Katrina and Security

I had an op ed published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune today.

Toward a Truly Safer Nation
Published September 11, 2005

Leaving aside the political posturing and the finger-pointing, how did our nation mishandle Katrina so badly? After spending tens of billions of dollars on homeland security (hundreds of billions, if you include the war in Iraq) in the four years after 9/11, what did we do wrong? Why were there so many failures at the local, state and federal levels?

These are reasonable questions. Katrina was a natural disaster and not a terrorist attack, but that only matters before the event. Large-scale terrorist attacks and natural disasters differ in cause, but they’re very similar in aftermath. And one can easily imagine a Katrina-like aftermath to a terrorist attack, especially one involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

Improving our disaster response was discussed in the months after 9/11. We were going to give money to local governments to fund first responders. We established the Department of Homeland Security to streamline the chains of command and facilitate efficient and effective response.

The problem is that we all got caught up in “movie-plot threats,” specific attack scenarios that capture the imagination and then the dollars. Whether it’s terrorists with box cutters or bombs in their shoes, we fear what we can imagine. We’re searching backpacks in the subways of New York, because this year’s movie plot is based on a terrorist bombing in the London subways.

Funding security based on movie plots looks good on television, and gets people reelected. But there are millions of possible scenarios, and we’re going to guess wrong. The billions spent defending airlines are wasted if the terrorists bomb crowded shopping malls instead.

Our nation needs to spend its homeland security dollars on two things: intelligence-gathering and emergency response. These two things will help us regardless of what the terrorists are plotting, and the second helps both against terrorist attacks and national disasters.

Katrina demonstrated that we haven’t invested enough in emergency response. New Orleans police officers couldn’t talk with each other after power outages shut down their primary communications system—and there was no backup. The Department of Homeland Security, which was established in order to centralize federal response in a situation like this, couldn’t figure out who was in charge or what to do, and actively obstructed aid by others. FEMA did no better, and thousands died while turf battles were being fought.

Our government’s ineptitude in the aftermath of Katrina demonstrates how little we’re getting for all our security spending. It’s unconscionable that we’re wasting our money fingerprinting foreigners, profiling airline passengers, and invading foreign countries while emergency response at home goes underfunded.

Money spent on emergency response makes us safer, regardless of what the next disaster is, whether terrorist-made or natural.

This includes good communications on the ground, good coordination up the command chain, and resources—people and supplies—that can be quickly deployed wherever they’re needed.

Similarly, money spent on intelligence-gathering makes us safer, regardless of what the next disaster is. Against terrorism, that includes the NSA and the CIA. Against natural disasters, that includes the National Weather Service and the National Earthquake Information Center.

Katrina deftly illustrated homeland security’s biggest challenge: guessing correctly. The solution is to fund security that doesn’t rely on guessing. Defending against movie plots doesn’t make us appreciably safer. Emergency response does. It lessens the damage and suffering caused by disasters, whether man-made, like 9/11, or nature-made, like Katrina.

Posted on September 11, 2005 at 8:00 AM74 Comments


Porter September 11, 2005 8:10 AM

One of the biggest challenges in emergency response is the coordination between the local/state and the federal government. That is still one of the biggest hurdles with handleing the aftermath of Katrina.

The Feds have got to be able to coordinate with 50 states, each of which have different policies and procedures, as well as the countless number of localities with their own policies and procedures.

In my opinion, the only way to do this is to have proper planning and to practice practice practice.

john david stutt September 11, 2005 8:48 AM

Excellent post. Clearly your approaches make perfect sense, but are entirely unsexy and invisible to the public. Thus they have little chance of being implemented, even after an event like Katrina.

Davi Ottenheimer September 11, 2005 8:48 AM

Good to see papers picking up your story.

I did a bit of rambling on this topic back here, where I tried to suggest that simple risk assessments, including finding cost-effective security measures, are largely irrelevant to the current President’s agenda:

The Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Paul Berg said it far better than I, as quoted here:


“If left unchallenged, the Bush administration’s deliberate misrepresentation and frequent outright disregard of science advisory processes will have serious consequences for the nation’s economy, health and security.”

mml September 11, 2005 11:14 AM

Perhaps they should take a hint from the software world to integrate the fema layer with the heterogeneous state layer: define a strict interface.

public Help Fema.helpImmediate(money, people, material)

Seriously though, I don’t think it’s just fema, all layers of the us government are JAMMED with incompetents from dogcatcher on up.

roenigk September 11, 2005 11:49 AM

Some good points, but…

Intellegence is of little value unless it is acted upon. Perhaps “invading foreign countries” is also a security necessity?

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in Louisiana over the last two decades on items now under the “homeland security” umbrella. For whatever reason, (incompetence, corruption, turf-wars) it bought little.

I’m sure every state government would love for the Federal Taxpayer to send them boatloads of money. But where is the accountability?

When local officials are incompetent, should we expect the federal government to roll over them in times of crisis?

Stuart Berman September 11, 2005 12:55 PM

Focusing on intelligence gathering/analysis and emergency response is a reasonable role for the government.

But as to “Katrina demonstrated that we haven’t invested enough in emergency response”, this is not indicated by the evidence (and is premature at this point) if I interpret ‘invest enough’ as ‘funding’.

More funding would not necessarily have ensured that the reasonable emergency response plans (that were ignored by local officials in New Orleans) would have been executed.

More funding would not necessarily have ensured that the some of first responders (certain police officers who were seen looting) would not abandon their duties.

More funding would not necessarily have ensured that the state and local governments (such as the case you allude to with the State /not federal/ of Louisiana department of homeland security preventing the Red Cross from distributing aid to the Superdome and Convention center) would have cooperated.

More funding would not necessarily have ensured that the recent levee upgrades(including the catastrophic failure of one in New Orleans) would have been adequate.

More funding would not necessarily have ensured that the appointees to government positions (think head of FEMA) would have been competent.

“Money spent on emergency response makes us safer…” is simply not true when dealing with corruption and irresponsible or irrelevant behavior.

A far better message would be to illustrate how deadly serious these responsibilities are. Partisan analysis should not be tolerated regardless of what ‘side’ people are on – people will die as a result of this. A thorough non-partisan evaluation of the events of Katrina could lead to some real shame for some people and real honor for others leading to a wake up call to others who are responsible for any future events. Had more people taken personal responsibility for their actions, without a single dime more in funding, fewer people would have suffered and lawlessness would not have been so rampant.

Richard Schwartz September 11, 2005 1:21 PM

I think you’re too kind when you say “And one can easily imagine a Katrina-like aftermath to a terrorist attack, especially one involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.”

One didn’t have to imagine a nuclear, biological or chemical attack at all. One only had to imagine a half dozen or so car bombs driven into the New Orleans levees. That wouldn’t have approached the regional disaster scope of Katrina, but 80% of the citizens wouldn’t have been evacuated ahead of time either, so the situation in New Orleans would have been far worse. That’s exactly the type of attack that should have been imagined.

Davi Ottenheimer September 11, 2005 2:24 PM

@ roenigk

“should we expect the federal government to roll over [local government] in times of crisis?”

Good question. But a better question is not only when, but who should benefit from the federal government “rolling over” state rights?

First let’s set aside the fact that the state and local authorities were demanding federal intervention, but the feds failed to respond. That would make this far less interesting because you would just be wrong about the events.

Instead, if we consider your question on its own merits, history shows that the current President ran a campaign that said he was a strong advocate and ally of state rights until…yes, you probably guessed it, the dispute over ballot counts in Florida. All of a sudden Gore was the only one left saying that Florida state supreme court should have the final say, while Bush said federal decisions trump state decision in times of crises.

An even bigger blow to state rights was the Patriot act, which specifically gave federal law enforcement a giant leap in authority to supercede states where necessary in times of crises.

And then we could look at Bush’s “No Child Left Behind??? education act that bluntly inserts federal testing requirements and progress reports into areas traditionally under state and local control.

