Monday, August 29, 2005

The politics of weather

It looks like New Orleans got lucky. Sadly there are bound to be deaths, but considering that people have been talking entirely seriously about the city being turned into a giant cesspool, overall Hurricane Katrina's last-minute shimmy seems to have done the Big Easy a big favour. [update: thanks to 'jook' in the comments for pointing out that, tragically, it seems I spoke too soon.]

Mayor Ray Nagin's press conferences read as surreal combinations of the bureaucratic, the histrionic and the incomprehensible. ('Do all things you normally do for a hurricane but treat this one differently'...?) Given how long it's been known that N.O. is a fucking plaything for hurricanes, you might wonder why he ordered evacuations at the last minute, Saturday afternoon? (In fact, what he said was that he'd 'probably ask people to leave at daybreak Sunday' - so, dude, should we run away or not?) Perhaps it's no surprise that the exodus was a tad sluggish.

And what about those who can't afford to leave, the 100,000 'wretched of New Orleans? The poor, who in New Orleans are disproportionately black, get to stay in what are charmingly glossed as 'special emergency shelters'. Or to put it another way, a noisy, leaking, dangerous, now-roofless football stadium. With a two-mile queue to get in.

According to one elderly resident: 'I know they're saying "Get out of town," but I don't have any way to get out. ... If you don't have no money, you can't go.' But who's taken in by such whining? Certainly not officials who describe themselves as 'pleading with residents to leave'. Yeah, that's the problem: those stubborn locals!

Nagin has form on this aggregation of sudden hysteria and long-term disdain. Almost exactly a year ago the city faced Hurricane Ivan, and like a Monty Python character, Nagin abruptly started shouting 'Run away!'. His advice to the old, the poor, the sick, who couldn't get out? Perform a 'vertical evacuation'. I shit you not. Official advice to impoverished septuaganarians in a killer flood: climb.

It's not as if Katrina's impact hasn't been predictable, and indeed predicted. A couple of days ago, meteorologist Jeff Masters, said:

I'm surprised they haven't ordered an evacuation of the city yet. While the odds of a catastropic hit that would completely flood the city of New Orleans are probably 10%, that is way too high in my opinion to justify leaving the people in the city. If I lived in the city, I would evactuate NOW! There is a very good reason that the Coroner's office in New Orleans keeps 10,000 body bags on hand. The risks are too great from this storm ... GO! New Orleans needs a full 72 hours to evacuate, and landfall is already less than 72 hours away. Get out now and beat the rush. You're not going to have to go to work or school on Monday anyway. If an evacuation is ordered, not everyone who wants to get out may be able to do so--particularly the 60,000 poor people with no cars.

Quite. They did order the evacuation eventually, of course - just 'far too late'.

So why the tardiness, and the failure to learn lessons? Well, you know that thing about capitalism and the free market being the most efficient system available? Want to hear something hilarious? New Orleans' seemingly unintentionally accurately named 'catastrophic hurricane disaster plan' was privatised last year.

IEM, Inc., the Baton Rouge-based emergency management and homeland security consultant, will lead the development of a catastrophic hurricane disaster plan for Southeast Louisiana and the City of New Orleans under a more than half a million dollar contract with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Thanks to that, as Dewberry, a partner in this noble venture put it a while back, '[h]ad one of the devastating hurricanes targeted New Orleans and southeast Louisiana, state and local officials would have been ready'. So how's that working out?

IEM stands for Innovative Emergency Management. I guess 'Climb for your life!' and 'Run to the football stadium!' are pretty innovative. To be fair it must be hard to focus when you're so freaked by the impact on insurance, let alone oil prices.

I should confess that no amount of online poking on my part has clarified to me precisely who in this corporate/mayoral thicket gets to decide when to order evacuation, vertical, horizontal or other. It's possible that the buck stops as much or more with Nagin as IEM and Dewberry. I dunno. So maybe we should just share the love.