LISTENING TO KATRINA
PAGES IN THIS BLOG ARE RATED 'R' AND DO CONTAIN
PROFANITY, VULGARITY, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, NUDITY,
SCENES OF HUMAN EMOTION, DEATH, DESTRUCTION, MAYHEM, AND VARIOUS
EVENT - Good, Bad, Ugly
Read this whole page. I know it's very long, but it's important, and at the end, you'll be glad you did.
The Hurricane Pam exercise run in 2004 predicted 61290 dead. This number is accurate, and that is, indeed, how many people died in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This is a shocking statement, I know - but you'll have to read all the way to the end to understand why that number is right.
As the sun starts to go down, the madness is just cranking up. I'll go to bed at midnight, but there are things going on that I will not find out about until much later - good, bad, and ugly. Let's start from the top down - even though this is something you already know. It really isn't my intention to demonize anyone or tell you how shitty FEMA is. The focus of this blog is to tell you things that you need to know to make educated choices when preparing for disasters of any kind. I am not going to spend much more time in this blog on Mr. President or Mr. Chertoff or other federal officials except when they appear in major roles on the stage. The purpose of this blog isn't to rehash old news, but to frame that news in the light of your preparations for disaster, so I am going to keep the rhetoric down. Even so, It's important in that context to understand how government works and thinks during a disaster - so stick with me through this.
Timeline: Monday, August 29, 2005, 7:00 PM CDT
Location: New Orleans
Bahamonde returns from a personal inspection of the area in a helicopter,
and calls Brown to report a 200-foot levee breach and heavy flooding of 85%
of the city. Brown thanks him for the information and says he’ll call the
White House. (Bahamonde testimony to Congress)
Brown's call goes through. He reaches an unidentified member of the White House staff. By midnight Eastern time (11 Central), this is general knowledge in the White House. (Testimony of White House spokesman Trent Duffy)
Chertoff receives the situation report from New Orleans. As he testifies later, he hears, "There are some reports of breaching, but nothing has been confirmed. We're looking into it." Later testimony also indicates a disastrous lack of communication between Brown and Chertoff.
Bahamonde: "FEMA headquarters knew at 11 o'clock. Mike Brown knew at 7 o'clock. Most of FEMA's operational staff knew by 9 o'clock that evening. I don't know where that information went." (Additional Bahamonde testimony)
Later, everyone from the president on down will insist they knew nothing of the flooding until August 30. Brown will call Chertoff a lousy boss, and Chertoff will call Brown an insubordinate incompetent. Everyone else will simply marvel at all this.
Timeline: Monday, August 29, 2005, 9:27 PM CDT
Location: New Orleans
Despite the White House and FEMA's initial claims to the contrary, someone in the public affairs staff at FEMA headquarters in Washington, DC is apprised of Bahamonde's report and sends the following to John Wood, Chertoff's chief of staff:
FYI from FEMA [...] Conditions are far more serious than media reports are currently reflecting. Finding extensive flooding and more stranded people than they had thought [...] also a number of fires.
For reasons that are still being debated, this news never really registers at the top of the chain of command. The next morning, Bush expresses relief that New Orleans had dodged the bullet, and goes to Coronado for his observance of World War II's end. Chertoff relaxes and goes to Atlanta for a briefing on bird flu. (Additional Duffy testimony)
There just isn't anything much to say about this. The facts speak for themselves, and the lesson is that people at the highest levels of leadership are variously clueless or stupid. (My friend Rick doesn't like the word 'stupid', and prefers 'dumb', but I'm trying to avoid the word 'jackassery', so I'm gonna stick with 'stupid'.) If they'd have been watching television like I was they'd have had better intel. The harder lesson is to come to understand that the people at the highest levels of government simply do not care about Americans in any meaningful way. Perhaps they care as far as vote counting goes for their popularity contests and the taxes they manage to bleed out of us, but you may as well send them on a trip around the moon for all the good they're going to do you.