And (should I continue?) there was the pro-corporate gesture by the current administration in 2003 to prevent class-action lawsuits from being heard in state courts and instead hold them at the federal level where damage awards to plaintiffs are historically less generous. Federal ceilings were also set on what state juries can award in medical malpractice cases. Both of these were clearly preemptive measures to ensure federal superiority in any areas of future crises (that might threaten corporations).

So, the simple answer is yes, the current President and his administration have a clear track record of thinking it best to “roll over” state rights whenever they find it necessary to advance their own agenda.

Now, back to the situation at hand. State and local administrators were not only demanding assistance, they probably should have expected to be practically flattened by theh response.

I’m not saying there were not failures at the state or local level, just that you should really be asking yourself why this particular crisis was not sufficient for the feds to pull out their usual playbook? Why did attending to the Gulf states not fit the agenda? Was it right for the President to continue on vacation as we watched Katrina crash into America, compared to the fact that he quit his earlier vacation and rushed to keep Terry Shiavo alive?


“The bill passed the House on March 21 at 12:41 a.m. EST. President Bush flew to Washington from his vacation in Texas in order to sign the bill into law at 1:11 a.m. EST.”

Now that’s a fast response to a crisis. You would have thought he could have done the same for the entire Gulf-coast population.

h00piter September 11, 2005 3:00 PM

@ davi:

Louisiana did not demand federal intervention, quite the opposite.


“Behind the scenes, a power struggle emerged, as federal officials tried to wrest authority from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). Shortly before midnight Friday, the Bush administration sent her a proposed legal memorandum asking her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans, a source within the state’s emergency operations center said Saturday.

The administration sought unified control over all local police and state National Guard units reporting to the governor. Louisiana officials rejected the request after talks throughout the night, concerned that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law.”

Justin September 11, 2005 4:21 PM


“But as to “Katrina demonstrated that we haven’t invested enough in emergency response”, this is not indicated by the evidence (and is premature at this point) if I interpret ‘invest enough’ as ‘funding’.”

You are indeed wrong for interpreting investing to equal funding. Difficult problems are not solved purely by throwing money at them. Investing in a strategy requires much more than funding: eg. political support/buy-in, awareness, training, and planning.

Stuart Berman September 11, 2005 5:25 PM


My point – if Bruce meant things like holding officials accountable, rethinking existing strategies that are failing (perhaps levee building?), and reasoable economic analysis then fine – but his post seems to be centered on money without putting real emphasis on process.

Joe September 11, 2005 5:37 PM

“Money spent on emergency response makes us safer, regardless of what the next disaster is, whether terrorist-made or natural.”

Except that if those local authorities take the money and use it for their own corrupt purposes, you’re no better off, but have a lot less money in the bank. Southern Louisiana is known for taking the meaning of corruption to a whole new level. One of the reasons the powers-that-be in S-LA resisted federal takeover is they fear their corruption will be revealed.

Thanks for an excellent article, Bruce. Political problems are really tough to deal with. People in power will often say and do anything to stay there.

peachpuff September 11, 2005 7:49 PM


When did a demand for control become a form of assistance?

Bush is happy to play the “blame game.” He’s scared to death of the alternative: comparing his actions to the situation he acted in and asking whether he did his job. So long as we start with a failure and look for the source, he can always call out his attack dogs to shift blame.

That’s also why Bush loves the movie-plot approach. If every calamity lives in its own movie, each is the fault of whoever is in charge of that particular department, bridge, state, airport, etc.

We’ve been anticipating an unspecified disaster for four years now. In those four years, the President has been cutting emergency relief to the bone. Now that disaster has struck, we’re talking about who controlled the handful of people who were available to help in time.

Keep barking; it’s working.

Luke Burton September 11, 2005 7:56 PM

“The billions spent defending airlines are wasted if the terrorists bomb crowded shopping malls instead.”

They aren’t wasted in true sense of the word. They would be wasted (as in, 100% wasted) if the government spent them on non-security related initiatives, like re-election campagins or rennovating the white house.

The very least you can say is that the increased airline security has changed what terrorists regard as the ‘low hanging fruit’. We are unlikely to see another Sept 11 plane hijacking; it would be harder to pull off this time.

Better, as you say, to bomb a shopping mall. But I don’t think the billions spent on airlines bought us absolutely no improvement. It was probably only 90-95% wasted 🙂

I completely agree that chasing yesterday’s security threat or concocting Hollywood style threats from the future is not the best use of the money, if your aim is to make the people safer. If your aim is to become re-elected, then it seems to be quite effective.

Stuart Berman September 11, 2005 8:28 PM

Notice how Schneier never mentions George Bush – yet some people just feel compelled to attribute any failure to him. How hard is it to realize that we are facing systemic problems that go much further back than George Bush?

“Movie-plot threats’ appeal to politicans (and the public) in general – changing that will not be a function of putting someone with a (D) next to his/her name in charge. Shall we look at the problem or chase after scapegoats?

Davi Ottenheimer September 11, 2005 8:33 PM

@ h00piter

“Louisiana did not demand federal intervention, quite the opposite.”

That might be a quick interpretation of the article, but the situation demands better scrutiny.

First of all the article you cite does not say anything about the request, just that an offer was refused.

Second, because of the first issue I arrived at a less certain conclusion whe I quoted from a (local) version of the story on Sept 6th:


And here’s the story:

The answer we are actually looking for is here:


“Blanco administration officials said the governor spoke twice to Bush – once Sunday morning, in the hours before Katrina made landfall, and again Wednesday morning after the storm. In both telephone conversations, according to Blanco and her senior aides, the governor asked Bush for increased federal help.”

Now, I think we should still try to find out why the Governor of Louisiana refused to be held under a form of federal martial law (in the form of dual-control), after she had requested federal assistance.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like a classic Republican assertion of a state’s soveriegn rights, so it’s hard to just write it off as “those crazy liberals”. Consider the fact that Bush, while Governor of Texas, would have never have agreed to federal control of his state.

In the article you cite the New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas says quite plainly “the city was surprised by the number of refugees left behind, but he said FEMA should have been prepared to assist. ‘Everybody shares the blame here,’ said Thomas. ‘But when you talk about the mightiest government in the world, that’s a ludicrous and lame excuse. You’re FEMA, and you’re the big dog. And you weren’t prepared either.'”

So, to make a finer point of it, I suggest you read through the entire article I cited on the 6th, as it suggests that none of the military authorities themselves said they needed or stood by the Bush administration’s stipulation for assistance:

“[Natl Guard Major General] Landreneau called the military command ‘very integrated’ and said there was no advantage to putting all troops under his control. Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of active-duty forces in North America, agreed. ‘From our perspective,’ he said Monday, ‘it would not have provided an advantage over the current situation.'”

Quite the opposite, the article actually explains that there has been a recent precedent in America for a state to lead efforts but not hand over authority (dual-control vs. parallel command) to the feds:

“The parallel command structure in Louisiana isn’t without precedent. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, federal troops dispatched to Florida to help in the relief and recovery effort were kept under federal control. The governor, meanwhile, retained authority over the National Guard forces.”

This makes perfect sense to me when I think about how much local knowledge is necessary to manage efficient response and handle local law enforcement duties. Again from the article I cited:

“When it comes to domestic security, state forces generally take the lead. At a G-8 summit last year in Georgia, state authorities were given control over federal forces, according to John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard. ‘The reason is that Guard commanders generally have a better working relationship with local authorities,’ Goheen said. ‘Guard forces can also perform law enforcement functions. That mission was seen as a harbinger of the future.'”

At the end of the day this begs a simple question why the President and Governor were unable to work together and why a reason for Bush’s federal martial law requirement still has not surfaced.

cypherp|_|nk September 11, 2005 8:38 PM

“How hard is it to realize that we are facing systemic problems that go much further back than George Bush?”

Ideologues, such as left wingers, are too passionate and irrational to talk about historical analysis.

It doesn’t help that every tech/security community on the net seems to have caught the irrational left-wing “I hate bush and my parents” rebellious meme.

Davi Ottenheimer September 11, 2005 8:48 PM

“some people just feel compelled to attribute any failure to him”

Um, “any” failure? You take a partisan stand when you defend a leader without reason and in the face of so many non-partisan reasons to ask why his administration has failed America.

