September 04, 2005
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Environment
The Bush Administration's complete lack of preparedness for responding to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is one of the most significant intelligence failures in history, ranking right up there with Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Ii will be important in the coming months for Congress to investigate this policy failure with every bit of effort that it did after 9/11. Let me say that I have every expectation that the government professionals now fully engaged in the rescue and recovery operations will do an outstanding job. The question that needs to be asked, and it is not too soon to begin asking, is why was the federal government so unprepared for the disaster in the face of robust scientific knowledge about the disaster at all time scales? This is especially in light of the fact that the government completely reorganized itself after 9/11 to improve the nation's preparedness and response to catastrophes.
Like many people, I too was buoyed by the reports in the immediate aftermath of Katrina that New Orleans had dodged another bullet. It is understandable that government officials not involved with disaster preparedness and response (including the President) might have seen these reports and felt the same way. But to learn that the federal government agencies responsible for disaster preparation and management had taken very little action in the days and hours before Katrina's landfall to prepare for the possibility of flooding of New Orleans is simply amazing. I study disasters and find this incredible.
Statements by Bush Administration officials reveal the depth of this intelligence failure. Consider the following comments from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA's Michael Brown:
Of Katrina resulting in the failure of the New Orleans levees Chertoff said -- " "That 'perfect storm' of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody's foresight." He called the disaster "breathtaking in its surprise." ... Chertoff argued that authorities actually had assumed that "there would be overflow from the levee, maybe a small break in the levee. The collapse of a significant portion of the levee leading to the very fast flooding of the city was not envisioned."" Wrong. It is now well established that what has occurred was foreseeable and foreseen.
Of the time available to prepare, "Chertoff also argued that authorities did not have much notice that the storm would be so powerful and could make a direct hit on New Orleans." Wrong this storm was forecast perfectly and there were days of notice that an extremely powerful storm would hit along the gulf coast. Forecasts cannot get any better. And again, the disaster has been predicted for 30 years.
Chertoff explains on Wednesday that the government was betting on the come: "... in terms of this storm, particularly because it seemed to move to the east at the last minute, and I remember seeing newspaper headlines that said, you know, New Orleans dodged the bullet, on Tuesday morning, and even as everybody thought New Orleans had dodged the bullet Tuesday morning, the levee was not only being flooded, which is, I think, what most people always assumed would happen, but it actually broke."
Two things here. First, planning for the best case scenario is not a good approach to disaster policy. One wobble in a hurricane's path can make a big difference. And second, the Secretary of DHS was getting his information about the storm's impact on Tuesday from newspaper headlines? Are you kidding me?
Then there is the bizarre episode last Thursday of Chertoff arguing with NPR's Jeremy Siegel about whether or not there were in fact people stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center, and calling the news reports "rumor." Do these folks not watch cable news? Is it possible that I had better intelligence at the foot of the Rockies thousands of miles away than the Secretary of Homeland Security?
Later that day FEMA director Michael Brown told CNN on Thursday that they had only learned of people at the convention center on that day, presumably via the questions put to Chertoff:
"ZAHN: Sir, you aren't just telling me you just learned that the folks at the Convention Center didn't have food and water until today, are you? You had no idea they were completely cut off?
BROWN: Paula, the federal government did not even know about the Convention Center people until today."
Chertoff explains the intelligence failure on Sunday by placing blame on state and local officials:
"Well, I mean, this is clearly something that was disturbing. It was disturbing to me when I learned about it, which came as a surprise. You know, the very day that this emerged in the press, I was on a video conference with all the officials, including state and local officials. And nobody -- none of the state and local officials or anybody else was talking about a Convention Center. The original plan, as I understand it, was to have the Superdome be the place of refuge, of last resort. Apparently, sometime on Wednesday, people started to go to the Convention Center spontaneously. Why it is that there was a breakdown in communication, again, I'm sure will be studied when we get to look at this afterwards. FEMA, of course, did not have large -- is not equipped to put large masses of people into an area. FEMA basically plugs into the existing state and local infrastructure. What happened here was essentially the demolishment of that state and local infrastructure. And I think that really caused a cascading series of breakdowns. I mean, let's be honest. This stressed the system beyond, I think, any prior experience anybody's had in this country."