Gee...that sounds kind of bitter. I am not really anti-government. I think government is a swell idea. The problem with government is that it is full of asshats at the uppermost levels. (asshat: n. (slang) a person who has his or her head up his or her ass)
Let's talk about this for a minute, because it's really important to understand a few things. The first thing that you really need to understand is that government is a myth. The 'government' is made up of persons in power who are all acting in their own best interests. This is only natural, and so it isn't a matter of conspiracy or anything overly dark. That's just the way it is. Brilliant lawyers like Skeletor...er...Mr. Chertoff are up in Washington going to dinner and schmoozing for their next deal - which is why when SHTF he can just sit there and spew bullshit like, "There are some reports of breaching, but nothing has been confirmed. We're looking into it." Yeah... Keep looking into it.
Later on, many people will be calling names on the people at the top. Words like 'incompetent' and many others of a harsher color are frequent. The truth is, though, that the people at the top don't actually do anything. It's their job to schmooze and make deals. For all of the real work...well...they have people for that. The figureheads of government agencies are just that - figureheads.
Remember Uncle Huey? "Screw this! They're lying! The President's lying! The rich fat cats that are drowning you will do it again and again and again. They lead you into imperialist wars for profit, they take away your schools and your hope and when you complain, they blame Blacks and Jews and immigrants. Then they push your kids under." Well, that's still true, and it will always be true.
The lesson in this is very plain: Do not trust any high level government official for any reason on any subject in any context. Everything they tell you will be a lie, and even when they tell you that they are lying, that will be a prevarication. Bottom line: All politicians are full of shit. The politically correct word is 'doublespeak'.
Just to use the current example, let's translate Mr. Chertoff.
"There are some reports of breaching, but nothing has been confirmed. We're looking into it."
Translation: "How should I know? I have people for that."
Whatever happens to you, no matter how bad it is, just remember that the people at the top do NOT give a damn about you. They are pigs that are going to eat rich food and sleep in a warm, dry bed tonight. If anything goes desperately wrong, these people have goats to sacrifice to the masses. For Katrina there are a lot of goats that will end up sacrificed to appease the angry populace. Goats like Michael Brown, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and Mayor Nagin - who are also people who actually have very little to do with things that go right or wrong on the ground. Don't spend too much time on them. When SHTF and the goats start being sacrificed, you can be pretty sure that you're fooked. DO NOT PAY TOO MUCH ATTENTION! They're just part of the freak show. Ignore the freak show and work on your ACTION plan.
Now that we have pigs and goats, let's talk about sheep and build our little Animal Farm as we go along. The sheep are the general populace. They bleat a lot, aren't terribly clever, and tend to get themselves into trouble. The pigs and the goats have to keep them around, otherwise who are they going to fleece?
Whoops... There I go again...
|They're black they're brown,
they're up, they're down
They're in, they're out they're all about,
They're far, they're near they're gone,
They're quick and slick they're insincere
Beware! Beware! Be a very wary bear
A heffalump or woozle is very confusil
A heffalump or woozle's very sly!
(sly) (sly) (sly)
They come in ones and twosles but
If they so choosles
Before your eyes you'll see them multiply
(ply) (ply) (ply)
They're extraordinary so better be wary
Because they come in ev'ry shape and size
(size) (size) (size)
If honey's what you covet,
you'll find that they love it
Because they'll guzzle up the thing you prize
Beware! Beware! Be a very wary bear
Whenever I think about The Ugly, I am reminded of Whinney the Pooh's experience of heffalumps and woozles. He isn't really sure what heffalumps and woozles are, but he *knows* that they are out there, and he *knows* that they are up to no good. In the context of Katrina, the heffalumps and woozles seem to be primarily employed by FEMA in upper level administration. We don't actually know who they are, but we know that they are out there, and they frequently seem to be up to no good. The Heffalumps and Woozles song fits them perfectly. You'll likely remember it from your childhood...
I am now going to make a grandiose claim, and then I'm going to prove it to you.