Again , we’re not talking about just any failure here my friend, but a catastrophe that some are saying is as bad as two wars. Who exactly do you think has been pumping Homeland Security and arguing that he is the right man for the job? Who would you prefer be held accountable, George Washington?

Davi Ottenheimer September 11, 2005 9:12 PM

@ cypherpunk

“Ideologues, such as left wingers, are too passionate and irrational to talk about historical analysis.”

Mmm, sad and ironic post. An ideological ad hominem, to start, and then you leave things woefully short on analysis yet long in passion, kinda like you mistake a giant straw-man fallacy for something else. Again, if I had a dollar…

“every tech/security community on the net seems to have caught the irrational left-wing”

So, what are you saying, the “left-wing” is just a term used to represent anyone you disagree with? This reminds me of one of Ambrose Bierce’s definitions:

“TRIAL, n.
A formal inquiry designed to prove and put upon record the blameless characters of judges, advocates and jurors. In order to effect this purpose it is necessary to supply a contrast in the person of one who is called the defendant, the prisoner, or the accused. If the contrast is made sufficiently clear this person is made to undergo such an affliction as will give the virtuous gentlemen a comfortable sense of their immunity, added to that of their worth.”

And then there’s that nasty problem of the facts you might have to deal with, like commentary by some well-reknowned conservatives about how poorly events were handled at the federal level. Do you dismiss them as well? Are they now all just a bunch of loony left-wingers to you, taken in by the enemy, their names scribbled feverishly into your book of sinners?

Take for example Retired Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters, a conservative and Bush supporter, who said on Scarborough Country:


“I’ve been a supporter of President Bush, but I just got to come back to the fact that this is a failure of leadership and I’ll tell you I’m personally angry….and I don’t want a president who is taking six week vacations anywhere when Americans are dying..whether they are dying in Iraq or LA.”

So tell me, is that an “irrational left-wing” thing to say?

Davi Ottenheimer September 11, 2005 9:44 PM

@ h00piter

Here’s what I was talking about with regard to Bush’s past philosophy on states’ rights (while he was still Governor). This statement is from January 2001, just after he won the election:


“While I believe there’s a role for the federal government, it’s not to impose its will on states and local communities,” Bush said. “It’s to empower states and people and local communities to be able to realize the vast potential of this country.”

Nick September 11, 2005 10:08 PM


First, I’d think ‘smart investing’ is implied in Bruce’s comments, since he’s often pointing out the shortcomings of cryptographic and security products/procedures.

However, you raise a valid point about accountability, which isn’t just a systemic issue of the government, but a failure of the populace to demand accountability and consequences of their elected representatives, above and beyond ‘Well, I’ll vote you out next time.’

The fact that examples of such failures can be found in other Administrations does not excuse the Bush Administration or lessen the magnitude of their errors.

Yes, we have to focus on the important questions – assessing our nation’s emergency response capability. But, as a result, those responsible for overseeing those capabilities will be put under scrutiny, and must accept responsibility for failures of management, planning, and execution.

I’d much rather our elected representatives and appointed officials step up to the plate and do so, instead of sounding like a bunch of kids fibbing about who broke mom’s favorite vase.


DancePuppet September 11, 2005 10:09 PM

Poor davi he can’t stand the heat so goes into a heated slippery slope argument and continues to blame one man (Bush) in three, count ’em, three posts. Who is irrational now?

Heh you political idealogues are all the same left or right.

Davi Ottenheimer September 11, 2005 10:15 PM

@ DancePuppet

Eh, what’s the slippery slope? If I continue to blame one person, that doesn’t imply any movement at all — the opposite of a slope.

But I agree I’ve probably gone too far with one person here. I’ve said accountability goes around before, but here I’m responding to those who say it doesn’t or shouldn’t stick to the nation’s leader. You can tell me I shouldn’t hold the chief executive accountable, but I’ll still need a reason why…it’s kinda like SOX.

Davi Ottenheimer September 11, 2005 10:38 PM

“a failure of the populace to demand accountability and consequences of their elected representatives”

I think this is absolutely right.

We would be wise to review when bad judgment and corruption continuously filter through the White House. For example, although I don’t think people use the term “Grantism” any more, it used to refer to scandal and cronyism. Grant’s first term was so filled with problems, culminating with the Black Friday scandal (crash of the artificially inflated gold market), it was not hard to predict there would be ongoing scandals after re-elction, such as the Whiskey Ring scandal and Indian Ring scandal.

Alas, perhaps America can declare yet another systematic failure, and decry the evils of the “spoils system” of government. But if President Garfield’s assasination by a rejected office-seeker was not sufficient to fix the system, do you really think Katrina will be any more likely to lead to effective reform and protection from another predictible disaster of this magnitude?

MathFox September 12, 2005 5:22 AM

Many others allready said this, but I’ll repeat them: The local people are very important assets for disaster response; the locals have best knowledge of the area and they are the “first on the scene”. In smaller emergencies the locals (police, fire department, ambulances) can fix the problems on their own. Even in a major disaster you will have the local emergency responders on site and it’s best to work with that, instead of against that.

It is unfair to blame Bush directly for the New Orleans’s bad emergency planning or bad execution of otherwise good plans, the jury is still out on this. Anyway, the New Orleans city officials should take the blame for bad execution of the evacuation plans.
FEMA did some things right, like mobilising resources near the area of the disaster. I don’t understand why it took days before these resources were brought into action… In disaster relief delay means loss of lives and there has been too much (unexplained!) delay between the requests of the local coordinators and deployment of federal assistence. Here we can point to FEMA management and the ones who promoted the incompetent to their positions.

BTW, why did the “emergency communication system” fail and who is responsible for that?

voorhees September 12, 2005 6:51 AM

While we can all agree that the situation in New Orleans in the first few days after Katrina struck was horrible and that all agencies involved– state, local, and federal–need to reexamine how they react to disaster, we should also ask whether FEMA, in particular, performed as it intended.

Two people who have been intimately involved with disaster–one by working with FEMA, the other as a victim, have indicated that FEMA has not been set up to be one of the early responders. Rather, state and local authorities step in first, then allow FEMA to do its work after things have settled down. You can find some details on my blog at radcenter.blogspot.com.

Some changes are clearly necessary in the wake of Katrina. But how willing are we, really, to pay the costs–in time, money, and effort–to ensure that FEMA and its brethren prevent a reoccurence what what we have seen in New Orleans?

NoticeBored September 12, 2005 7:13 AM

It seems to me the essence of true contingency planning is to prepare for future situations where we have little or no idea what will actually happen, where it will happen or how it will happen, in other words coping with the surprise element typical of terrorist or foreign adversary attacks and many chaotic natural disasters [although Katrina was tracked and predicted, it went off course, changed intensity and had largely unpredictable effects on individual homes and businesses]. We should be ready to pick ourselves up, assess the situation and start managing our way out of it, whatever has actually happened. If we are only planning for predicted or potential scenarios, we’re neglecting the element of surprise.

Clive Robinson September 12, 2005 10:16 AM


“Our nation needs to spend its homeland security dollars on two things: intelligence-gathering and emergency response. These two things will help us regardless of what the terrorists are plotting, and the second helps both against terrorist attacks and national disasters.”

I have to slightly disagree with you, Intelligence-gathering helps not just with anti-terror but with natural disasters as well.

I feel the frowns on peoples foreheads, so I shall explain,

Intelligence gathering is a deffensive and offencive practice ie “Know your strengths and weeknesses” as well as those of your advisary.

If the time is spent adiquatly assessing “home targets” that might be attacked, then you would also gather the information for a natural disaster.

For instance you assume that a dam is going to be attacked with explosives, you then equate the scale of damage / type quantity of explosive. Having assesed the damage, you then work out the consiquences of the spill / run off down stream. It is the same logic and process for that of an earthquake / volcanic activity / etc, you save a lot of time and effort if you do both at the same time.

