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September 1, 2005


James Burke, in his phenomenal Connections, began with the story of the 1965 blackout of the Northwestern US. He uses this to illustrate the web of technologies and ideas that hold our society together, and he asks what do we do when the web fails? Everyone is trying to get out of the "technology island" of the city, that can no longer sustain itself. Everyone. Can you get out? Suppose you do, can you defend yourself? Can you find where the food is grown? Is there already someone there? Will they share, and if not can you take it for yourself? Can you grow food, remembering that everything on a modern farm runs on gas or on power? Then, and only then, can you say you have survived.

And now in New Orleans and along the coast, we see the trap sprung shut: the web has collapsed, both its technologies and its ideas, and into the void have come anarchy, chaos, and death. What worries me most is not the collapse of the technology web: unlike in Burke's scenario, the disaster is geographically limited, and the richest nation on Earth is sending in every resource it has, limited only by physics in how fast it can get there, and how fast it can get people out.

No, what worries me is the collapse of the ideas that support our way of life. I don't mean the looting: while I cannot condone the taking of luxury goods that is happening, I cannot condemn those who are taking food and diapers and other supplies - survival in such a condition is more important than the minimal increase in property losses that the looting represents. Rather, I am talking about the sniping at rescue helicopters, boats and vehicles; the random drive-by shootings at refugees; the gangs running rampant with murder and rape. This is the part that makes me weep, because it is the part that is most preventable. If the rescue vehicles cannot get in because of sniper attacks, the loss is not on the rescue vehicle - very few of the sniper attacks have been directly deadly - but the possible hundreds or thousands who cannot be rescued, many of whom will die waiting.

And I worry about the news media, too. Here on the road, I only get CNN, and it is appalling: the biggest priority of CNN seems to be fixing blame on the Federal government, to the extent of ignoring the physics of the situation as well as the reality of spending priorities. Paula Zahn is particularly vile, and just moments ago actually asked Sen. Landrieu if the situation as described by the head of FEMA was "acceptable"! As if he could actually control the realities on the ground: you can only get people into the area so fast, with the infrastructure having collapsed, and it's not possible for anyone to know every detail of everything going on in the city.

Or consider CNN's carping about the 3000 or so people not yet rescued from the Convention Center, ignoring the fact that the scarce resources available for providing security and rescue are dedicated to the larger problem of the 40000-50000 not yet rescued from the stadium. As "jeffers" put it:

If you aren't capable of walking past ten dying people to save 100 dying people, then at the very least, stay out of the way of those who can.

In fact, read that entire post, which does such a fantastic job of describing the physics of the situation, and the reasons why the government doesn't just pour people in willy nilly and as fast as possible, regardless of logistics or capability. This is the best summary of the problem faced in New Orleans, and why we will never be able to be prepared for such a disaster to the extent that we wish, that I have yet seen.

And I worry also about the blame game that will be played in the aftermath. With perfect hindsight, people will be claiming that the Federal government should have known that New Orleans was going to be destroyed, and should have spent unlimited amounts of money to prevent or reduce the damage, and to have more Federal personnel in New Orleans the day after the hurricane came ashore than the Federal government actually has staffed for disaster recovery work. Indeed, it is inevitable that people who would have decried any increased funding of the National Guard last Friday will be the loudest to claim that on Monday the National Guard should have been several times larger and better equipped for this one particular contingency than it is. The reason I worry about the blame game is because of two things: the warping of priorities and the flight from true responsibility.

The warping of priorities will come because politicians' basest need in a crisis is to be seen as "doing something". As a result, no doubt massive additional resources will be poured into the kinds of people and technology and supplies necessary to recover from hurricanes, at the expense of what? Surely, other homeland security measures will suffer, notwithstanding that hurricanes this large in such an inhabited area are such rare events. Almost certainly, resources to cope with other disaster types will be starved to feed the hurricane recovery needs, not just now as understandable, but for the long term. And what else will suffer to the need of politicians to be seen as capable of fixing any problem?

The flight from responsibility is related to the warping of priorities: there will be people decrying the lack of response - no matter how large it is (remember the carping about the funds allocated to recovery from 9/11?) - while at the same time yelling about the inevitable cuts in other programs or increases in taxes. Perfection will be demanded, and reality deemed inconvenient to the "essential truths" of the desire to get benefit without cost.

Yes, these are the things that really worry me about the aftermath of the hurricane.

UPDATE: The National Debate also noticed CNN's vapid and offensive coverage, and has some excellent discussion on posse comitatus. (via Kevin Aylward)

UPDATE: I didn't know that: there apparently was a plan to help NO survive a cat 5 hurricane (rather than cat 3, which is what the current system was designed for), but the plan was scrapped in 1977 for environmental reasons.

Posted by jeff at September 1, 2005 7:36 PM

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Tracked on September 2, 2005 7:45 AM


Having noted, correctly, the Category 5 survival plan scrapped in 1977, you might just as well have noted that apparently the current plan was scrapped as well... witness the flooded buses.

Posted by: Bat One at September 7, 2005 11:36 PM