Saturday, September 03, 2005

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Charitably speaking, the debacle that was New Orleans after Katrina was a complete and utter national disgrace. The Department of Homeland Security had its first big test and failed so miserably that the Congress should consider liquidating it and going back to the drawing board. The State of Lousiana and city government of New Orleans also stand revealed as abjectly incompetent and unable to provide even minimal services and rule of law in a crisis situation that everyone had ample warning was coming. Lastly, an ominous percentage of the citizens of New Orleans failed the basic test of civilized humanity and instead reveled in barbarism. By the standard we use to judge nations, New Orleans is a failed state. Sadly, a great American city can now be considered as part of the Non-Integrating Gap.

I referred to New Orleans a few days ago as " Mogadishu on the Mississippi". NuSapiens asks if it had become a " feral city ", quoting Richard Norton:

"In a feral city social services are all but nonexistent, and the vast majority of the city’s occupants have no access to even the most basic health or security assistance. There is no social safety net. Human security is for the most part a matter of individual initiative. Yet a feral city does not descend into complete, random chaos. Some elements, be they criminals, armed resistance groups, clans, tribes, or neighborhood associations, exert various degrees of control over portions of the city. Intercity, city-state, and even international commercial transactions occur, but corruption, avarice, and violence are their hallmarks. A feral city experiences massive levels of disease and creates enough pollution to qualify as an international environmental disaster zone. Most feral cities would suffer from massive urban hypertrophy, covering vast expanses of land. The city’s structures range from once-great buildings symbolic of state power to the meanest shantytowns and slums. Yet even under these conditions, these cities continue to grow, and the majority of occupants do not voluntarily leave."

What lessons can we draw ? A couple come to mind:


Agencies like FEMA that purport to be disaster coordinators should actually be run people who have the practiced understanding of large-scale logistics. Either bring in retired military personnel with such experience, the U.S. military being the premier logistical organization in the world, or have the Pentagon train USG civvies in the art. Traditionally, FEMA is run by a partisan crony of the president's. Katrina provided a good excuse to end that practice.


A few days ago we had a lively debate here about America's own Non-Integrating Gap and what kind of " system administration" should happen domestically. Or even if that would be a good idea. Well...I can't say that the " what" or " how " are resolved but New Orleans just demonstrated why something needs to be done. A critical mass point has been reached.

Every American city ( and not just cities either) has a subset of the population that is so antisocially detached, disconnected and potentially dangerous that disaster planners must expect that " instant insurgencies" will arise from the underclass in the advent of a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Cook County, Illinois, where I reside, is also home to 80,000 gang members, the most dangerous of whom already exist in sophisticated organized crime entities that have infiltrated the Chicago Police Department and even their anti-gang units. Good behavior cannot be expected from them if a 9/11 or Katrina magnitude disaster hits Chicago.


Every family or individual needs to be able to have a plan to cope for a short-time in the advent of a mass disaster for at least five days to a week. That means minimally, food, clean drinking water, basic medical supplies, a battery-operated radio and realistically, a firearm and someone trained in its use.

Not every locality will see the total societal break-down during a crisis that happened in New Orleans but you never know how your neighbors will act until they are put to that test. The U.S. government may not be on hand to help you either - at least not at first.


Here's why DHS needs to be rethought entirely - even when it is aware of a problem it is too enormous, poorly organized and badly run to respond. (Hat tip to Bruce Kesler )
It's important to be aware that even if we could get the gov't to its optimal level of performance, there will never be any kind of instantanteous response. it's just not possible. So we citizens need to be aware that we are going to be on our own until help arrives. In addition to the survival kits, we also need to have practical skills and knowledge that would be useful in various circumstances. Perhaps we could create a non-profit entity that would have trained cadres who could go out into our communities and offer training to people. I don't know, I'm just trying to think of some kind of organized way for us citizens to take action to be better prepared for the next disaster. We can't just leave this to the politicians and bureaucrats.
Well, I have to say looking at this from afar through the various prisms of both foreign and US medias, it is rather breathtakingly bad.

It is hard not to reach the conclusion that this new Department is an utter failure, whatever excuses are made (and contra the comment supra, more developed and robust responses are entirely possible, I have seen it outremer as they say, excuse making and merely blaming bureaucrats blindly is not thinking).