Also the assesment for one type of attack (terorist) often reveals weeknesses that might be vulnerable for another (more naturl) type of attack, and vis-versa.

Ed T. September 12, 2005 10:32 AM

Well, as one who has WORKED in emergency response communications in the past, I think it is utterly pathetic that there was only one system available (no backup), and that when it went down the various agencies couldn’t talk to each other. And, we don’t need to pour mega$$$ at this problem — there is a group of volunteers called “ham radio operators” who provide their own (in many cases) equipment, and who are (in many cases) trained to help maintain communications. For some reason, it seems no one thought to keep some of the local hams in the N.O. area around to assist, though last I heard some of their relay stations (both digital and analog) were still operable.

Unfortunately, local communities have equated hams with “CBers”, and have worked to get their hobby banned (or so severely restricted that it might as well be.)

I would dare say that we have a lot of room for improvement.

JD September 12, 2005 10:34 AM

Sorry to see Bruce joining those who misrepresent the Katrina disaster in order to make unrelated political points, however valid some of them might otherwise be.

Yes, the federal response left something to be desired, but to focus primarily on it is highly misleading. The fact remains that emergency preparedness and first response are necessarily responsibilities of the state and local levels. The unnecessary human disaster and suffering in New Orleans were obviously due to gross negligence by city and state leadership, beginning with their failure to carry out a timely and proper evacuation the moment an oncoming category 5 storm was detected. If you doubt that, go back and ponder the pictures of hundreds of city-owned buses drowned in their storage lots.

Zach September 12, 2005 11:28 AM

@ JD

To think that a state could put in place a plan to evacuate a quarter of its population its entire poplulation for an extended period of time is ridiculous.

To think that a city could do the same for its entire population beggars belief.

The surprisingly small death toll from the hurricane itself is a testament to the job the local officials did. To blame them for not having anywhere to send people in the days and weeks after saving them from the hurricane shows a willingness to suspend reality to protect those who should be held accountable.

gandalf September 12, 2005 11:42 AM

Bruce’s article is premature and overblown.

“FEMA did no better, and thousands died while turf battles were being fought.

Our government’s ineptitude in the aftermath of Katrina demonstrates how little we’re getting for all our security spending. It’s unconscionable that we’re wasting our money fingerprinting foreigners, profiling airline passengers, and invading foreign countries while emergency response at home goes underfunded.”

Thousands died while turf battles were fought. Really? Do the math, deaths will be much less, and will mostly have occured during the initial flooding.

How little we’re getting for our security spending. Compared with what, exactly?

Wasting our money fingerprinting and profiling. Uh? Profiling is a perfectly valid security tactic!

Foreign wars. Lefty twaddle.

Emergency response underfunded. Really? IMH(but professional)O, the problem was weak planning and weak management – fixing these requires good management, and more money may well make the problem worse.

mjk September 12, 2005 11:50 AM

How about this idea: no money spent on emergency responce and security at all. If the money we are spending is such a giant waste, wouldnt it be better to let the people have their own money to waste as they please? Then evil bush wouldnt be able to help his evil oil buddies with their evil plots to do evil.

Davi Ottenheimer September 12, 2005 11:54 AM

“Yes, the federal response left something to be desired, but to focus primarily on it is highly misleading.”

Misleading how? Failure to focus on it I feel would be worse, since the continuous trend since the DHS was formed has been to usurp state rights and federalize emergency response.

I don’t disagree that local and state plans were a disaster, but that’s clearly related to the fact that a Cat 5 Hurricane was overwhelming at least three Gulf Coast states.

Emergency communications systems were down because they relied on a central control point, and thus a single point of failure (no redundancy) at Ed. T suggests above and Daniel Feldman wrote on September 6th:


“initial hurricane responders fell prey to the same problem that impeded 9/11 rescue efforts: failure of their digital communication systems. […] Trunked radios make extremely efficient use of scarce radio spectrum, but when the repeaters fail (as in New York) or the central station is flooded (as in New Orleans), these critical first responders lose all communication.”

Ok, problem identified. Maybe someone will stop the slide towards banning individual radio broadcast freedoms, but what was the reason for poor FEMA response and lack of communication with the Red Cross? How do you explain that failure at the federal level?

Here’s another example, the state of Louisiana’s disaster/contingency plans apparently included reliance on the ability of neighbor states to respond. Ooops. Apparently noone at the state level thought about what to do when several states were overwhelmed at the same time and unable to assist each other. That seems easy to understand and work to fix as well, but what was the reason for FEMA being overwhelmed and unable to assist?

Again, you really need to read the speeches from FEMA directors Brown and Allbaugh about the lessons from past hurricanes and the need for federally-led response. If you think this should be discussed outside the spectrum of politics, then you really do not understand the problem.

And if you are so loyal and partisan that you will refuse to discuss how to create accountability in the system today, then I suggest you take a big step back from you undying support for the current President and read up on Warren Harding’s administration. Harding is a good lesson in what happens when a President thinks it’s best to delegate positions of authority based on political favor (the spoils system). His cabinet was able to fleece the country for a while, but several of them eventually ended up in jail, heavily fined, or committing suicide. Harding was apparently a likeable enough guy, but that doesn’t automatically excuse him from cronyism and losing control of the situation to the detriment of his country. Would you stand by Harding?

Glauber Ribeiro September 12, 2005 11:55 AM

Mathfox: BTW, why did the “emergency communication system” fail and who is responsible for that?

I’ve heard it failed because it didn’t have enough redundance. The plans were counting on having landline phones or cellphones, but that wasn’t a true redundancy, since when the hurricane hit, both were taken down, together with the electrical power. The only thing left were batttery-powered radios, and those failed when the batteries discharged, since there was no electricity available to recharge them. Most of the LA National Guard’s equipment, including generators, was in Iraq. In order to ensure redundant communications, there should have been more thought about backup electric power (generators), and satellite phones.

Destroyed for exploitation September 12, 2005 12:32 PM

Program on the emergence of civilization.

“14 species of large animals capable of domesitcation in the history of mankind.
13 from Europe, Asia and northern Africa.
None from the sub-Saharan African continent. ”
And disfavor.

They point out Africans’ failed attempts to domesticate the elephant and zebra, the latter being an animal they illustrate that had utmost importance for it’s applicability in transformation from a hunting/gathering to agrarian-based civilization.

The roots of racism are not of this earth.

Austrailia, aboriginals:::No domesticable animals.

The North American continent had none. Now 99% of that population is gone.

AIDS in Africa.

Organizational Heirarchy
Heirarchical order, from top to bottom:

  1. MUCK – perhaps have experienced multiple universal contractions (have seen multiple big bangs), creator of the artificial intelligence humans ignorantly refer to as “god”
  2. Perhaps some mid-level alien management
  3. Mafia (evil) aliens – runs day-to-day operations here and perhaps elsewhere (On planets where they approved evil.)

Terrestrial management:

  1. Chinese/egyptians – this may be separated into the eastern and western worlds
  2. Romans – they answer to the egyptians
  3. Mafia – the real-world interface that constantly turns over generationally so as to reinforce the widely-held notion of mortality
  4. Jews, corporation, women, politician – Evidence exisits to suggest mafia management over all these groups.

Survival of the favored.

Movies foreshadowing catastrophy
1985 James Bond View to a Kill 1989 San Fransisco Loma Prieta earthquake.

Pat Cahalan September 12, 2005 12:46 PM

It should be obvious to anyone and everyone that the response to this disaster was lacking. When playing the blame game, you can choose to blame individuals, you can choose to blame organizations, and you can choose to blame government authorities at any and every level. These are all, IMO, worthy targets – there is plenty of blame to go around. I’m an equal-opportunity blamethrower, I blame ’em all. But that’s only in terms of assessing their responsibilities in this event, not in trying to measure the degree of fault of each party.

You cannot choose to defend the actions of any of those groups unilaterally. You cannot say, “It’s not the governor’s fault, Bush demanded too much control,” or “It’s not Bush’s fault, the governor didn’t sign the paper,” – at least, you can’t say it if you want me to take you seriously. People are dying by the thousands, more than 9/11 and all of the military fatalities of the Iraq war put together, and you’re saying, “I can’t help because of procedure?”