Let me explain why these comments are significant. Chertoff and Brown are the respective heads of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and within DHS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These are the federal agencies with lead responsibility for being prepared for and responding to disasters. Understanding and mitigating risk is their jobs.
This commentary is not a cheap political shot at the Bush Administration. They did have the bad luck of being in office when Katrina stuck, but they are nonetheless accountable for government performance in such situations. And there has been a significant policy failure on their watch. Furthermore, in the aftermath of 9/11 the Bush Administration completely reorganized itself to improve the nation's ability to secure itself. Under this new reorganization, DHS has comprehensively failed its first test. Congress needs to find out why, and fix it. We will have more disasters, that is for sure. The time to start asking hard questions is right now.
Posted on September 4, 2005 04:15 PM
Max Mayfield offers some related comments:
"FEMA knew storm's potential, Mayfield says
By Mark Schleifstein
Dr. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, said
Mayfield said the strength of the storm and the potential disaster it could bring were made clear during both the briefings and in formal advisories, which warned of a storm surge capable of overtopping levees in New Orleans and winds strong enough to blow out windows of high-rise buildings. He said the briefings included information on expected wind speed, storm surge, rainfall and the potential for tornados to accompany the storm as it came ashore.
“We were briefing them way before landfall,” Mayfield said. “It’s not like this was a surprise. We had in the advisories that the levee could be topped.
“I keep looking back to see if there was anything else we could have done, and I just don’t know what it would be,” he said. ..."
Read the whole story.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at September 4, 2005 04:48 PM
As a retired VP of a multinational corporation, formerly involved in disaster recovery planning and preparedness, I can say with confidence that any responsible CEO with a factory in Katrina's path woulf have been burning up the comm. lines not later than Sun. morning, when a Cat.5 landfall was expected, to ensure that all measures were in place to protect employees, and would have had teams from other sites standing by to go in immediately after the storm with relief and recovery provisions. The fact that Chertoff had not activated all of his resources by noon Sunday says clearly that he is not qualified for his post and totally failed his responsibility. The fact that Pres. Bush had not checked what actions Chertoff was initiating before late Sunday at the latest, also calls his competence into question. Local authorities with experience, like in Florida, can be left to deal with a Cat 3 hurricane on their own. An expected Cat. 5 should have had federal gov't attention from the top as soon as it was expected, even without the added risk of New Orlean's levees. Waiting to see if the bullet would be dodged is totally unacceptable. Both Bush and Chertoff should resign. Murray
Posted by: Murray Duffin at September 4, 2005 06:11 PM
I also sense that the responsibility has be laid at the feet of Bush and Chertoff. Surely, Brown is also at fault, but he would be too convenient a fall guy.
They had far more preparedness time than, say, the tsunami, and the response borders on negligence and blatant prejudice.
Mark Schleifstein will end up being recognized as rather a journalistic hero by the end of this.
Posted by: kaspit at September 5, 2005 09:13 AM
Re Brown: My partner saw him in one of his innumerable press conferences the other day and remarked that he didn't seem to be going short on sleep. Also I come to find out that his principal experience prior to being appointed to head FEMA was 11 years as executive director of the national organization relating to the showing of Arabian horses, a position from which he resigned under pressure. It looks like the only thing preventing him from being scapegoated is the Rovian credo of never accepting blame for anything and the fact that getting rid of him would in itself be admitting error for having hired such an obviously unqualified person.
Posted by: Steve Bloom at September 5, 2005 12:16 PM
I found these comments by LSU professor Ivor van Heerden pretty illuminating, regarding the "Hurricane Pam" scenario that FEMA discussed:
"Those FEMA officials wouldn't listen to me," he says. "Those Corps of Engineers people giggled in the back of the room when we tried to present information."
