Thursday, September 08, 2005

The tragedy of too much warning

I've blogged so little about Katrina simply because...well, if you don't feel like you have anything to say that a thousand other people haven't already said, why bother? I didn't even know it was happening until it was over, because I was off in Central Asia without internet access.

I did read an interesting piece, though: Jesse Walker on how ordinarily, disasters bring out the best in people; though clearly we saw much less of that in New Orleans than we could have hoped. For all the carrying on about the failure of various levels of government in New Orleans, the truth is that periodically situations arise when the government simply can't be there, and, in Walker's excellent phrase, "...the vast majority of the rescues will be accomplished by the real first responders -- the victims themselves." The failure in New Orleans is, first and foremost, a failure of the people in New Orleans. Or, rather -- and this is a critical distinction -- a failure of the particular people who were still in New Orleans when Katrina got there.

To me, this is one of the factors that differentiates New Orleans from New York: New Orleans was, paradoxically, unlucky enough to have plenty of warning. Or rather, New Orleans had plenty of warning, and a local government too incompetent to make halfway decent use of that warning.

New Orleans had an unusually low percentage of the sort of "true first responder" who transforms himself from victim to savior of others by rising to the occasion. But isn't this precisely because New Orleans had plenty of warning, but an incompetent local government? Think about it: the kind of person who rises to the occasion, typically has to have certain characteristics. He has initiative; he has creativity; he does not wait passively for someone else to come bail him out; he can size up a situation, decide quickly what needs to be done, and take action.

In other words, he's precisely the sort of person who looked at the weather reports, took stock of the situation, and figured out a way to get the hell out of New Orleans before catastrophe struck.

The people who were left? Disproportionately the sort of short-sighted, passive, ineffective people who...well, who would wait for the mayor to come get them and carry them to safety. And if the mayor had made halfway decent use of the advance warning he had, and the city government had had anything remotely resembling the competence necessary to create effective disaster plans and implement them, then even most of these people would have made it out...but of course, anybody betting his life on the competence of the New Orleans city government, and the bravery and integrity and competence of the New Orleans Police Department, has to be considered a potential Darwin Award candidate. Really, how friggin' stupid can you be? So all the advance warning did, was to empty the city of most of the people who could have risen to the occasion, while trapping the passively dependent and ineffectual people in what became, all but literally, Hell.

If terrorists had blown up the levee and flooded New Orleans without warning, I believe you would have seen a completely different reaction from the populace of the city -- for you would have had a completely different mix of citizens downtown. For the witless and the unprepared, it was truly the perfect storm: a natural disaster in which, as usual, they depended on other people to save their butts. But there was too much warning, and the useful neighbors got themselves out of town, and there was nobody left to help the hapless but the government.

And baby, when there's nobody left to help you but the government, you are well and truly screwed.

P.S. Of course not everybody stuck was useless. I'm not saying that at all. I'm saying that the proportion of useless people to potential heroes was much higher than it would ordinarily be in a crisis, because of the three days of self-selection that preceded landfall, that's all.


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At 10:16 AM, Blogger kze said...

That is one of the best explanations I have read on the subject.

At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Jimr said...

Wow Kenny, this sounds a lot like the Bill O’Reilly commentary a few nights ago. “Don’t count on your government, they can’t help you. You can only help yourself by getting (an expensive) education, and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Like that helps people down and out with nothing but the shirts on their backs. The people who stayed were disproportionately poor, and for many reasons did not leave. While I agree that there was ample time to get out, the people that stayed were not USELESS, but overlooked. How does someone leave, when they have no car, no credit card, no family to go to? A lot of them went to the superdome - a place designated as a safe refuge. A lot of people who stayed did not anticipate needing to be rescued, based on previous experience. I heard all to often, “I survived a hurricane before, I can do it again.” I think it is unfair to categorically characterize those that stayed as witless and unprepared.

At 3:21 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

Well, I probably didn't make the P.S. emphatic enough; it was meant to make clear that I wasn't categorically characterizing those that stayed as witless and unprepared. I was just trying to say that the mix in New Orleans was more lacking in rise-to-the-challenge types than one ordinarily sees in a disaster, because such people disproportionately rose to the challenge of getting their families out of town before landfall.

At 4:22 PM, Anonymous Jimr said...

I tried to send this via e-mail but for some reason it bounced. Kenny,

Here is one more refutation of your comments about New Orleans people not rising to the challenge. I think more often then not, the media focused
on the tragedy, and not the heroic efforts of people who were truly first responders. I agree that a lot of people left probably would have also been in the rise to the challenge types then many who stayed.

By the way, how are the new additions to the family? I hope they are OK in Kaz, and able to come home soon.


Jim R.


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