Friday, September 02, 2005

Thoughts on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans

As a break in my music blogging, I have decided to create an entry about the devestating hurricane that has recently hit the US gulf coast. Believe it or not, I'm somewhat of an expert in the field of disaster recovery.

Back in 1996 I was a doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas in Denton. Upon completing all of the coursework for my DMA, I took a part-time intermittent job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the idea being to have some income while I worked on preparing for the quals and wrote my dissertation. At first my job was to take applications over the phone from disaster victims seeking assistance: The very lowest rung on the FEMA ladder. Hurricane Fran, which hit the Carolinas on Labor Day weekend that year, was the first disaster I worked on.

I enjoyed the work, actually, as there was an "emotional paycheck" associated with helping people in need. Before long, I got the oportunity to learn Inspection Review and Case review, and I moved from the Call Center to the National Processing Service Center, which was located just across town there in Denton. Since I had a little construction work in my background, I took to inspection review and case review quite well, and enjoyed that work even more. It wasn't long before I decided to leave music behind for a while - since I was hoplessly burned out on it anyway - and went on to pursue FEMA as my "main gig".

Late in 1997, FEMA decided to open a new NPSC in Hyattsville, Maryland. I was one of the people they sent up there to help open up the place and get it running. Since this was a big new facility, I saw that if I was serious about it, it would be a wise move to transfer. That was made official in November of '97. One of the first things they did with me was to send me to the Field Inspector's training course at Mt. Weather, Virginia. Once qualified for field inspections, I was deployed all over the US and US territories to do inspections. Over the course of my time at the agency, I was deployed to over 20 different States, as well as the Pacific islands of Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and Guam.

There is a lot of politics involved with Federal Government jobs, and quite frankly, much of it was quite off-putting to me. Over the course of time, I became increasingly unhappy with that particular aspect of the job. 09/11 2001 changed everything: I watched the Pentagon burning across town out of my office window that morning. Once DHS was formed and FEMA came under it's umbrella, I decided I didn't want to have to deal with the politics anymore, much of which was extremely trivial turf warring between dunderheads who were underqualified, overpaid, underworked, and over-their-heads due to "affirmitave action" promotion policies.

Since FEMA has two Contractors who provide inspectors when disaster strikes, and since it was the office part of the job I grew to dislike, I decided to leave the agency to become an Independent Contractor in 2002.

I really enjoyed the field work in "real disasters", but some of the disasters that were declared were what we referred to as "political declarations", and those were no fun at all. Most of those were the result of relatively minor flooding in major metropolitan areas. The percentage of applicants trying to defraud FEMA in those situations was extremely high. Some of these applicants were what we refered to as "FEMA-savvy", meaning they knew the program well enough to be able to pull the wool over the eyes of a green inspector. I became increasingly disgusted with this aspect of the job: For a large percentage of apps in these kinds of disasters, FEMA was just another "free money" source they could scam to add to the other forms of public assistance they "benefitted" from.

The first job I did as an IC was not for FEMA, it was for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In New Orleans. The HUD contract I worked began in April of 2002, and I relocated to N.O. to work that job until I took a FEMA assignment in July. During three-plus months in The Big Easy, I inspected literally thousands of homes in every Ward of Orleans Parrish. Every_single_neighborhood. Previously, when I was still with the agency, I was part of a Quality Control Reinspection Team that worked New Orleans, so it was not my first deployment there. I literally know the place like the back of my hand.

Currently, there is much recrimination, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing going on. Splashed all over every form of the media: TV, radio, internet. A significant amount of the criticisms are aimed at FEMA, or contain some referrence to FEMA as doing a less-than-stellar job.

Let's look at this logically. When a disaster of this magnitude strikes, the first response must come from the locality. The people who are there and on-site. And the resources that must be distributed to the needy victims must be the goods that are there and on-site, or at least very close by.

Now, there is no excuse in the case of NOLA for not seeing this coming. A cat 4/5 hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the "doomsday scenarios" while I was at FEMA - along with a mag 8/9 earthquake in LA or SanFransisco - and had been one of the doomsday scenarios since long before my brief stint at the agency. The idea that the local officials in N.O. and Louisiana did not also ponder this eventuality is absurd.