One recommendation from the exercise: Tent cities should be prepared for the homeless.
"Their response to me was: 'Americans don't live in tents,' and that was about it," recalls Van Heerden. "
Posted by: Russ Schumacher at September 5, 2005 01:12 PM
I am curious. Given what we know of the lack of experience and sense at the top of FEMA and DHS, it seems pollyannish to assume have every expectation that the government professionals now fully engaged in the rescue and recovery operations will do an outstanding job.
One can hope and one can pray, but hope is not a plan and prayers are most often not answered. Was your comment but a bromide to avoid confronting the unpalatable reality we are confronted with. As for myself, I estimate at least 10K dead.
If this reality comes to pass what should be done? The people you are counting on perhaps are the folk sitting in the back of van Heerden's meeting and their bosses, and their bosses bosses and the big boss himself.
Posted by: Eli Rabett at September 5, 2005 10:54 PM
From the New Orelans Times-Picayune
"OUR OPINIONS: An open letter to the President
We heard you loud and clear Friday when you visited our devastated city and the Gulf Coast and said, "What is not working, we’re going to make it right."
Please forgive us if we wait to see proof of your promise before believing you. But we have good reason for our skepticism.
Bienville built New Orleans where he built it for one main reason: It’s accessible. The city between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain was easy to reach in 1718.
How much easier it is to access in 2005 now that there are interstates and bridges, airports and helipads, cruise ships, barges, buses and diesel-powered trucks.
Despite the city’s multiple points of entry, our nation’s bureaucrats spent days after last week’s hurricane wringing their hands, lamenting the fact that they could neither rescue the city’s stranded victims nor bring them food, water and medical supplies.
Meanwhile there were journalists, including some who work for The Times-Picayune, going in and out of the city via the Crescent City Connection. On Thursday morning, that crew saw a caravan of 13 Wal-Mart tractor trailers headed into town to bring food, water and supplies to a dying city.
Television reporters were doing live reports from downtown New Orleans streets. Harry Connick Jr. brought in some aid Thursday, and his efforts were the focus of a "Today" show story Friday morning.
Yet, the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach.
We’re angry, Mr. President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.
Mayor Ray Nagin did the right thing Sunday when he allowed those with no other alternative to seek shelter from the storm inside the Louisiana Superdome. We still don’t know what the death toll is, but one thing is certain: Had the Superdome not been opened, the city’s death toll would have been higher. The toll may even have been exponentially higher.
It was clear to us by late morning Monday that many people inside the Superdome would not be returning home. It should have been clear to our government, Mr. President. So why weren’t they evacuated out of the city immediately? We learned seven years ago, when Hurricane Georges threatened, that the Dome isn’t suitable as a long-term shelter. So what did state and national officials think would happen to tens of thousands of people trapped inside with no air conditioning, overflowing toilets and dwindling amounts of food, water and other essentials?
State Rep. Karen Carter was right Friday when she said the city didn’t have but two urgent needs: "Buses! And gas!" Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially.
In a nationally televised interview Thursday night, he said his agency hadn’t known until that day that thousands of storm victims were stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He gave another nationally televised interview the next morning and said, "We’ve provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they’ve gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day."
Lies don’t get more bald-faced than that, Mr. President.
Yet, when you met with Mr. Brown Friday morning, you told him, "You’re doing a heck of a job."
There were thousands of people at the Convention Center because the riverfront is high ground. The fact that so many people had reached there on foot is proof that rescue vehicles could have gotten there, too.
We, who are from New Orleans, are no less American than those who live on the Great Plains or along the Atlantic Seaboard. We’re no less important than those from the Pacific Northwest or Appalachia. Our people deserved to be rescued.
No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced. Especially not one as preposterous as the claim that New Orleans couldn’t be reached.
Mr. President, we sincerely hope you fulfill your promise to make our beloved communities work right once again.
