Two years ago today I drove into Hancock County with the responsibility of coordinating the human services response to Hurricane Katrina in the six southern counties of Mississippi. Governor Barbour had requested from Governor Bush that the State of Florida assume the responsibility for coordinating emergency management in southern Mississippi. I was one of six thousand Floridians who responded.
This was my first visit to a catastrophic disaster. I had traveled extensively in Latin America and seen a lot of poverty and misery. I had been to two war zones. But on that day in September 2005, I had never seen anything like Hancock County. The big difference, in my mind, was that these dazed and bewildered victims were American citizens. I never dreamed that what I saw overseas could happen in the United States.
Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath led a lot of people in our great country to a number of very definite conclusions. Many of these conclusions were derived from television images of New Orleans. These conclusions have been repeated for two years in newspaper columns, magazine articles, television shows and Spike Lee movies. The biggest conclusion was that the federal government, in particular FEMA as an organization and George Bush as an individual, was responsible for the horrible images of suffering and death in New Orleans.
For two years I have been telling anyone who cared to listen that that conclusion was wrong. As the August 2007 edition of the National Geographic makes clear, the failure of the levees around New Orleans was caused by dozens of politically driven, as opposed to engineering-based, decisions by a variety of governmental entities at all levels over a period of fifty to one hundred years.
The federal government does not deserve all the blame for the horrifying images at the Super Dome and Convention Center. FEMA made some mistakes, but the overwhelming blame for what transpired lies with the Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana. Evacuation of the citizenry has been and continues to be a responsibility of local government. The evacuation plan for the city was designed and executed at the city and parish level, with some assistance by the state.
The big question for me was the holdup in bringing water and food to the victims stranded at the Super Dome and other "lily pads"around the city. I asked this question to emergency management professionals that I had worked with who were in the Baton Rouge Emergency Operations Center during the crisis. They told me that vehicles loaded with water and food were ready to enter the city and resupply the lily pads. The vehicles were not sent in because city officials declared the city unsafe.
Regardless of the facts, the federal government got the blame. For the past two years, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA have been developing capabilities to step in when local and state governments are incompetent and do their job for them. As these federal plans and policies gradually come to light, I can see very grave consequences. I will outline these consequences in Part 2.