August 31st, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

New Orleans: Good Bye, Old New Orleans. Whither New^2 Orleans?

From Wikipedia, "Galveston Hurricane of 1900:"
Prior to the Hurricane of 1900, Galveston was considered to be a beautiful and prestigious city and was known as "the New York of the South." Only the nation's wealthiest were allowed to live there. Many people say that had it not been for the hurricane, Galveston would today be one of the nation's largest and most beautiful cities. However, development shifted north to Houston, which was enjoying the benefits of the oil boom. The dredging of the Houston Ship Channel in 1909 and 1914 ended Galveston's hopes of returning to its former state as a major industrial center.
In 1900, a hurricane wiped almost every building, and almost every life, off of what was previously a large and prosperous seaport and trading center. They rebuilt it, but it was never what it was before.

Another historical example: many times, North Sea storms have weakened or breached the sea walls surrounding the Dutch low countries. Geographically, the Netherlands are a better example, because like New Orleans, pretty much the whole Netherlands was built on the silt of a river delta. As time and the weight of the construction packed that silt down, the Netherlands, like New Orleans, slowly dropped below sea level. In the Netherlands, as in New Orleans, they responded by building bigger and bigger sea walls. Each time a sea wall failed, they learned from it, rebuilt the sea walls, drained the land, and built again. New Orleans might do so, too. But the Netherlands are not an exact match for the conditions in New Orleans. For one thing, the Netherlands are a wealthy country. Dutch sea traders built the wealth that paved that country's secession from Spain, Dutch shipping ports control access to much of the European interior from the sea, and then there's the Dutch share of the North Sea underwater oil deposits. New Orleans used to be wealthy, but rail and road cut into its reason to exist, and then the major industries went elsewhere. (Rule of thumb: When tourism counts as an important industry, a place is economically doomed.) Which points to the other difference between New Orleans and the Netherlands: the Dutch have no where else to go. Inland from the Netherlands are other countries. Inland from New Orleans is a ton of lightly inhabited, slightly higher swamp land that's not only still in America, it's even still in Louisiana.

New Orleans will be rebuilt. It will be rebuilt, in part, because of that streak of human cussedness that some people have in greater measure than others, that refusal to admit defeat. But the more important reason why it will be rebuilt is that there just plain aren't that many logical places to build a deep-water sea port in the Gulf of Mexico, and putting one at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where freight can be loaded directly from ocean freighters onto barges heading north, makes too much economic sense. The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the giant offshore dock and pipeline complex that lets oil tankers offload directly into America's pipeline network, seems to have survived, and workers will be needed to operate and maintain it; those workers will live somewhere nearby. Any refineries that can't be salvaged will be rebuilt, in all likelihood, to be near the LOOP.

What remains to be seen, it seems to me, is where New Orleans will be rebuilt. We could bring in Dutch engineers to build new and better sea walls and to drain the old city of New Orleans. Then the cleanup would begin, and such a cleanup as the world has never seen before. Never before has such a large and crowded urban area been contaminated so thoroughly. Which raises an interesting question in my mind. Would we, and for that matter they the New Orleaners, be better off letting the Gulf of Mexico keep old New Orleans and rebuilding farther upstream, on the north shore of what is now Lake Pontchartrain? Yes, that land is owned by people now; pretty much all the land in the world is. But it could be bought, and there's always eminent domain. Maybe no matter how much history would be lost, has already been lost, it might be a whole heck of a lot cheaper, more practical, and safer to leave old New Orleans to future archaeologists.
Brad @ Burning Man

New Orleans: Kill the Poor reprinted an email, allegedly from a rescue worker, that contained the following:
The poorest 20% (you can argue with the number -- 10%? 18%? no one knows) of the city was left behind to drown. This was the plan. Forget the sanctimonious bullshit about the bullheaded people who wouldn't leave. The evacuation plan was strictly laissez-faire. It depended on privately owned vehicles, and on having ready cash to fund an evacuation. The planners knew full well that the poor, who in new orleans are overwhelmingly black, wouldn't be able to get out.
It will be months, probably, before we know if this was true. But frankly, I think it almost has to be true.

One of the things that we do know for a fact is that this exact disaster was simulated in a joint exercise by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state of Louisiana, and the New Orleans city government. They knew, when they declared the evacuation, that at best 60% to 65% of the city were going to make it out. It's easy to focus, as I did, on the miracle involved in the fact that 80% made it out. But given that they had a year to plan for this, given that they had 60 hours notice that a category 3 or higher hurricane was going to hit New Orleans and that the sea walls and levees might not hold, two questions remain. Was everything done that could be done? And if not, were those things left undone because nobody cared if those people died?

It has now been established by multiple sources, even before we saw this alleged email, that the emergency evacuation plan for New Orleans depended entirely on private automobiles. They gamed and strategized and planned how to get as many private automobiles full of people out of the city as the roads and bridges could possibly hold. But did anybody, at any point in the exercise, ask how people who didn't own automobiles were to make it out?

Data point: Greyhound closed their New Orleans bus terminal on Saturday morning, two and a half days before landfall. Now, when I saw this pointed out in cmpriest's journal, somebody replied to the effect of what did we think that Greyhound was going to do, order their drivers to risk driving into a hurricane zone? But many businesses did just that. When the national hotel chains realized that many of their customers were stuck inside the evacuation zone because their flights were overbooked or canceled altogether, they asked their employees to stay behind to keep those hotels open as emergency shelters, and people did. The police stayed. EMS stayed. Lots of people stayed, to save lives. So you tell me. If the highways didn't clog, didn't come to a complete standstill until Monday morning, why would it have been so much to ask them to keep running buses out of town through Sunday evening?

OK, hindsight is 20/20. I now know that the highways were still open Sunday night, but maybe they didn't know that would be true on Saturday morning when the decision was made. So answer me this. Why weren't the rail lines used, right up until a few hours before landfall? It was, quite literally, the first thing I thought of. Knowing the highways would clog, I mentioned in passing, in a casual off-topic aside to a discussion of another topic on this journal, that if I had been at FEMA and facing the evacuation of a major city, I would have asked the railroads to line up as many passenger cars, and failing that as many boxcars, as possible. Anybody who couldn't get out by car would have been marched or carried onto those boxcars and moved out of the disaster zone well before the hurricane made landfall. And if you're again going to say hindsight is 20/20, why didn't somebody think of this at any time in the roughly a year since the simulation predicted that 35% to 40% would be left behind?

The obvious answer, the obvious suspicion at least, is that nobody gave a damn. If you were too poor to pay for your own evacuation, neither FEMA nor the governor's office nor the mayor's office gave a damn if you lived or not. There may be another reason why more wasn't done to evacuate the car-less and those who couldn't afford the gasoline or lodgings involved in their own evacuation. I can't think of one, but I admit that there may be one. If so, then we need to know this, and we need to know what it was soon, before more people come to the same conclusion that I did. I intend to email my congressman and both senators encouraging hearings into just this question, "Why didn't FEMA make plans to evacuate people who didn't have cars by rail or bus?" You might want to do the same.