The primary job of the military, FEMA, and Homeland Security is not to protect the American people in times of emergency but to protect the government in times of emergency and keep it functioning. Their primary assignment is not to help people but to control them.
Exhibit A for the prosecution is FEMA News Release Number HQ-05-174, dated August 29, 2005 - that's today, the day of the storm - which reads in part:
WASHINGTON D.C. -- Michael D. Brown, Under Secretary
of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response and head of the
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), today urged all fire and
emergency services departments not to respond to counties and states
affected by Hurricane Katrina without being requested and lawfully
dispatched by state and local authorities under mutual aid agreements and
the Emergency Management Assistance Compact.
In that document, David Paulison throws his lot in with the Heffalumps and Woozles:
“It is critical that fire and emergency departments across the country remain in their jurisdictions until such time as the affected states request assistance,” said U.S. Fire Administrator R. David Paulison. “State and local mutual aid agreements are in place as is the Emergency Management Assistance Compact and those mechanisms will be used to request and task resources needed in the affected areas.”
You can read the entire news release on the FEMA website:
In the late afternoon at Fort Polk Army base in Leesville, a Army helicopter unit sits on the tarmac, awaiting approval to deploy. Unable to deploy until they receive orders from the Pentagon, they sit and watch National Guard helicopters conduct search-and-rescue missions until Wednesday. “We were packed and ready to go,” Chief Warrant Officer Clint Gessner, a helicopter pilot with the Ft. Polk unit will later recall. “We never got the call. It’s just a sad story, man.” “We could have been the first responders.” [Los Angeles Times, 9/11/2005]
Responders are also told by EMAC rules that costs incurred by people who self deploy will not be reimbursed. This is a not-so-subtle kind of intimidation that we will see FEMA use over and over again.
Translation: Don't do anything until we tell you to do it. The activity of the Heffalump and Woozle Gang is so openly apparent that we are going to have to deal with them directly over and over again - and I'm going to teach you the methods for that. For now, though, this page is getting pretty long and I want to tell you the good story now.
Where are we? Well the sheep are in peril while the pigs are setting up to sacrifice the goats. The heffalumps and woozles are on the prowl. We have yet to talk about the wolves - but that's coming. Fortunately for the sheep, there are some animals in the middle. Brave and noble animals like eagles, guard dogs, lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!
Which brings us to:
There is a story that you probably haven't heard. Let's rewind the timeline a few hours, and let's see if I can tell this story well.
Timeline: Monday, August 29, 2005, 3:00 PM CDT
Location: New Orleans. Franklin Avenue at I-10.
The underpass is full of water here, but the interstate is elevated. Let me introduce you to Paul Valteau, an Orleans Parish civil sheriff who has had his share of problems in office over the years - but August 29, 2005 isn't a day that he can be charged with malfeasance in office. He arrives at this intersection at the same time we do. Later he will recount his experience.
You have heard all the horror stories, and all about the failures of this agency or that agency. You have eaten the shit sandwich served up by broadcast media. I want you to stand with Paul and I on this overpass because you are going to see something that you haven't seen before. Things to make you stand and cheer and be proud to be an American.
For as far as we can see, we can see nothing but submerged houses stretching into the distance. Survivors stand on rooftops - some in waist deep water that is still rising. Some rooftops are higher than others. People are screaming everywhere. We can hear people pounding and wailing in their attics - with no way out. A handicapped man clings to a tree as water swirls around him. We have entered the Holy Shit Zone.
The wind is still up, and there isn't anybody but us on the bridge. Describing the scene as 'eerie' would get us slapped in the head by the understatement police. When Paul tells the story, he says, "I saw things I never saw in 23 years as sheriff. I saw things I never want to see again."
Take this in. There are over 60,000 - SIXTY THOUSAND - Citizens of the United States of America at this very moment that need help right now and the heffalumps and woozles are telling the rescue responders what? "Ya'll don't help nobody until we say so."