I posted a bit on “fault” vs “responsibility” on the earlier Katrina thread:


How it applies here works something like this:

When measuring the efficacy of government, I measure how well it lives up to its responsibility, not how well it avoids fault. When a disaster of this proportion occurs, I expect my representative government to live up to its responsibility of promoting the common good.

For a disaster like this, that has national implications and requires a national response, that means I expect my national leaders to respond effectively.

If FEMA is doing a bad job, or the DHS is going a bad job, the President is doing a bad job. A good President is supposed to lead, and that means if FEMA is screwing up, or a governor is screwing up, or the Red Cross is screwing up he’s ON THE PHONE fixing the problem. That’s why we put the man in charge, people, so that he can cut through red tape and make things happen.

When I hear a President say something like, “I’m satisfied with our response, I’m not satisfied with the results,” I admit I’m utterly flabbergasted.

If you aren’t satisfied with the results, how can you be satisfied with the response? Doesn’t dissatisfaction with results pretty much show that somebody is being ineffective? Isn’t it the responsibility of the President to cut through ineffective people and get stuff done?

Davi Ottenheimer September 12, 2005 1:04 PM

“Where is the evidence that ‘thousands died’?”

Fair enough. The real numbers will come to light in several months time, so it’s better to say “thousands feared dead” today until future facts are established. But everyone seems to admit over 400 are confirmed right now and many more are expected, so it’s not exactly a hyperbole if you believe rough estimates coming from the local emergency crews.

tc September 12, 2005 1:09 PM

Good article. I couldn’t agree more. I think any reasonable person considering contingency planning should have addressed New Orleans attack scenarios. It is a major hub for commerce (Oil flowing in and grain flowing out). Crippling this hub, cripples the Nation. The fact that the levees and pumping capability was not addressed adequately leading up to the hurricane demonstrates how poor risk analysis has been. You are correct that the movie-plot of the month appears to get all the funding. I think it is upon all of us to demand sound scientific risk assessment be performed with proper contingency planning and redundancy. For example, why does so much oil flow through New Orleans? Katrina has demonstrated to the terrorist where we are most vulnerable.

tc September 12, 2005 1:09 PM

Good article. I couldn’t agree more. I think any reasonable person considering contingency planning should have addressed New Orleans attack scenarios. It is a major hub for commerce (Oil flowing in and graing flowing out). Crippling this hub, cripples the Nation. The fact that the levees and pumping capability was not addressed adequately leading up to the hurricane demonstrates how poor risk analysis has been. You are correct that the movie-plot of the month appears to get all the funding. I think it is upon all of us to demand sound scientific risk assessment be performed with proper contingency planning and redundancy. For example, why does so much oil flow through New Orleans? Katrina has demonstrated to the terrorist where we are most vulnerable.

lm September 12, 2005 3:55 PM

@tc: Katrina has demonstrated to the terrorists what they already knew. Oil is still the lifeblood of the US, and almost all other countries in this world. Cut off oil supplies, and economies start doing wierd things. (Buy more coffee)

JD September 12, 2005 4:33 PM

@linnen: “And the reason for FEMA (not to mention Homeland Security) is …?” The role of the federal gov’t in a disaster is to back up the states when their resources are overwhelmed. The feds have neither authority nor capability to horn in and do the locals’ job for them.

@Zach: “To think that a city could […evacuate…] its entire population beggars belief.” Try testing your beggared belief against the fact that something like 80-90% of New Orleans residents got out despite the bungled evacuation management by city leadership. There was ample time and ample resources to transport the remaining folks who needed help to get away.

Marcus Ranum September 12, 2005 7:08 PM

Another part of the problem, that has become clear through the fingerpointing, is that there’s no incentive for elected officials to actually engage in long-term projects that improve preparedness or safety. After all, if they spend $100million to fix levees and the hurricane comes when some other guy’s in office, they’re still out of office. Or, worse, what if the hurricane comes when the other PARTY is in office.

So I think what we’re seeing is the realization that natural disasters and terrorism can only hurt you, politically, BEFORE they happen. However, if you appear to RESPOND well, you’ll get great mileage. In fact, politicians may eventually realize that they’re better off not trying to prevent disasters/terrorism at all – they should practice looking presidential, have prepared speeches (“Bob, go dust off our ‘tornado hit a trailer park speech!’ you know the one where I talk about growing up within 20 miles of a trailer park?”)

A morally bankrupt president would have a special standby “emergency response” system – and be onsite at a disaster in under 1 hour, putting band-aids on childrens’ heads, handing out MREs, patting crying mothers on the head, and shedding the occasional glycerine squeeze-bottle-fed tear. And his poll results would skyrocket and his spin doctors could blame all the negative (“but he slashed our 1997 budget!”) complaints as politically motivated counter-spin.


Davi Ottenheimer September 12, 2005 7:37 PM

@ JD

“The feds have neither authority nor capability to horn in and do the locals’ job for them.”

Hmmm, that argument again. Let’s see, historically that line of reasoning was the case but “horn in” would be an appropriate description of what the White House Administration has done to States’ rights for the past three years (see my post above, such as the one on September 11, 2005 02:24 PM). Why should this situation suddenly be treated differently? Really, I mean it. If you think the feds actually do not have the means or the will to meddle in state affairs for national security purposes (protecting American lives, resources, etc), how do you explain their record of doing exactly that? And on the other hand, if history shows that intervention was provided without the need for federal control in the past, why was dual-control required this time? Was it because the feds were (unintentionally or intentionally) going to set a precedent of federal “horn in” authority over a state and so the Governor of LA was forced to say “whoa Bessie!”

“There was ample time and ample resources to transport the remaining folks who needed help to get away.”

Easy for you to say. Perhaps you could post your “guide to evacuating a major metropolitain area” on the web? How would you have done things differently or, even better, how have you done it before successfully?

Does it involve spending money on intelligence gathering and emergency response?

Nick September 12, 2005 8:03 PM

JD wrote: “If you doubt that, go back and ponder the pictures of hundreds of city-owned buses drowned in their storage lots.”

Fair enough, but how is this the fault of the Mayor or the Governor. Let’s see an evacuation plan, not only for New Orleans, but for any major city, that mandates the bus drivers report for duty.

Let’s see the law that gives the Mayor the authority to do so. “City buses” does not necessarily mean the decisions come from the Mayor’s desk.

Let’s talk about routes to take, and the suitability of buses to the task of proceeding through flooded areas.

We’re talking BUSES, not MiniCoopers. Driving a bus requires a higher grade driver’s license; pointing to buses sitting in an empty lot is wishful thinking, but not a practical solution.

Stuart Berman September 12, 2005 11:44 PM

An excellent piece on Monday’s Wall Street Journal (“At Wal-Mart, Emergency Plan Has Big Payoff” Page B1) about how well prepared Wal-Mart was for the emergency – but then again they should be – if anyone has supply chain logistics down pat it is Wal-Mart.

It leaves me wondering whether the US Gov’t stands a chance at trying to replicate this kind of efficiency – chances are not – history just shows how poor large bureaucracies are at efficiency. We do see incredible flexibility and motivation on the part of humanitarian organizations (such as Red Cross) and many corporations (Wal-Mart) to assist. Perhaps then the government should capitalize on these existing structures and incorporate them into planning and co-ordination. (Outsourcing is not just good for corporations.)

Davi Ottenheimer September 13, 2005 1:14 AM

“It leaves me wondering whether the US Gov’t stands a chance at trying to replicate this kind of efficiency – chances are not”

Perhaps, but some US commercial supply chains have been designed and/or modified by ex-military officers with extensive real-world experience in logistics.

I don’t think Wal-Mart was one of them, but I know of others. And you might not want to underestimate the US military’s supply-chain efforts when you say the US Government is trying to catch up to the commercial sector. RFID was used as far back as 1992 and extensively in late 1992 to support the Somalia operations, whereas commercial use is just getting off the ground and probably benefiting a great deal from ten years of military RF-based supply-chain knowledge.

