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Storm of Misinformation

Locals failed as least as much as FEMA

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As the shrieking winds of the oncoming hurricane ripped through New Orleans, a mob of desperate people gathered outside the Superdome, demanding to be let in. They had no transportation and nowhere else to go.

The dome wasn't equipped to handle them, its manager warned city leaders. The toilets would overflow and there were no generators to keep people cool. Any effort to use it as a shelter for those without cars would deteriorate into chaos, he said.

Then it did. Someone broke into a freezer containing 24,000 hotdogs. The food didn't last long, though. The angry crowd of 14,000 trashed the Superdome, soiling it, looting it and walking off with what valuables they could carry. In the process, they did more than $100,000 worth of damage to the Superdome, a tab the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has promised to pick up.

The year was 1998, the hurricane was Georges and the declared evacuation policy for the estimated 130,000 people in New Orleans without a car was this: You're on your own.

New Orleans officials have always had a shockingly casual attitude about evacuating the quarter of the city's population without access to transportation. Their stance was pretty much that it couldn't be done, so they wouldn't bother trying. This was hardly a secret; public officials were quoted multiple times in the newspapers warning the poor that there was no plan to get them out.

Each time a hurricane crept up on the city they'd do the same thing. Mayor Ray Nagin, and before him, Mayor Marc Morial, would tell the city's poor there would be shelters, but they wouldn't tell them where the shelters were until the last possible minute. The theory was that if people thought they could seek shelter, they wouldn't leave town. Whether they actually could leave town or not was never figured into the equation.

A year ago, as Ivan barreled toward them, city leaders cut a last-minute deal with the school system to open 10 shelters and transport people on 27 buses. Most of the buses never appeared and only a few of the shelters stayed open.

At the time, Nagin told the Associated Press he would "aggressively recommend" that people evacuate, but that it "would be difficult to order them to, because at least 100,000 in the city rely on public transportation and have no way to leave."

Meanwhile, the Red Cross had decided it was too dangerous to set up hurricane shelters where previous ones had been established, well inside New Orleans; it would now set up its shelters outside the city.

Distraught advocates for the poor finally decided last year that they had to do something. So Nagin and other public officials recorded DVDs that were supposed to be distributed to the city's poor. The message? Make plans for a hurricane, because if one comes, you're on your own.

A month before Katrina hit, the text of that "public service" message was published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "You're responsible for your safety, and you should be responsible for the person next to you. If you have some room to get that person out of town, the Red Cross will have a space for that person outside the area. We can help you. But we don't have the transportation."

And there you have it. The New Orleans evacuation plan, in a nutshell.

Even FEMA, the agency tasked with storing and approving the evacuation plans for the nation's cities, knew there was a problem in New Orleans. In 2002, FEMA officials met with local leaders to warn them they needed a plan for those without cars. To emphasize their point, according to Newhouse news service, they even showed them a computer simulation in which the floodwaters would rise to the horse's hoofs of Gen. Stonewall Jackson's statue in the French Quarter. As usual, everyone agreed that a plan was needed, but no one did a thing about it.

What is being lost in Katrina coverage is the true flaw in the system. We've been told what FEMA didn't do, but not what FEMA was supposed to do. Those are two critically different things. FEMA wasn't designed to be a first responder agency. It was created to work from the top to the bottom after a disaster, not from the bottom up before a disaster. Its job is to assume control of a situation too big for locals to coordinate after the initial response by local authorities. It is not FEMA's job, nor is FEMA equipped to run a full-scale evacuation from its inception. Ditto for the National Guard, who have typically handled the looters and the holdouts after evacuations.

But it is FEMA's job to make sure evacuation plans work, and that clearly didn't happen here. In its national response plan, which was finalized last year, the Department of Homeland Security assumes that the feds will simply grab the reins of a partially completed disaster response from the locals when need be. That local leaders might not implement even the first stages of the evacuation of large numbers of people before a hurricane hit isn't even conceived of in the plan. The results were obvious. The solution, unfortunately, is not.

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