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September 02, 2005

New Orleans

In our house I'm the only one of us that has been to New Orleans. I spent a week there for work one year. Flying into the city I can remember the pilot commenting on the dykes holding back the water that would otherwise flood the city. Thinking of my time there this week has been painful to say the least.

One of the human race's worst traits is a short memory. A little over 100 years ago Galveston, TX was hit by a Category 5 storm. (I believe the first ever recorded in history.) Over 6000 people died over the course of two days. In 4 generations the lessons of Galveston were lost to politicians at the Federal, state and local levels, especially in the wake of the storms of the 1950's and 1960's.

I've been brought to tears several times over the last few days. When you understand the aftermath of a situation like this the horrors to come are even more gut wrenching. The pollution, the disease, all will mix into a hellish quagmire that will be decades to truly overcome. Worse still are the preventable deaths that come from a lack of electricity and refrigeration. As an example the Insulin stocks in New Orleans became useless unless people took extraordinary measures.

The frustration at the pace and speed of the federal government is understandable. Those in a nightmare look for delivery from their suffering. They want only for a light to find its way into unimaginable darkness, for their loved ones to have their pain taken away and their most basic needs to be taken care of. They want only what all of us want.

The most immediate problem that the relief faced was how to get into the area. The problem not being stated clearly by some is well summarized in this excerpt from an email I read:

I run a trade association of tank truck carriers trying to assist in the relief efforts by transporting food and potable water. I'm in regular contact with many of the companies, and here are some "on the ground" facts:

1) Large trucks (80,000 lbs. gross weight) almost always have to use the Interstates. For trucks attempting to come in from outside the area, most of those roads (approaching the disaster area) are either closed or have bridges out. The so-called secondary roads may be somewhat passable, but their bridges (over rivers and streams) are not built to sustain such loads. Simply stated, you can't get there from here.

2) Trucks domiciled in those areas (because that's where the companies traditionally serve customers) are still underwater, thus the equipment is not accessible;

3) Nobody in their right mind is going to take loads of gasoline and fuel oil into a city controlled by unfriendly folks carrying automatic weapons. A tank truck loaded with 8,000 gallons of gasoline can produce a very impressive fire;

4) Those local trucking companies can't contact their drivers. There's no power, thus (even) cellular is unavailable, and many of the drivers homes (in places like Kenner, Slidel, Metarie, etc) have been destroyed and families dispersed. I have one member with about 120 drivers and mechanics in that immediate area. To date, management has been able to contact 12. Those in the National Guard have been mobilized and are not available to drive.

5) Pumps -- needed to load the vehicles -- don't work because there's no power;

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Another key fact is that those doing the rescuing have to be self sufficient from the existing problem. It’s why airmobile troops are great in concept but if they can’t be sustained with supplies, rest and refit then you do little more than create additional refugees in time.

This is the first crisis since our government formed something called the Northern Command to deal with national events of this nature. Like all government bureaucracies the base human instinct to “do the right thing” is checked by more and more layers of approval, staging, oversight, etc. This check is balanced by the good the government brings: aid in scope far beyond the ability of local areas to provide. The sheriff of the town knows everyone but he can’t rescue, feed or find everyone by himself. The FEMA ground coordinator has the supplies, the extra hands on deck but needs local guides to know where to direct it. It’s awkward, and like all bureaucracies it is always in need of tuning but it’s the best solution in all.

An apt comparison of what has happened on the Gulf Coast is to compare it to a particularly dirty radioactive bomb having exploded. Short of the radioactivity it’s really very similar: the pollution, the scope, etc. It’s also a comparison that helps frame the casual observers mind to what exactly has happened and how large an area has been ruined.

New Orleans was protected by dykes rated for a Class 3 storm. The need to upgrade them has been known for 40+ years. The problem has always been the expense and who will bear the cost, the US government and LA, and in what proportions. Every federal government since the Johnson administration has considered, debated and pushed off the issue. For those 40+ years politicians have rolled the dice with every storm season. Now, for the first time since Galveston, the roll produced snake eyes.

Disasters, man made and natural, occur from time to time with a frequency that, again, we collectively tend to put out of our minds as time passes. My family lost several people to the flu pandemic that swept the world shortly after World War I and yet most people in the western world seem to be paying little attention to the current avian flu crisis in China. (I have thoughts on that that I’ll save for another post.)

People watching the television and witnessing what has happened in New Orleans saw similar circumstances these past few years in Florida and North Carolina. (The earthquake in Northridge is another good example.) Despite this most people, including many of you reading this currently, don’t have the basic stocks to survive something similar in their own backyards. The Office of Homeland Security offers some excellent suggestions on what you should have here: Link to the kit breakdown.

New Orleans will recover, time will heal wounds. The immediate needs will give way to thoughtful questions that will prove hard to answer and will be the cause of positive change. We will aid our family, friends and strangers and in doing so will be the better for it. Help how you can and do what you must.


Posted by Jim at September 2, 2005 09:06 PM


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