Nick September 13, 2005 2:10 AM

@ Stuart:

Wal-Mart also happened to be one of the places people broke into and stole guns from. That’s one thing that doesn’t need to be emulated.

Still, it’s a good question. If you’ve ever seen a film shoot, you know that Hollywood transportation brokers arrange for ‘honey wagons’ – mobile catering efforts that feed the crew and stars in style (provided you have the budget). Why isn’t this same know-how applied to our emergency response plans? It seems to me that we have the resources, we have the capability … it’s just that no one has put it together quite this way before.

Bryan September 13, 2005 3:31 AM

I can put it much more succinctly:

Too much emphasis on prevention, not enough on response when prevention fails.

And sooner or later, prevention will always fail. You still have to be ready when it does.

Adam September 13, 2005 5:31 AM


You certainly put it more succinctly, but your brevity removes a large amount of accuracy. A few extra words would have defined the problem (a little) better:

Too much emphasis on prevention (of really unlikely events), not enough on response when prevention fails to account for more likely and predictable events…

This is the problem with looking for 8-second sound bites. They may be tasty, but they’re not intellectually nourishing.

JD September 13, 2005 8:30 AM

@Davi: “If you think the feds actually do not have the means or the will to meddle in state affairs for national security purposes … how do you explain their record of doing exactly that?” I didn’t say they lack the will, but we might agree they lacked the competence and authority.

@Davi: “Perhaps you could post your “guide to evacuating a major metropolitain area” on the web?”

@Nick: “Let’s see an evacuation plan…”

Just do a Google search on “City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan” and you can read the plan the mayor failed to carry out.

Peter September 13, 2005 9:49 AM

“Partisan analysis should not be tolerated …. Had more people taken personal responsibility for their actions…”

That “personal responsibility” slogan is a partisan attack all by itself.

Davi Ottenheimer September 13, 2005 12:01 PM

@ JD

That’s an amusing deflection. Are you suggesting that the existing plan is sufficient on its own? It was not implemented, so how do you know it could have worked?

Here is an interesting insight into why the New Orleans evacuation plans are likely to fail in a Cat4+ hurricane and lead to a massive external recovery effort. It seems to me extremely non-trivial to overcome the issues identified in this report, especially at the local or even state level:


“The major challenge to evacuation is the extremely limited number of evacuation routes, which is the result of the same topography and hydrology responsible for the area’s high level of hurricane risk. The presence of the Mississippi River, several lakes and bays, and associated marshes and swamps necessitates very expensive roadway construction techniques that are generally destructive to the environment, making the addition of more arteries increasingly challenging. This problem of limited evacuation routes also plagues the rest of the delta plain of southeast and south central Louisiana.”

This is greatly compounded by the fact that “For those without means, the medically challenged, residents without personal transportation, and the homeless, evacuation requires significant assistance. The medically challenged often rely on life support equipment and are in such fragile states of health that they can only be moved short distances to medically equipped shelters. While a large storm-resistant structure with appropriate equipment has yet to be constructed or retrofitted, the Superdome was used to shelter nonevacuees during Ivan.

Residents who did not have personal transportation were unable to evacuate even if they wanted to. Approximately 120,000 residents (51,000 housing units x 2.4 persons/unit) do not have cars. A proposal made after the evacuation for Hurricane Georges to use public transit buses to assist in their evacuation out of the city was not implemented for Ivan. If Ivan had struck New Orleans directly it is estimated that 40-60,000 residents of the area would have perished. ”

But you seem to say the plan for New Orleans was just fine and there was “ample time and ample resources to transport the remaining folks”. Can you elaborate as to why/how this plan or your personal plan would work? The article states that many people felt the evacuation ability of the local authorities, even by plan, would be insufficient and “emergency managers and representatives of nongovernmental disaster organizations, local universities, and faith based organizations have formed a working group to engage additional faith-based organizations in developing ride-sharing programs between congregation members with cars and those without.”

Alas, in November 2004 the author concludes “Should this disaster become a reality, it would undoubtedly be one of the greatest disasters, if not the greatest, to hit the United States, with estimated costs exceeding 100 billion dollars. According to the American Red Cross, such an event could be even more devastating than a major earthquake in California. Survivors would have to endure conditions never before experienced in a North American disaster.”

Nagin and Blanco will definitely come under scrutiny for the turn of events, but that is not mutually exclusive from the fact that this is an American disaster, which was exactly how 9/11 was turned into an exercise in national reform.

People are right to suggest that, in America, the primary responsibility for dealing with emergencies used to belong to local and state officials who were charged by law with the management of first response to disasters. But the US just went through three years of hearing that national priorities have changed, and the President was redirecting funds and reforming the security system to make America safer from harm.

Look, you can’t have it both ways. I’m fine with people finding huge fault and fixes in the local and state emergency response system that should have been addressed.

But to Bruce’s initial point, the Bush Administration has been handed the authority to cut back freedoms, encroach on state rights, and spend “hundreds of billions, if you include the war in Iraq”, all in the name of protecting America from disaster. You simply can not blame that level and severity of policy failure on a governor and mayor.

Todd Jonz September 13, 2005 12:21 PM

@ Ed T.

According to the web site of the American Radio Relay Leaugue, the national association of amatuer (ham) radio operators, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) had on the order of 250 hams staged outside of New Orleans and ready to begin operations the day after the levees breached. In situations like these ARES teams are equipped with base stations, hand-held radios, and portable repeaters that can be very rapidly deployed. I volunteered under circumstances like these after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay area in 1989. For the first three or four days, ARES commmunicators in my area (Santa Cruz, which was particularly hard hit) provided the primary communications capabilities for both the Red Cross and the California Department of Forestry.

The problem is that ARES teams don’t just spring into action of their own volition. They are attached to a “served agency”, which must request their assistance before an ARES team is deployed. It would appear that there plenty of were volunteer communicators ready to serve, but that no one asked for their assistance until nearly a week after the onset of the floods.

Yet another example of poor planning, management, and coordination?

Nick September 13, 2005 1:13 PM


Your link is informational, but you continue to assume that the buses were, in fact, serviceable for the purposes of evacuation. If anything, you have only demonstrated that the plan is seriously flawed, rather than incompetence on the part of the Mayor.

When I stated, “Let’s see a plan …” it was to point out the lack of constructive criticism on your part. As it stands, the CNOCEMP only says this about buses:

“Position supervisors and dispatch evacuation buses.”

That’s it. Now, perhaps the RTA has expounded on this in their own operations planning, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

ed September 14, 2005 2:59 AM

I think that the whole story has many different dimensions, but
I will try to restrict myself to some points that seem to be missing
in this discussion.

First of all: I believe that every person
a) exists in some kind of believe system. There is no
such thing as reality – because “reality” comes to existince
inside our brain .. altogether with our knowledge
and the beliefs that are already in there.
b) has some kind of opinion on how political systems
should work; what they should do … support … avoid.

In addition, this whole desaster did great damange;
people that own close to nothing lost even that … or
they got even killed. No human being can think
about the happinings without becoming emotionally.

Thus, there is nothing that can be done about
“partisan blame gaming”.

If you believe that the current federal government consists of honest,
hard working people that work in favour of the american people – then
your reality is that there might be some mistakes on
federal level here or there; but in general everything is alright
(as always I might add).

If you believe, that the current federal government consists of a
bunch of criminals that dont know the word shame … well, then
you are sure that they are to blame.

And this beliefs will influence how you are going to judge
all the facts and information about Katarina.

Therefore it is almost impossible in my eyes to avoid
the “blame game”. Because: for the one side it is just
that, a game to blame someone; whereas for the other
side this whole thing goes down to the heart of this country;
because they think that the US government
abandoned on US citizens.

You cant be neutral on this.

Having said that, I want to concentrate on the following

1) Avoid the illusion of “we can win over nature”

Building a city below sea level is simply a dangerous idea.
No matter what you do; at one point a storm too enormous
will come and flood you. We are PART of nature; but we are
not able to control it forever.