<Cue Music: Flight of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner>
Then the scene starts changing faster than we can keep up - because USCG
Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen doesn't speak the heffalump and woozle language. No less than thirty six
United States Coast Guard helicopters have tracked in behind the storm,
fighting 60 MPH winds to arrive in the combat zone at the earliest possible
moment. Three of them suddenly appear around us and pilots who have
passed the REAL MAN test with straight 'A's dodge power lines while rescue
swimmers (who also passed with perfect scores) jump into the turbid water
again and again to winch the
sheep to safety.
While we are distracted by the air show, something else has sneaked up on us. We are suddenly surrounded by other men - and women. These are not Coast Guard Heroes. They aren't from FEMA. They aren't from the Red Cross. They are nothing but common American Citizens. Citizens with boats. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Maybe not 'ordinary' citizens. These are what we might call, "Good 'ole boys" who have been raised in these parts and have mucked around in marsh and swamp all their lives. Literally hundreds of them show up all over the place all by themselves and launch their own rigs into the water. They form impromptu rescue crews and start pulling people to safety.
While federal, state, and city officials are still standing around wearing their asshats and the Heffalump and Woozle Gang stands around holding their privates, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Bob Duncan is on the job. He is a man with a plan. He didn't just send the helicopters. He is IN one of them.
"People are most in need right after the storm goes through," he says. "When they feel comfortable going up on the roofs of their houses, we hope a big orange helicopter is waiting."
Not to be out done, the Louisiana National Guard's 1-224th Aviation Battalion and the 812th Med-Evac unit bring up ten Black Hawks and six Hueys while we're still standing around in amazement on the bridge.
Let's meet Captain Shawn Vaugh - a Black Hawk Pilot. "It was like a scene from a Stephen King movie. We just got back from Iraq and saw nothing like this kind of devastation there." Many of the crews are from New Orleans, and they know the city well. They coordinate together and self-deploy to where they expect to be needed most - and they aren't wrong. One pilot is plucked from his flooded house by his own unit. They find him a helicopter and he starts flying too.
The Black Hawk helicopters aren't rigged for rescue. They have no winch. The pilots have to lightly touch down on the rooftops while the crews snatch people into their flying lifeboats. Crews start stripping out seats so that they can fit more people. Standing room only in a helicopter...fun!
The boat crews aren't wasting time. They start breaking people out of their attics and taking on passengers until their craft are overloaded. Standing room only in a flat boat...more fun!
As people are unloaded onto the 'high ground' of the overpass, reinforcements arrive. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries arrives with 250 agents who promptly put their boats in the water in different areas of the city. They start fishing people out of the water without waiting for FEMA to issue them a fishing license. Other volunteers from within the agency join the battle. Lt. Col. Keith LaCaze's operation will rescue 20,000 souls by September 8, at which point he cancels calls for more volunteers and boats. He tells us, "There were a lot of people we rescued on the first night in houses and in attics where the water was almost over their head."
Remember those local first responders who were swallowed by Katrina in the dark? They come out of their safe places and launch nearly 200 boats in the first 24 hours. They find and commandeer more and pull people out of the water. When Sheriff Valteau self-deployed, he pulled together a pair of retired cops, a regular New Orleans policeman, a contractor, and a couple of other volunteers and started his own operations. See you later, Paul. Good luck.
It's not all fun and games, and rescuers have to make hard choices. Coast Guard Lt. Chris Huberty is a Dolphin pilot who will use night vision to fly rescue tonight after the sun goes down. I don't know about you, but my man card is NOT stamped for that. He tells us that crews carefully selected who was rescued first. "We'd put a rescue swimmer down to determine who needed to be taken away. I'd see three women, all healthy adults, and a guy in a wheelchair who was a diabetic; I'd say, 'He needs insulin, let's get him out of here first. The others might have to wait.'"
Chris resents the negative focus on the black residents of New Orleans. "As many bad stories as you hear about looting, there were plenty of people sacrificing for others, regardless of their demographic. I can't tell you how many times a man would stay behind an extra day or two on the roof and let his wife and kids go first. It broke my heart. We'd go to an apartment building and you'd see that someone was in charge, organizing the survivors. We'd tell him, ˜We can only take five,' and they'd sort out the worst cases. It happened many times that the guy in charge was the last to leave."