Certainly Andrew Sulivan and other commentators have this right, this impressive display of incompetence and multi-level finger pointing (no particular level of authority comes off particularly well, but then I have always understood the Gulf coast states to be the poorest and least competent - ceteris paribus so the incompetence of Lousiana and Mississippi is not particularly news) is a fine lesson for terrorists.

Indeed were I one, I would ponder how a ship packed with explosive compounds might be fun to play with in such circumstances.
Hi Phil,

Agreed. The self-prep angle requires more thought. Without going into the goofy survivalist realm there's far more that individuals, neighborhoods and localities can do to avoid these outcomes.

Hi Col-

Well...the low point for me were the unconfirmed reports of cannibalism outbreaks. Hopefully, these will prove untrue.

And your comment regarding terrorism potentialities is well taken
Yeah often when we talk about being prepared for emergency situations it seems to veer towards the goofy survivalist schtick. So that's not where I'm going. When I look at what's going on in NO I wonder what kinds of skills and knowledge would be useful to citizens in this situation and what kinds of institutions we can create oustide of gov't to teach them to people around the country. The Boy Scouts teach all kinds of skills through through merit badge training and the Red Cross teaches lifeguard skills, CPR etc. But it needs to be something more than that and something specifically focused on dealing with emergency situations. When I was in the Army we used to train over and over and over how to respond to an ambush, how to clear a room, how to do a movement to contact etc. And when you hear soldiers who are in combat now what you here: I was scared but the training took over. And that's the goal. So if we can create a think tank/training non-profit to develop training procedures for specific skills and responses in emergency situations then maybe when future disasters strike then enough citizens will be in the situation that the "training takes over" and be able to save themselves or others until the gov't first responders arrive.
Fabulous follow up on the domestic PNM theory post here. You're absolutely right that this is a crystal clear example of what Americas non-integrating gap looks like and how easily it can be ignited. Bravo!
FEMA Dir. Mike Brown fired from prior job at Horse Assoc.
by Goldy at HorsesAss.org
Fri Sep 2nd, 2005 at 00:46:22 PDT
[editor's note, by Goldy at HorsesAss] Revised title

"An unmitigated, total fucking disaster." That's not a quote from Mike Brown, but rather, a quote describing him. And most disturbingly, it's not even a reference to his dismal performance as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This blunt critique was emailed to me from a regular reader who was apparently attracted to HorsesAss.org by her passion for politics and her love of Arabian horses.
Much appreciated Chirol, thank you.


As incompetent as Mr. Brown may or may not be I think the locus of Federal mismanagement is in DHS more than FEMA - though FEMA seems to have done a poor job they did manage previous hurricaines under Brown without reaping a NOLA debacle.

I know ppl don't really wish to hear this but the city and State governments essentially refused to prepare a disaster plan, panicked and then collapsed. It's about an evenly divided share of blame.
Yes, there have been other hurricanes, yes, the city could have been better prepared, but the hurricane happened and the city needed help quickly from uh, the federal government- you dont let a two year run the family-the mom and dad do that. The guy I love lived in new orleans - the Orleans Parish for 15 years-he came out to california on a buisness trip, a few days prior to the evacuation order due to an impending hurricane- he expected to be back in a few days to care for his beloved cat, that he left there on his own for a few days. I am watching this man go from shock to depression due to the realization hitting him that he lost everything-and his cat may be one of those. That may not be a big deal to some, but it is to him and to me.I am attempting to help him get the cat-but after 2 wks, no response other than putting my info on a list, I feel as though the disaster is mine too. Its hard for me to believe that the feds could and still can do more

I'm sorry for your friend's losses - it must be quite traumatic to be in that situation.

Do not mistake me however, I am not excusing the shortcomings of the Feds, I'm just saying that the communication-decision making bottleneck seemed to be in the upper tier of DHS and that local/State failures were also highly significant and unlikely to happen in most major cities.

New York, Chicago, Boston all would have handled this magnitude of crisis better ( which is not to say they would not also need massive Federal help).

It was a synergy of incompetence and no excuses should be made for any level of government.
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