Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A New Embedding

Like many, I have watched hours of coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, read countless stories. I watched as the coverage went from graphics of a big giant circle to footage of homes decimated and turned to kindling. As people talked about the luck that Katrina had seemingly spared New Orleans by jogging a few miles to the east before smacking the gulf coast. (Interestingly, none of the coverage I have seen seemed concerned that by jogging east Katrina also smacked some other town that hadn't had as much time to prepare.) I watched as the reporters stationed in New Orleans discovered that the levees which protect New Orleans from flooding failed. The geography of New Orleans that made the levees useful, also meant that the remaining levees would help keep the water in the city - turning the city into a bathtub with no plug.
I cannot explain why the coverage abated - temporarily - when it appeared that New Orleans may have missed the brunt of the storm. Perhaps the media assumes that New Orleans being the city most people outside of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama had heard of therefore made it the most interesting. But as the streets of New Orleans filled with water, it suddenly became newsworthy again. But more quickly it seemed that the story was not just that years of predictions about the fate of the city should a hurricane hit it again had come true. No, the story was that there was no plan.
Residents had been urged to evacuate the city the weekend prior to the storm - and about 80% of them did. Some stayed because they had stayed during Cindy and Ivan and other storms that had also been supposed to devastate the city and turned into - for New Orleans at least - nothing but rain. Some stayed because they did not have access to transportation out of the city. Some stayed - like some of the students at Xavier University - because they figured if it was that bad - someone would come get them. And as we all know - many who couldn't get out of town took shelter at the Superdome and the convention center.
So, now someone needed to get these people out of the city. And I readily confess that I don't know enough about the redesigned government to know whose ultimate responsibility this is. Although that may be part of the problem, as many have said they offered help, but couldn't figure out who was supposed to authorize them. I totally understand that no major city has been evacuated in this century. But I find it mind boggling that in the last four years, as the specter of the next September eleventh hung over us, that no one came up with a plan to evacuate a city. And here's the thing, I don't even mind so much that there wasn't a plan. I work in an industry (as I think most everyone does) where things we hadn't predicted or really hoped would never happen happened. And what you do is you say - okay - we need to make this work and we'll worry about the right way to do it later. I'm sure someone was saying well we need a plan so we don't do this wrong, but the problem was the only thing worse than doing it wrong, was appearing to do nothing at all. And that's what happened.
I don't want to take away from the Coast Guard, the National Guard, the Red Cross, the New Orleans city officials (including the police and other emergency personnel), the City of Houston (who stepped up to the plate while other cities were still standing with jaws hanging), the Jefferson Parish officials, the Mississippi and Alabama personnel (and many others I'm sure that I am unintentionally forgetting) all who worked tirelessly. And while FEMA and the Homeland Security office that it rolls up to will likely take the brunt of the backlash for this failure not only to plan but to act, there are I'm sure many people there also who were working to get stuff done.
The irony is not lost on me (or many of you I'm sure) that under a Republican president, who ran on a let's simplify things platform, it was red tape that prevented people from getting assistance they need. That places like the convention center and Superdome in New Orleans that had been intended as temporary shelter (to say nothing of hospitals and nursing homes that were only partially evacuated), became - as electricity and sewage systems in New Orleans failed - a new torture all its own.
So, here's the thing. I have watched as the news media tired of counting destruction (although that will change as body counts become available I am sure) and turned to trying to get someone to admit there had been breakdowns. Trying to get someone in power to say that we didn't do all we should have. Because if this administration has tried to make us feel safer, this tragedy has shown us we can't handle something we knew was on its way. We have no plan for getting you out of an area that is unsafe.
But the thing that had my jaw dropping in utter shock (to be followed by cursing at the television) was this. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said that they had no idea the hurricane would hit New Orleans. That he and his organization had no idea the levees would break. And that they had no idea that there were people stranded in the convention center.
You have got to be kidding! I knew this as a viewer at home! So - here's my suggestion. Since clearly the FEMA and DHS folks can't get wherever they need to be to get this kind of information - I think FEMA needs to embed some folks with news organizations. A sort of reverse embedding if you will. That way, the FEMA person embedded with CNN can discover that there is a hurricane heading for New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast. The FEMA person embedded with NPR can let someone know that hey, they've been predicting for years that any kind of serious hurricane is going to break the levees in New Orleans - that in fact that's why the Army Corps of Engineers keeps asking for money to reinforce the levees. And the FEMA person embedded with MSNBC can call and say hey - our helicopters spotted several thousand people stranded outside the convention center - we should probably send someone to get them.
And hey - even if we treat these statements seriously (instead of as the ridiculous defensive statements I hope they are because I prefer mismanagement to utter stupidity, it's easier to fix). So - if we take these statements seriously is this not the biggest 'come and get us' message we could possibly ever send to the terrorists out there? Hey - you don't need dirty bombs to get us - just flood a city! Since we won't know it's coming, we'll have no way to plan for it, and since a flooded city is beyond the prediction models we have used to make plans for disasters it will take us weeks to get people out and everyone will be mad at the government! Woo - hoo! And hey - if they're smart, the terrorists will do it in the middle of some sort of event that will gather people in one large location, because that won't make it easier for us to rescue the people. On the contrary, it will take us days to figure out where they are! So - come and get us!
But seriously, it saddens me that the news media appears to have had people in place (just in case) and the government did not. I don't expect perfection from the government. But some basic planning. And hey, the news media had people in places that were less devastated, but they have apparently decided (as I can only assume the government has not) that sending people in case something happens is usually worth it because then you are already there if it does. The media and the government sometimes seem to work from similar principles of marketing tactics. Get people mobilized around an idea, show them how it affects them, and they will come - to the polls or the station. But sadly, the media seems to have made it work better for them. The government that asked for greater vigilance from each of us, has failed to demonstrate that for itself.