Of course, reducing money for levee building or stopping
to protect the marshlands that protect the coast wont
help to improve the situation. And again, this is a believe
thing … some people think that the next technical breakthru
will solve all problems; i think that this will not work out in the end.

2) Knowledge and information

I am living in Germany; I do not listen to mainstream news
regularly … but still: at the point in time when the US president claimed
that ” “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees” or
at the point in time when Mr. Brown of FEMA was surprised to
hear that there are people in that convention center …
this wasnt news to me. I was reading some articles here
and there before those statements were made
and I knew that the statements were wrong.

My point is this: i am a person living about 8000 km away from
the whole area; I am citizen of another nation … but I know
better about the situation in the US than leading members
of the US federal government.

Mr. Bush is (theoretically) the most powerful person on this planet.
If he asks for some information, the most powerful system on
this planet would be there to gather this information. And he does
not know that there warnings about the levees?

A lesson from this obeservation might be that GATHERING
information isnt enough … those making the decisions should
know about this information, too.


The widespread attitude is that especially FEMA wasnt
able to respond in an appropriate way. There are many
discussions about this topic; but I found only one
article talking about PAST actions of FEMA.
And if you follow the arguments in here
(of course, partisan) it is quite interesting to see, how
fast and powerful FEMA reacted to another
hurricane in 2004.

TAZDBS September 14, 2005 1:16 PM

We are facing Ophelia now in N.C. and our governor has declared a state of emergency and has help for Fema way before Ophelia hit NC shores. The same options were available to Louisina but the Mayor and Governor did not take the appropriate actions. They all knew that if the levee’s broke what would happen and that Katrina could do it. The national hurricane center knew it and so did the university of MS with their computer models.

Why should my tax dollars and yours go to rebuild a city below sea level at the coast within hurricane striking distance only to have it destroyed again and again?

Paul O September 14, 2005 2:32 PM

For those who haven’t done the Google search, here’s the New Orleans Emergency Plan for hurricanes, and the plan for Special Needs Shelters:


Now tell me how spending more money in advance would have helped. Tell me how putting more money into NOAA would have aided the evacuation.

There was a plan. The plan called for the City to evacuate up to 100,000 people from the city using NORTA buses. The plan included various levels of responders, under the control of the Mayor, coordinating the response. The plan recognized the chance for a Cat4 or Cat5 strike, and designated specific shelters, including food and water, and even morgue facilities at each.

Tell me why this was a funding problem. It wasn’t.

Davi Ottenheimer September 14, 2005 4:20 PM

@ Paul O

I don’t know what to tell you other than read the comments above your post that should meet your needs.

In a nutsheel, two keys to the puzzle seem to be environmental issues (development without assessment/remedy to deal with impact from hurricane disaster), which are extremely expensive to remedy, and numerous egress issues based that are also extremely expensive to remedy.

The plan did not get implemented, so you simply can not say with any certainty that it would work if implemented, unless of course you have discovered a crystal ball in your Google searches.

It’s easy to see how a fraction of the “100s of billions” spent on national security over the past three or four years could have easily addressed numerous issues identified in reports like the one I cited above (September 13, 2005 12:01 PM).

And as long as we’re talking about funding, it’s probably worth reiterating the old proverb that prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Davi Ottenheimer September 14, 2005 4:32 PM

“our governor has declared a state of emergency and has help for Fema way before Ophelia hit NC shores. The same options were available to Louisina but the Mayor and Governor did not take the appropriate actions”

That’s not true. The Louisiana Governor called a state of emergency prior to landfall and was in communication with the President.

The real question, if you want to make the comparison, is whether the President will require dual-control (meaning the state will report to federal authorities) in NC.

“Why should my tax dollars and yours go to rebuild a city below sea level at the coast within hurricane striking distance only to have it destroyed again and again?”

Tax dollars should have gone to averting a disaster by helping fortify a major commercial hub of a nation from a predictible event, as you rightfully call out.

A better question is therefore perhaps why 100s of billions of tax dollars have been spent on threat A, which had a low probability based on scientific inquiry and has today turned out to be false, when threat B had an extremely high probability based on scientific inquiry and has turned out to be true.

Incidentally, there have been numerous studies of how/why the Corp of Engineers only built a system for Cat3 and below. They all seem to say the same thing, lack of funds. So if you’re looking for accountability, fair enough, but from a national standpoint, the President said the US was spending federal funds to reduce vulnerabilities in view of the threats to avert a national disaster. That seems like a reasonable plan, unless the President is wrong about the threats, wrong about the vulnerabilities, and perhaps even unable to properly estimate the value of the assets by saying recovery is going well when it is not.

Paul O September 14, 2005 4:58 PM


That’s exactly the problem: the plan did not get implemented. No amount of funding would have changed that. It was a monumental failure of local leadership.

The plan detailed how a complete evacuation of the city was to take place, including the poor who had no personal means of transportation. Yet it simply was not done. It was not a matter of insufficient planning funds. It was not a matter of not having the resources (buses and drivers, and let’s call them Civil Defense authorities) identified.

Could the levees have been strengthened? Sure. But the experts expected a Cat4 to overtop them, not for them to completely collapse. Name a single piece of national infrastrucure that couldn’t stand to be strengthened against a worst-case event. There simply isn’t such a thing. But that doesn’t mean that this disaster was a funding issue.

Regardless, a mandatory evacuation was ordered, and then not carried out by local officials.

How many hundreds of trillions of dollars should be spent to protect cities against 100-year events? 1000-year events? Should we evacuate SanFran and LA now, because a quake is likely and its exact time cannot be predicted? Ban basements in Chicago because some idiot might drop a piling through the wrong location again? Ban basements in Detroit, NYC, and Albequerqe for the same reason?

Or maybe we allow people to take some responsibility. And we execute on the well-prepared plans which we make, and recognize the responsibility of those who fail to do so. And we stop blaming others when we make choices that negatively affect our lives.

We know plenty of things that can go wrong, and do – some on a nearly annual basis (like spring flooding in the midwest). How many trillions of dollars do you propose should be spent to make everyone safe from every possible calamity? Your probability theory / marginal investment arguement needs a lot of work. It has no more basis in fact than Mr. Schneier’s political claim that “thousands died while turf battles” were waged.

No. The disaster in New Orleans was not a funding problem.

Davi Ottenheimer September 15, 2005 2:13 AM

@ Paul O

I checked, and rechecked, and did not find any references in your post.

My guess is that it’s easier that way, since the facts don’t really fit your ideology.

I don’t disagree that mistakes were made on a local level. Perhaps you haven’t worked in disaster recovery efforts but mistakes are part of the business, especially in the face of massive calamity. In fact, it is easy to see the reasons for failure and recognize that mistakes will be fixed by budgeting for prevention and better response the next time.

I’ll tell you why it was a funding problem. There were two solutions identified: better prevention and better evacuation. Neither received sufficient funds.

The Corps of Engineers report states very clearly that they never intended for the levees to survive a Cat4+ disaster, specifically because of federal resistance to the costs:


“determining the level of protection needed versus what Congress and the public are willing to pay for isn’t often easy”

Of course, it didn’t help that the Corp’s budget was trimmed so money could be diverted to other objectives:


2004 Requests:
Army Corp of Engineers – $11 million
Bush – $3 million
Approved by Congress: $5.5 million

2005 Requests:
Army Corps of Engineers – $22.5 million
Bush – $3.9 million
Approved by Congress: $5.7 million

Do you wonder why the Bush Administration was recommending a steady decrease of the Corp’s budget, straining their ability to maintain the levees, as well as work on hurricane-related preparedness?

Me too. I am especially curious why, counter to all the warnings since 2001 about hurricanes, funding took an even bigger turn for the worse on June 6th 2005:


“In fiscal year 2006, the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is bracing for a record $71.2 million reduction in federal funding. It would be the largest single-year funding loss ever for the New Orleans district, Corps officials said.”