Katrina hasn't officially left the area yet, but more troops continue to arrive on day one as we stand around watching the show. A helicopter from the Navy ship Bataan lifts 19 people from the roof of a burning building. Wisconsin National Guard is on the way with two Black Hawks and three Hueys from their 832nd Medical Company and 1st Battalion, 14th Aviation unit. Three Hueys from the Georgia National Guard's 148th Air Ambulance have also self-deployed and begin flying and fly nonstop from sunup to sundown for days. State Police and various sheriffs' departments man rescue boats. Civilian search-and-rescue teams from out of state, and as far away as Canada, respond on their own. A volunteer team from Exxon Mobil activates itself, self-deploys, and starts doing what FEMA hasn't decided to do yet. I have told you about the pigs and the heffalumps and the woozles, but there are plenty of low-level FEMA people already on the ground who haven't waited for specific instructions. They know what they're supposed to do, even if the Heffalump and Woozle Gang doesn't.
You've never heard any of this, have you? By Wednesday - while the media screams about the slow response and bombards us with images from the Superdome - over 100 helicopters are flying around the clock. Boat crews are driving themselves to exhaustion. Admiral Duncan complains that one of his largest problems on the first day was that so many helicopters were operating, they risked crashing into one another. Slow response? Where do they get slow response from?
The mayor, for one, and from other high officials - the goats - who we have already determined had no idea what was really going on. That's where they're getting their information. All the media had was...nothing...because they weren't aware of the amazing rescue going on all around them. Instead they had to come up with something sensational, so we got murder, gang violence, rape, snipers, rampages in the Superdome, aliens, zombies, and anything else they could come up with. (There's a lesson there too, which we will cover a little later.)
The Hurricane Pam exercise run in 2004 predicted 61290 dead. This number is accurate, and that is, indeed, how many people died in New Orleans. What the Hurricane Pam exercise didn't calculate was the heroic - and heroic is the right word - effort of so many people who managed to snatch over 60,000 people from the water, and from death. If everyone had done what they were supposed to do and waited for FEMA, we could have added those numbers to the death toll.
This is a largely untold story. Not everything went well, and there were some issues and some incidents. We'll cover those in detail as time goes on. If you look at it from a distance, though, Louisianans have managed to do at least two un-possible things at this point. We have managed to successfully evacuate 90% of a modern American city in less than 48 hours. Secondly - but perhaps even more amazing - we managed (with help!) to mount and execute the largest, most successful search and rescue effort in the history of the world to take care of most of the other 10%. By the numbers, there was less than a 2% mortality rate in New Orleans among those in jeopardy.
Even though I am now ready to run out in the yard and wave a giant American flag and sing 'My Country Tis of Thee', I haven't actually told you the half of it. The area FEMA folks are cranking up. The utility companies have trucks lining the road waiting to drive in. The Red Cross - and thousands of volunteers - have begun a work that is several orders of magnitude more amazing than the rescue effort itself.
Timeline: Monday, August 29, 2005, 7:26 PM CDT
Location: New Orleans. Franklin Avenue at I-10.
Timeline: Monday, August 29, 2005, 7:26 PM CDT
Location: New Orleans. Franklin Avenue at I-10.
End of civil twilight.
The city goes dark, an a sliver of moon will not rise until 1:45 AM. The city goes dark, but the rescue effort does not stop. Coast Guard Lt. Chris Huberty is wearing his night vision goggles now, and he keeps flying. The rescue effort barely slows down.
I didn't know any of this at the time, of course. At the time, I didn't actually have a real understanding that so many people were stranded in (and on!) their homes until quite some time later. On the next page, we're going to visit with as many of these people as we can so that we can piece together some lessons. As a precursor for this, go stand in your attic and pretend that it's neck deep in water. What do you do?