New Orleans knew of it's vulnerability, but seems to have continuously whistled passed it's numerous and picturesque above-ground graveyards. Everybody knew the city was subsiding and that parts of it are now about ten feet below mean sea level. Everybody knew that the levees were designed to withstand a maximum category three hurricane's storm surge. Everybody knew that the city was populated by a large segment of poverty-striken individuals who could not obey a mandatory evacuation order even if they wanted to, because they simply had no means of transportation. And, everybody saw this monster looming offshore as a gargantuan category five super-storm!

By the time the eyewall of Katrina came ashore, it was already way to late to prevent the tragedy we now see unfolding before our eyes. The time to prevent this tragedy was before the storm hit.

Why was there no plan in place to evacuate the poor people who had no means of transportation? The average city school buss holds about 60 people. Currently, many of them are destroyed and under water. Why wasn't there a plan in place to evacuate these people using those busses, and why for God's sake weren't they used thusly? Not only would people have been saved, but the busses as well.

Instead, people were told to make their way to the Superdome. The Superdome?! Sure, let's send them somewhere where there is sure to be no food, water, electricity, plumbing, and medical assistance. Somewhere with a high profile structure that is sure to be pummelled by the full force of the storm. And, while we're at it, let's make sure there is no law enforcement there to maintain order. Great plan.

N.O. also knew it had a serious gang-related crime problem, so these "Oh my God!" reactions to the inevitible looting, shooting, and raping is just so much popycock.

There is no way all of this unprecidented tragedy could have been prevented, and no matter how well it could have been handled, the nattering nabobs of negativity would still do the only thing they know how to do: Gipe and snipe. But, to say it could have been handled better is an overwhelming understatement of the same biblical proportions as Katrina at this point.

Let's face the facts, shall we? FEMA is primarily a recovery program, and the inspectors won't be able to get in there until all the water is pumped out. Even in Mississippi, inspectors are currently being told to pound sand: They can't get in even with FEMA Contractor credentials. Even if they could, the applicants have scattered to the four winds. Now, some forms of direct rental assistance will be available to the displaced, but repair money for rebuilding? Not for a long, long, long time in New Orleans. If ever.

As I said, I have been in thousands of homes in every neighborhood of New Orleans. The overwhelmingly vast percentage of these structures are old and suffer from massive amounts of deferred maintenance. Just making the relatively lax code standards for HUD was a problem for most of them. Repairing or rebuilding these structures will not be economically feasible, and in some cases would not be possible for all the kings horses and all the kings men. My prediction is that entire neighborhoods will have to be razed and rebuilt from scratch. Entire... neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods are not just houses. Neighborhoods are people. Neighborhoods are businesses, hospitals, Churches and every other form of social infrastructure that makes a place a home. New Orleans may eventually re-emerge as a vital major metropolitan area, but it will look and feel nothing like before. Obviously, there are good and bad aspects to that proposition.

But, should it be rebuilt at all? What is that old real estate saying? "Location, location, location." New Orleans is a major port at the mouth of the circulatory system of the United States: The Mississippi river. It has to be rebuilt, at least in some form, to allow it to continue to function as a port. Thousands of tons of minerals and agricultural products come down the river to the gulf every year. Our entire economy depends on Old Man River. Thomas Jefferson recognized this, so the idea is not new. Right now, the economic impact is just starting to unfold. Expect high prices on not just fuel, but food and other products too. Soon. The impact will be virtually indistinguishable from what would happen if a nuclear bomb had gone off there.

Of course, there is the salve for the human spirit that rebuilding versus abandoning alone can provide. Prevailing in the face of adversity is deeply satisfying. So, I hope and pray that NOLA eventually recovers, but I'm not going to hold my breath until I can again go hear some jazz in the French Quarter.

So, there will be plenty of blame to go around if you are a blame-game player. Many more things will go wrong, so make sure you have enough scorecards. But just keep one thing in mind: Most of the blamers you are seeing on TV, hearing on the radio, or reading on the internet either don't have a sliver of a clue if they are a pundit, or they are playing a CYA game if they are a politico.

This disaster happened long before the storm hit.


Blogger Capitol Junkie said...

An extremely insightful post. I also appreciated your thoughts on the rail. Thanks.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous NPSC STOOGE said...

as I sit here reading this at the Texas NPSC (you remember where that is) I am saying AMEN BROTHER.

9:02 PM  

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