When you do, we will be the first to applaud. "
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at September 6, 2005 08:31 AM
I am interested in the phrase "New Orleans dodged the bullet." Chertoff picked it up from Michael Brown.
From CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN
And I think what we see is, sure, New Orleans dodged the bullet, in the sense that the catastrophic disaster we thought would occur downtown, moved slightly to the east, 30 or 40 miles. But what that meant is that we now have literally neighborhood after neighborhood that is totally engulfed in water.
We still have water coming into those neighborhoods and so my honest assessment is, is that we have a major disaster here where people are not going to be able to get into their homes for weeks, if not months. Right now as we speak, I just talked to some swift-water experts that I brought in from California, the California Urban Search and Rescue Teams. They've now deployed down to the Superdome area to start staging. They are very, very sober right now. They think they have a very daunting task in front of them."
Posted by: C Hill at September 6, 2005 01:58 PM
The implications of this article are enormous. The fact that it is devoid of intellectual content and was accepted by so many people, has dire consequence for America. This article did not address the responsibility of the citizens in N.O., the local government, and the state government. Everyone associated with this disaster played a significant role in the failure of the federal government to provide faster response. Did I miss the e-mail that said that USA is now the USSR where the federal government is totally responsible for every irresponsible behavior by the people, the local government, and the state government. What was the local and state plan, and how did it work? The governor was told by Pres. Bush to evacuate N.O. before the storm hit, yet she said she needed another day since she did not want to panic the people. Hundreds of buses in N.O. are under water that could have evacuated thousands of people. Over 500 N.O. police went AWOL. Anarchy reigned. FEMA is not setup to provide military security. The governor was supposed to use the National guard or sign over martial law to the federal government. She still has not done so.
Never mind all of these facts, lets just jump to a non-scientific conclussion before any investigation completes. This is the Democrat way, blame Bush. BTW, did anyone consider the fact that this was a huge Democrat failure? The local and state government are Democrat, along with most of the citizens. There were no leaders from the entire group of wanabee leaders. Leaders lead, they don't whine and blame their failures on others. Scientific people should write scientific articles, otherwise they should be labeled as opinions.
Posted by: T. Anderson at September 6, 2005 06:58 PM
Below is what was reported in a London newspaper. The N.O. citizens, the police department, the mayor, and the governor have a lot of explaining to do before we hang FEMA officials. An investigation that covers all parties involved should be conducted before anyone is proclaimed, guilty, until proven innocent.
This is LONDON
The US authorities were also castigated by British bus driver Ged Scott, from Wallasey, Merseyside, who was on holiday in the New Orleans area.
He stayed in the Ramada Hotel during and after the devastation with his wife, Sandra, and seven-year-old son Ronan. At one stage, Mr Scott, 36, had to wade through filthy water to barricade the hotel doors against looters.
He told the Liverpool Daily Post: "I couldn't describe how bad the authorities were. Just little things like taking photographs of us, as we are standing on the roof waving for help, for their own little snapshot albums.
"At one point, there were a load of girls on the roof of the hotel saying 'Can you help us?' and the policemen said 'Show us what you've got' and made signs for them to lift their T-shirts. When the girls refused, they said 'Fine' and motored off down the road in their boat."
Posted by: T. Anderson at September 6, 2005 08:31 PM
Update: Red Cross Says "We Were Kept From Superdome By State"
September 7, 2005 7:01 p.m. EST
Douglas Maher - All Headline News Staff Reporter
Washington, D.C. (AHN) - A report on Fox News from correspondent Major Garrett Wednesday night reveals a major break into what exactly went wrong at the Louisiana Superdome in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck the city.
An American Red Cross representative tells Fox News that the Louisiana State Homeland Security Department refused the relief organization permission to take food and water to the Superdome because they did not want to "encourage people to go there."
They State office of Homeland Security wanted to get people out and were afraid that providing support would be a "magnet" attracting more displaced citizens of New Orleans.
