Pitiful response

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 3, 2005

The federal and state response to the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina has so far been pitifully weak.

Yeah, they're finally starting to view this as the worst disaster in American history, but it didn't have to be this bad.

Obviously, there was nothing anyone could do about the property damage, but the toll on the people living in New Orleans and the other places in Mississippi and Louisiana could have been greatly lessened if those responsible for responding to emergencies had done the right things.

It makes you wonder, since the responses seemed to go so well last year when Florida was lashed by four hurricanes in the space of about a month, what's the deal?

Katrina came ashore in Louisiana early Monday morning and was gone from the New Orleans region by Monday evening. Where were the helicopters of supplies? Where were the thousands of rescue and relief workers? Why were the people of New Orleans virtually abandoned to their fate for more than three days?

I don't get it. Yeah, the second levy didn't break until Tuesday, which did take people by surprise, but anticipation of major flooding should have been in place already. The disaster response should have been immediate, but it was not. The Army Corps of Engineers were already at work trying to fix the levy before the people in the city started getting any help.

In the absence of immediate assistance, some people started going into stores n not to be thieves, but because their survival depended on them taking action to find food and water. Unlawful looting was also taking place, but most of the images I saw were of people getting necessary survival supplies.

Had the food and water been in place, most of these people wouldn't have had to break into grocery stores. Had an adequate law enforcement presence been in place, the looters wouldn't have been breaking into gun stores or stealing luxury items.

The whole city has now degenerated into chaos because the response was pitiful. In addition to rampant looting, people are being raped and murdered. Criminal gangs have the run of the city and are terrorizing people already crippled by Katrina. Many have lost everything they owned and some have lost loved ones because thousands of people are not believed to be dead.

We knew Katrina, a Category 5 storm on Sunday, was going to hit the New Orleans area. The state and national governments had at least two full days to get ready for the looming disaster, which everyone agreed had the potential to be much worse than any other hurricane over the past century.

Yet, Monday evening and all day Tuesday, there were no aerial food drops to people. The possibility of establishing order was lost and the worst people in the city were allowed to force their will on the most needy.

Before the hurricane hit, nearly 35 percent of the population in New Orleans lived in poverty. Officials knew that at least 100,000 people would be unable to leave the city on their own because they had no transportation. The best plan anyone could come up with was to house these folks in the Superdome, which they knew would be without electricity and running water.

That's as far ahead as anyone looked, apparently. Frankly, I feared the Superdome would collapse, killing everyone inside. That didn't happen, but that might be because the storm weakened and didn't hit New Orleans directly. Why didn't they employee every city bus, every school bus and every other vehicle capable to movement to get those people out of the city. All they had to do was go north and west.

So here we have, hundreds of thousands of people trapped in a city with no running water, no electricity and with floodwaters rising. And still no response from the government. Television news crews were reporting conditions there on Tuesday, but still no major mobilization of the National Guard or effort to evacuate. Wednesday, the same. Now conditions are getting dire.

Thursday, finally, the government starts to get the message and starts a major mobilization. How many died during those three full days that didn't have to die? We may never know. Funny, but we had death toll estimates and help on the way when the tsunami struck Indonesia, which is thousands and thousands of miles away, but we still have no idea how many died inside the richest, most powerful nation on Earth when Katrina struck.

It's been an absolute mess and we'll never know how many died because our government sat back on its heels for three days.