make your efforts look more impressive. And don’t dare compare Gustav to Katrina, sir. There is a world of difference between the two.

“How did we do?

Evacuation orders were issued early by state and local authorities. Preplanned mass-transportation routes were initiated. The disabled were contacted and assisted. Medical special-needs patients were evacuated. When some medical facilities made a last-minute decision to remove patients, prepared plans to coordinate with National Guard and federal military assets were triggered. In the end, almost two million people were evacuated from the coastline—the largest evacuation in U.S. history.”

Evacuation orders are always issued early. The only difference here is that they tend to be mandatory Post-K instead of voluntary. Pre-planned routes have been in place, as I mentioned earlier, for over a decade. Basically, the only thing you can really take credit for is co-ordinating evacs for the disabled and medically needy. For that, I do thank you even though it’s years late that you finally got around to thinking about it.

I do take issue with the two-million figure you claim. Most estimates list the Gustav evacuees in the US at three-million, which when combined with your claim, makes it look as if you were responsible for two-thirds of the work when in fact about 2.5 million people drove themselves out of harm’s way. I see through your clever ruse, sir. And you don’t mention that once you got people out of the path of the storm that many of them were taken to shelters which were overcrowded, understaffed and poorly planned, not to mention the fact that many evacuees ended up in completely different areas than they were promised they’d be taken. Well, at least you’re trying.

In closing, let me leave you with two quotes, sir. The first is from a fictional FEMA director, Boris Lipinsky, in Walter J Williams’ novel ‘The Rift.’ The book deals with a catastrophic earthquake on the New Madrid fault line which rewrites the landscape of the Mississippi River from St Louis to Memphis and down into Louisiana. Without full knowledge of how bad things are, but knowing that it’s bad enough, Mr Lipinsky tells the President:

“Normally we act only in response to requests from the governors of individual states, but… I alerted the staffs of the Catastrophic Disaster Response Group and the Emergncy Information and Coordination Center.

We have to assume that any emergency services in the affected areas will have been swallowed up by the catastrophe and be able to achieve very little of substance. The citizens can count on no help from the police, from National Guard, from hospital and ambulance services, or from electrical, transportation, or sewer workers unless they are sent in from the outside the area.”

Now I know you’re going to say, “Oh, but that’s fiction! Of course Mr Williams could write intelligent, well thought out plans and words after the fact.” Well, ‘The Rift’ was published in 1999, six years prior to Katrina. What does it say to the public when an author of fiction has more common sense in disaster relief than the people whose job it is to actually provide that relief?

The second quote is from you, Mr Chertoff, seven days after Katrina made landfall: “That ‘perfect storm’ of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight… This is really one which I think was breathtaking in its surprise”

I think Ivor van Heerden would disagree, sir.