Stay with All Headline News for more on this developing aspect of the Hurricane Katrina Relief.
Posted by: T. Anderson at September 7, 2005 07:30 PM
First of all, I couldn’t agree with you more about needing to clarify whether Pielke’s claim is based on science or opinion. In fact, the science that we do here at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (yes, I belong to the club) is “policy science” and we study things like decision making; decision making under uncertainty; how information, or “intelligence” is used or not used in decision making, and how to improve decision making and thus policy through the improved use of scientific information. We research other kinds of things too, but the point I want to make is that FEMA’s response, and hence the Federal government’s response, falls under our domain of policy science. I have plenty of opinions on a variety of subjects, but those of us here at the Center have a lot more to offer on our analysis of the failure of FEMA’s response to Katrina than just mere opinion.
Now, back to the problem…the intelligence failure of the Fed’s response to Katrina…I would actually like to expand on Pielke’s argument and suggest it is also a failure of implementation.
I will agree with you that big mistakes were made at the local and the state level in Louisiana. Local and state implementation, and probably intelligence and planning, failed to protect the citizens of NOLA and surrounding areas.
But FEMA exists for these very reasons. FEMA does not respond automatically to every natural disaster or emergency. Ideally, local, regional and state authorities have planned, trained, and executed effective disaster response plans in partnership with FEMA so in the event of an emergency federal government doesn’t need to step in.
But when local and state governments fail to respond adequately, or say, can’t respond adequately because they are overwhelmed or incapable to respond, the federal government steps in. Indeed, it must step in. Waiting for the local or state governments to sort things before taking action is not a reasonable response. Yes, there are rules and procedures to follow, but if state and local leaders are not responding according to plan, or are responding in a way not conducive to the well being of those in need, then the federal government and particularly FEMA needs to exert its expertise and leadership in order to “minimize suffering and disruption caused by disasters”.
Ever heard of a 'bully pulpit'?
So why focus on the problem at the federal level and not the local or state level? Two reasons: First, most Americans do not live in Louisiana and thus are not as concerned with failures in response at those levels. Second, the unfolding disaster in NOLA represents a failure of national policy, hence the focus on national leadership.
Ask yourself a simple question: Are we witnessing an effective response to disaster, or not? If you answer no, we have an obligation to explore how the ‘response disaster’ unfolded at the national level.
Here’s FEMA’s strategic plan if you want to learn more. (http://www.fema.gov/library/strategicplanfy03.shtm)
Highlights of FEMA’s strategic plan:
“Vision: A Nation Prepared
Mission: Lead America to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from disasters.
Posted by: Elizabeth at September 7, 2005 10:28 PM
I'll only address one assertion in T. Anderson's statements, simply because this one has become part of the myth and I'll add more note on the "intelligence failure."
"The governor was told by Pres. Bush to evacuate N.O. before the storm hit, yet she said she needed another day since she did not want to panic the people."
This is simply not true. From the press conference (http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0508/28/bn.04.html) that Blanco and Nagin had called to announce the mandatory evacuation on Sunday morning:
I want to reiterate what the mayor has said. This is a very dangerous time. Just before we walked into this room, President Bush called and told me to share with all of you that he is very concerned about the citizens. He is concerned about the impact that this hurricane would have on our people. And he asked me to please ensure that there would be a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.
The President called after the decision to evacuate was made, just before the governor and mayor were walking into the room for the press conference.
As another point, I'm not sure what legal effect this has has, but the Presidential statement of emergency in Louisiana (issued Saturday, 27 August, at the request of Governor Blanco) (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/08/20050827-1.html) for the parishes in the path of Katrina listed the wrong parishes, towit:
"Allen, Avoyelles, Beauregard, Bienville, Bossier, Caddo, Caldwell, Claiborne, Catahoula, Concordia, De Soto, East Baton Rouge, East Carroll, East Feliciana, Evangeline, Franklin, Grant, Jackson, LaSalle, Lincoln, Livingston, Madison, Morehouse, Natchitoches, Pointe Coupee, Ouachita, Rapides, Red River, Richland, Sabine, St. Helena, St. Landry, Tensas, Union, Vernon, Webster, West Carroll, West Feliciana, and Winn."
