Saturday, September 17, 2005

Kathleen Blanco's Pol Pot solution

Starve the city dwellers to force them into the countryside
Sorry, I couldn't resist. But the real gist of Lou Dolinar's Katrina, What Went Right in Bill Bennett's "Morning in America" is the untold story of the real first response to the hurricane. This story has simply not been told by anyone before Dolinar discovered it in The Connecticut Post in a report filed by Peter Urban on September 11.

I'm going to jump back and forth between the Dolinar and the Urban reports, so, to get the entire story you should read both. Also, the Dolinar report is link enriched with supporting data and sources.
Largely invisible to the media's radar, a broad-based rescue effort by federal, state and local first responders pulled 25,000 to 50,000 people from harm's way in floodwaters in the city.

The critical period was the immediate aftermath of the levy breaks on Monday, August 29 until the flooding crested on Sept. 2. If people were going to be trapped in attics, drowned in their cars, or washed off roofs, this is when it would have happened. Once the flooding crested, while thousands still needed to be removed from their homes, fed, and relocated, at least the immediate threat of drowning was over.

During the critical period beginning Monday, rescue helicopters were already reeling in at least 2000 people a day. These independent units comprised dozens of Coast Guard, Air Force, Air National Guard and Army choppers. Various boat-rescue operations by New Orleans first responders saved thousands more-even as the media's attention was focused on the Superdome, snipers and scenes of looting. The response to the real threat of Katrina, other words, was immediate and massive -it just wasn't the response the media wanted, expected or was spoon-fed at a press conference.

The precise records of who saved how many, when, are incomplete. However, the bottom line here is the count of the dead. That it is far lower than projections indicates that many of the people who faced imminent doom were rescued as waters rose.

In the hours after Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast, Capt. John Plunkett was in the air piloting his Sikorsky-built Black Hawk helicopter back to New Orleans. "It was just something pretty surreal," said Plunkett, who estimated that he plucked about 250 people off levees and rooftops that Monday. In the morning, the damage didn't seem so bad. Streets around the Superdome were dry. But then the levees broke and New Orleans flooded.

"It was worse than you could imagine," he said. "Everything you were used to seeing was just gone or underwater."

Many of the other pilots in his division were not so lucky. "It was pretty sad because they could see their houses flying over them and most of their stuff was underwater," Plunkett said.

The division moved its 17 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to Houston, Texas prior to the storm and flew back to help with the rescue efforts on Monday

On Tuesday, Plunkett's division had pulled the seats out of the Black Hawks to accommodate more evacuees.

"With the seats you could get 11, without them you could jam 31 inside. We didn't care if they were strapped in, we just wanted to get them out of harm's way," he said.

"We just got back from Iraq, and those aircraft performed beautifully. We never missed a mission," he said. The Pentagon dispatched 113 helicopters to the region to delivers supplies, rescue stranded residents and help fill a gaping hole in the New Orleans levee. About half the helicopters came from National Guard units from as far away as New York and Wyoming.

Aside from Black Hawk variants, there are Sikorsky CH-53 Super Stallions, Bell UH-1 Huey, Boeing-built CH-47 Chinooks, Eurocopter HH-65 Dolphins and CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters participating in the effort.

But the Louisiana Blackhawks weren't the only rescuers. The Coast Guard was flying as soon as the hurricane passed on Monday as well and had already accounted for several thousand victims by Wednesday.

The Air Force reported 1,300 rescues and some 14,000 "transported" by Sept. 4.

By Tuesday night, the Navy's USS Bataan amphibious assault ship -cited for its inaction by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman--in fact had five choppers flying rescue missions and had pulled out several hundred people.

But those weren't the only helicopters flying. Overall, 113 choppers were in operation around New Orleans by Sept. 1, according to The Armed Forces Press Service.

What looked like a hurricane relief breakdown was in fact a press release breakdown.

Local rescue efforts by boat were surprisingly robust, contrary to conventional wisdom. The much maligned New Orleans police and fire departments, which began operations Monday afternoon, were able to field 100 to 200 boats in the first 24 hours after the breach, according to local officials quoted in the Times Picayune. However, with the City's communications system broken down, the 500 to 1000 rescue workers had to organize themselves and so were operating without central command and control, thus also below the media radar. How many these police and firefighters saved is unknown, but with so many boats in the water so quickly, the number would have easily been in the thousands.

Meanwhile the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, claimed 20,000 rescues by Sept. 8 at which point it suspended calls for more volunteers and boats. While it is unclear how many of these rescues took place in the critical time frame, the only mention of this staggering achievement came in the Sept. 8 press release. How many national reporters thought to call the Wildlife department, or even thought it was a go-to agency?

This list is by no means exhaustive. State police and deputies from various Sheriff's departments were operating rescue boats, as was the Coast Guard. Individual National Guard units responded on their own initially, as did civilian rescue teams from out of state. Dates and numbers saved simply haven't been added up, or served to a skeptical media.
Neither Dolinar nor Urban attempt to whitewash local, state and federal breakdowns.
That doesn't absolve authorities from responsibility for some of those deaths. As is the case in any disaster, the old, the sick and the handicapped will disproportionately be victims, bringing into tight focus the City of New Orleans' failure to take the modest steps needed for early evacuation for a few thousand of its most vulnerable. More died at the Superdome after the Governor decided on a Pol Pot solution for evacuation of the city, e.g. Starve the city dwellers to force them into the countryside. And of course FEMA's political appointees, and by extension the Administration, failed to step in to address these and other problems, particularly the lack of coordination between the many agencies that were flying blind for the first 48 hours.

Plunkett and Doherty said that the helicopter rescue efforts were not well coordinated. It wasn't until late in the week that there was a structure established to spell out which units were responsible for which areas.

Indeed, if it turns out that there are large numbers of dead remaining, they won't have died for lack of resources, but rather, because there was no one to tell the vast and otherwise successful rescue flotilla where to go.
I'm sure that Paul Krugman, WaPo, CNN and Geraldo will be trumpeting these amazing achievements all day tomorrow - not.

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