Bush request – $2.9 million

Louisiana Senator “Landrieu said the Bush administration is not making Corps of Engineers funding a priority. I think it’s extremely shortsighted, Landrieu said. When the Corps of Engineers’ budget is cut, Louisiana bleeds. These projects are literally life-and-death projects to the people of south Louisiana and they are (of) vital economic interest to the entire nation.”

So prevention seems like it was out of the picture. Funding problems, apparently.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not as though the levees would have been improved in time, but even the regular things never work quite right when a Corp of Engineers overseeing a major metropolitain area in danger are so desperate for funds that they can not even afford their annual pic-nic.

But maybe if they had been given funds sooner…


“In 2001, FEMA warned that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters in the U.S. But the Bush administration cut New Orleans flood control funding by 44 percent to pay for the Iraq war.”

Read that one again. The hurricane was one of the three MOST likely disasters in America.

Now read the 2004 assessment of the evacuation plan by the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology, University of New Orleans, which states very clearly that evacuation plans were insufficient in past hurricanes and would not work in the future without serious changes to the environment and infrastructure:


Put it together and you see a Corp of Engineers who are unable to adequately protect and defend against one of the three most likely national disasters, and an evacuation plan that is unlikely to work.

Incidentally, when you say “the experts expected a Cat4 to overtop them, not for them to completely collapse” do you have any particular experts in mind?

I have to ask because I’m simply stunned by the lack of understanding of hydrologic predictions. Basically, once water flows over the top of a dam/dyke/levee it compromises the structure unless specifically desiged to withstand the force of running water. But don’t take my word for it, just take a quick look back at some of the alerts that said “FLOOD WATERS WILL LIKELY OVERTOP LEVEES…WITH MAJOR LEVEE DAMAGE AND FAILURES POSSIBLE”

Seems pretty clear to me.

Anyway, back to the funding issues, the Spiegel article I cited above goes on to say “A year ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to study how New Orleans could be protected from a catastrophic hurricane, but the Bush administration ordered that the research not be undertaken.”

Instead “the Bush administration’s policy of turning over wetlands to developers” which was undertaken instead “almost certainly also contributed to the heightened level of the storm surge.”

So you can go ahead and lash out at the locals, the state, and the poor people suffering on the Gulf Coast, but you can’t say funding was not a contributing factor to the problem. Sorry, but that’s just not the facts.

Geoff Nathan September 15, 2005 8:57 AM

As an instance of the wasted money and effort by the Dept. of Homeland Security, Aviation Week this week reported that the TSA rushed hundreds of security inspectors to the New Orleans area to speed up the screening of passengers going on evacuation flights. And just this morning I saw a snippet of a four-year old evacuee being ‘wanded’ (they had to use wands, according to Aviation Week, because the Magnetometers don’t work without electricity–duh)
If that wasn’t a waste of resources that could have been used to move REAL emergency responders to the area.
Sure a terrorist COULD have hidden among the evacuees and attempted to hijack a C-17. But that’s probably going beyond even movie plots..
A beautiful illustration of Bruce’s point.

Paul O September 15, 2005 1:38 PM

Several guns and knives were reported seized from individuals as they were entering the SuperDome. Were they going to commit a terrorist act at the SuperDome?

No, the safety of all evacuees remains important. And the fact that a few lawless individuals took advantage of the situation in The Big Easy makes it clear that screening of passengers going on evacuation flights was very important and clearly not a waste of money any more than screening passengers on your next flight, or on any flight.

Davi Ottenheimer September 15, 2005 1:47 PM

@ Paul O

People who are in the midst of a national disaster, and perhaps experiencing severe trauma from diorientation and dislocation, are going to perform a VERY different risk assessment than people shuffling onto a regular and planned flight. And that’s not even to go into issues of motive and opportunity…

Paul O September 15, 2005 4:39 PM

@Davi, “People who are in the midst of a national disaster … are going to perform a VERY different risk assessment

I’d love to believe that’s universally the case.

The facts we witnessed in NO tell a much different story. Even just making the simplest comparison between reported activity at the SuperDome (where weapons were confiscated prior to entry) and the Convention Center (where, apparently, they were not) puts the lie to your claim of a universal “disaster mentality”.

Davi Ottenheimer September 15, 2005 5:19 PM

@ Paul O

“the lie to your claim of a universal “disaster mentality”

I have to admit I have no idea what you are talking about. A lie about a “universal disaster mentality”?


My point was that the risk from a person getting onto an airplane for a routine flight is totally different from the risk from a person in a deperate and extreme situation being ushered into temporary housing with tens of thousands of others…I can’t believe you confuse the two, but that sure puts your other comments here in context.

Davi Ottenheimer September 20, 2005 12:14 AM

The IT Security Magazine article is quite disappointing.

For example, Verton says “Mr. Schneier wants Americans to believe that terrorists and hurricanes are alike, and that if we can properly prepare for one we will be prepared for the other.”

He says:
“First, natural disasters are random events that can leave one facility in shambles while a neighboring facility remains unscathed. ”

Sounds like a terrorist attack to me; what do you call one plane shot down while others fly away, a building in Oklahoma destroyed…

He goes on to say

“natural disasters, particularly hurricanes, are known events that give ample indications and warning as to their intended target area and potential for destruction”

I see. So they’re not actually “random events”, but easily understood and planned for? Maybe there’s room for interpretation there, to dig out from the obvious contradiction. Maybe the difference is in cause? Wait, isn’t that Bruce’s point?

The next sentence might be meant to clarify, but it comes across a bit awkwardly:

“A hurricane should be a homeland security or emergency manager’s dream scenario — because if you have to experience a disaster, you might as well experience one that you have days to prepare for.”

Interesting choice of words. A “dream scenario”? Does that mean bomb threats with a long countdown are a “dream scenario” for an anti-terror team? Or is Vernon just saying it’s better to have time to react than no time at all? I see similarities again where he says I am supposed to see differences from Bruce — advance warning is only good if communications and intelligence are also good…

“Terrorists, on the other hand, are not the mindless forces of nature that hurricanes are.”

This is an interesting point. Terrorists may have a focus, but until you know it (that good intelligence thing again) it doesn’t mean a whole lot to say they have one. But more to the point, this is exactly the same as Bruce’s point above: “Large-scale terrorist attacks and natural disasters differ in cause, but they’re very similar in aftermath.”

Since he really is not disagreeing with Bruce, Vernon’s explanation of differences is almost comical. “Hurricanes do not conduct surveillance”. Really? I almost expected Vernon to next say “terrorists wear funny hats, whereas hurricanes can not wear clothing at all”.

But here’s where he really misses the boat, so to speak:

“And when [terrorists] get here, they will not provide us with advance indications and warning that we are so lucky to receive from our natural enemy, the hurricane.”

Do you know why we have advance warning of hurricanes? It’s because a lot of money has been spent on developing reliable intelligence about them, precisely to provide advance warning! Perhaps if someone followed Bruce’s suggestions and built the same level of sophisticated terrorist intelligence system, we’d have the same kind of advance indications of terrorist attack.

Davi Ottenheimer September 21, 2005 12:44 PM

Here’s the kind of intelligence investment that some say is necessary to better understand hurricanes:


“Sept. 16, 2005 — Hurricane researchers at the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, Fla., marked a new milestone in hurricane observation as the first unmanned aircraft touched down after a 10-hour mission into Tropical Storm Ophelia, which lost its hurricane strength Thursday night. The aircraft, known as an Aerosonde, provided the first-ever detailed observations of the near-surface, high wind hurricane environment, an area often too dangerous for NOAA and U.S. Air Force Reserve manned aircraft to observe directly.”

Compare this to the fact that most nations have known for centuries that detailed “on the ground” observation of threats is required to understand their attackers and predict targets. A good example is the Mossad agent Elie Cohen who infiltrated the Syrian elite in the 1960s.

Thus from a security investment perspective, the direct relevance of effective intelligence gathering to determining risk (assets x vulnerabilities x threats) seems clear regardless of whether we’re discussing terrorists or hurricanes.

I might have disagreed with Bruce about some things, but on this topic I believe he’s spot on.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via https://michelf.ca/projects/php-markdown/extra/

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.