Posted by: Harold Brooks at September 8, 2005 05:20 AM
Thank you for a reasoned response. I was not satisfied with FEMA's response and the poor interviews their leaders gave, however the disaster should not have reached their level if the citizens, the local, and the state government did their job. Unfortunately, leaders had to be given time to fail (or succeed) at various levels before a true leader could take charge. The federal government could not be the first responder unless the governor signed over authority to do this (State Rights) or the President invokes the Insurrection Act. If the intent of your studies it to improve the federal response, then laws must be changed and unfortunately the military must be part of the response. I would choose to have the local and state government be more responsible.
Part of FEMA's vision is training for disasters aside from signing checks afterwards. None of their vision statements indicate that they are the first responders and are responsible that no lives are lost or property damage occurs. The vision statements are vague enough to say that they succeeded or failed depending upon interpretation or bias.
We all are limited in knowledge of the true facts and for anyone to jump to a conclussion, without investigation, results in a non-scientific conclussion (opinion).
Posted by: T. Anderson at September 8, 2005 09:35 PM
In light of the current casualty count, is Mr. Pielke's first statement: fact, fiction, or opinion? Does the death count in N.O. really compare to the other "Intelligence Failures"? How many deaths were the responsibility of FEMA, the local government (mayor and police), or the state government?
Was it really an Intelligence Failure? What was FEMA supposed to have done? Was FEMA truly designed to be a first-responder given that state governors would not grant them the authority or responsibility. Would you really want a federal agency to have the power to determine that local and state govermnents are incompetent or not capable? Should FEMA have evacuated N.O. on Friday or Saturday before the storm? Should they be held accountable for incompetent government leaders given that they are bureaucrats, as well?
Who was really responsible for those levee's? Millions of dollars had been allocated over many years, some of it actually was spent on the levee's. A section that broke had been upgraded. Environmentalists blocked other upgrades.
Since this site is full of policy wonks, you need to propose a better solution. Increasing FEMA's role would be considered an Intelligence Failure given the over-the-top political assault that continues to be shrill and inaccurate.
Good luck in coming up with a solution and when it fails, will you take responsibility?
Posted by: T. Anderson at September 12, 2005 08:49 PM
I am finishing an undergraduate in political science and geography at the University of Texas. I am doing a 20 page research paper on the intelligence and policy failures of our government in relation to Hurricane Katrina. But first off, I've got to say that you do perfectly live up to the reputation your school has for being overtly biased in politics. Your quickness and presumption to blame the administration and president is typical of your facade of true research and intellectualism. I want to warn the readers that your university is blacklisted for political bias and discrimination by Students for Academic Freedom that is funded by the Federal government. Besides the mistake of blaming Bush and the administration, you are mistakenly to heavy in critisizing FEMA. FEMA is an organization designed to work through local officials. This has worked perfectly well in Florida where they have thier act together regarding hurricane preparation and relief. Not so in Louisiana or Mississippi. The governor of Louisiana denied aid from FEMA for 24 hours so she could make a "decision" on declaring the NO area a state of emergency after she knew that the city was flooded. The mayor of NO also failed to implement the official evacuation plan which would have included the busing of inner city people out of NO BEFORE the disaster. FEMA was prepared for the disaster and were ready to role into the area with over 1700 initial truckloads of supplies. The disaster area covered 90,000 square miles, which makes this enormous relief capability by FEMA seem insignificant. There is no doubt FEMA could improve in some areas, but not to the extent that the democratic governor of Louisiana and Mayor of NO needs. If you're interested in seeing this group project intelligence paper of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted by: Stephen at September 25, 2005 04:17 PM