Shifting Blame in the Katrina Tragedy

Published January 1, 2006

As the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina continued to shock and sadden the nation, the question on many lips was, “Who is to blame for the inadequate response?” That question remains to be fully answered.

As a former state legislator who represented the legislative district most impacted by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, I can fully understand and empathize with the people and public officials in their dismay over the loss of life and property.

Many in the media are turning their eyes toward the federal government, however, rather than considering the culpability of city and state officials. I am fully aware of the challenges of having a quick and responsive emergency response to a major disaster. And there is definitely a time for accountability. But what isn’t fair is to dump on the federal officials and avoid those most responsible– local and state officials who failed to do their job as the first responders.

The plain fact is, lives were needlessly lost in New Orleans due to the failure of Louisiana’s governor, Kathleen Blanco, and the city’s mayor, Ray Nagin.

Plans Were in Place

The primary responsibility for dealing with emergencies does not belong to the federal government. It belongs to local and state officials, who are charged by law with the management of the crucial first response to disasters. First response should be carried out by local and state emergency personnel under the supervision of the governor and her emergency operations center.

The actions and inactions of Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin are a national disgrace due to their failure to implement the previously established evacuation plans of the state and city.

Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin cannot claim they were surprised by the extent of the damage and the need to evacuate so many people. Detailed written plans were already in place to evacuate more than a million people. The plans projected that 300,000 people would need transportation in the event of a hurricane like Katrina. If the plans had been implemented, numerous lives would likely have been saved.

In addition to the evacuation plans, local, state, and federal officials held a simulated hurricane drill 13 months ago, in which widespread flooding supposedly trapped 300,000 people inside New Orleans. The exercise simulated the evacuation of more than a million residents. The problems identified in the simulation apparently were not solved.

Close Call Gave Warning

A year ago, as Hurricane Ivan approached, New Orleans ordered an evacuation but did not use city or school buses to help people evacuate. As a result, many of the poorest citizens were unable to evacuate. Fortunately, the hurricane changed course and did not hit New Orleans, but both Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin acknowledged the need for a better evacuation plan.

Again, however, they failed to take corrective actions. In 1998, during a threat by Hurricane George, 14,000 people were sent to the Superdome, and theft and vandalism were rampant because of inadequate security. These problems were not corrected.

The New Orleans contingency plan is still, as of this writing, on the city’s Web site. It states, “The safe evacuation of threatened populations is one of the principle [sic] reasons for developing a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.” But the plan was apparently ignored as Katrina headed toward the city.

Mayor’s Office Responsible

Mayor Nagin was responsible for giving the order for mandatory evacuation and supervising the actual evacuation. According to state law, his Office of Emergency Preparedness (not the federal government) must coordinate with the state on elements of evacuation and assist in directing the transportation of evacuees to staging areas.

Mayor Nagin had to be encouraged by the governor to contact the National Hurricane Center before he finally, belatedly, issued the order for mandatory evacuation. And sadly, it apparently took a personal call from President George W. Bush to urge the governor to order the mandatory evacuation.

The city’s evacuation plan states, “The city of New Orleans will utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas.” But even though the city has enough school and transit buses to evacuate 12,000 citizens per fleet run, the mayor did not use them. To compound the problem, the buses were not moved to high ground; as a result, they were flooded.

The plan also states, “special arrangements will be made to evacuate persons unable to transport themselves or who require specific lifesaving assistance. Additional personnel will be recruited to assist in evacuation procedures as needed.” This was not done.

Mayor Shifted Blame

The evacuation plan warned, “if an evacuation order is issued without the mechanisms needed to disseminate the information to the affected persons, then we face the possibility of having large numbers of people either stranded and left to the mercy of a storm, or left in an area impacted by toxic materials.” That is precisely what happened because of the mayor’s failure.

Instead of evacuating the people, the mayor ordered the refugees to the Superdome and Convention Center without adequate security and no provisions for food, water, and sanitary conditions. As a result people died, and there was even a rape committed in these facilities.

In an emergency, the first requirement is for the city’s emergency center to be linked to the state emergency operations center. This was not done.

Mayor Nagin failed in his responsibility to provide public safety and to manage the orderly evacuation of the citizens of New Orleans. Instead of admitting responsibility, the mayor blamed Gov. Blanco and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Governor Also Responsible

The federal government does not have the authority to intervene in a state emergency without the request of the state’s governor. President Bush declared an emergency prior to Katrina hitting New Orleans, so the only action required for federal assistance to be sent was for Gov. Blanco to request the specific type of assistance she needed.

Unfortunately, Blanco failed to send a timely request for specific aid.

In addition, unlike the governors of New York, Oklahoma, and California in past disasters, Gov. Blanco failed to take charge of the situation and ensure that the state emergency operation facility was in constant contact with Mayor Nagin and FEMA. It is likely that numerous people died because of the failure of Gov. Blanco to implement the state plan, which mentions the possible need to evacuate up to one million people.

The state plan clearly gives the governor the authority to declare an emergency, send in state resources to the disaster area, and request necessary federal assistance.

State legislators and governors nationwide need to update their contingency plans and the operation procedures for state emergency centers. Hurricane Katrina had been forecast for days, but that will not always be the case with a disaster (terrorist attacks, for example). It must be made clear that the governor and locally elected officials are in charge of the “first response.”

FEMA Not First Responder

None of this should be seen as excusing any unnecessary delays in FEMA’s response. Congress and the president should take corrective action there. And FEMA Director Michael Brown has already resigned his post under pressure.

If citizens expect FEMA to be a first responder to terrorist attacks or other local emergencies (earthquakes, forest fires, volcanoes), however, they will be disappointed. The federal government’s role is to offer aid upon request.

The Louisiana legislature should conduct an immediate investigation into the failures of state and local officials to implement the written emergency plans. Local and state officials must stay focused on the jobs for which they were elected–and not on the deadly game of passing the emergency buck.

Bob Williams ([email protected]) is president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 6.