Hurricane Katrina  
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How the Poor Got Trapped

Why was the issue of getting the poor and the car-less out of New Orleans treated like there was no solution, when there was so much that could have been done?
 
 
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Last week, you learned how how locals and New Orleans-based Army Corps of Engineers begged the Bush administration to spend more money on shoring up the city's levees, to no avail. But as the hellish situation in the city slides deeper into anarchy, there is clearly another failure of equal importance -- and this time there's blame for everybody.

In the months leading up to Hurricane Katrina, it became increasingly clear to local officials that in the event of a killer storm, the No. 1 problem in a city with a 30-percent poverty rate was some 134,000 residents who did not have a car. They knew these people had no way to get out of town -- and that a Category 3 hurricane or stronger would likely bring a flood of Biblical proportions.

And so the plan was...to do nothing.

Well, almost nothing. This summer, as local officials were streamlining the counter-flow interstate traffic plan so that better-off New Orleans residents could leave more quickly, they also prepared a DVD for local churches and civil groups urging the poor to find a ride out of town.

They didn't say who from. They only said who it wouldn't be: The government. Even more amazing, the mayor of New Orleans took the city's buses -- the most viable means for getting poor residents out of town -- and used them to bring people to the Superdome, even as he was acknowledging that conditions there were bound to deteriorate.

This is from a story I filed last week for Philadelphia's Daily News.

"You're responsible for your safety, and you should be responsible for the person next to you," local Red Cross executive director Kay Wilkins explained to the Times-Picayune just six weeks ago. "If you have some room to get that person out of town, the Red Cross will have a space for that person outside the area. We can help you. But we don't have the transportation."

Ironically, the Red Cross has run a network of shelters in New Orleans in the event of hurricane warnings. But it decided several years ago not to open them for a Category 3 or stronger storm that it was more important to get people out of the below-sea-level area -- despite the lack of any organized system for transporting them.

Indeed, as Katrina bore down on New Orleans last weekend, Mayor Ray Nagin marshalled a fleet of city buses -- not to take the city's poor out of town but to the large shelter at the Superdome, where civil order would fall apart as the week progressed.

"Keep in mind, a hurricane, a Cat 5, with high winds, most likely will knock out all electricity in the city, and, therefore, the Superdome is not going to be a very comfortable place at some point in time," Nagin warned on Sunday. "So we're encouraging everyone to leave."

"It's almost as if the planning stopped at the flooding," said Craig E. Colton, a geography professor at Louisiana State University, wondering as many have at the lack of foresight.

By the way, here is more of the Times-Picayune story from July 24 this year about the city's DVD warning. The story begins: "City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans' poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you're on your own." It says lower down:

Their message will be distributed on hundreds of DVDs across the city. The DVDs' basic get-out-of-town message applies to all audiences, but it is especially targeted to scores of churches and other groups heavily concentrated in Central City and other vulnerable, low-income neighborhoods, said the Rev. Marshall Truehill, head of Total Community Action.

"The primary message is that each person is primarily responsible for themselves, for their own family and friends," Truehill said.

vIn addition to the plea from Nagin, Thomas and Wilkins, video exhortations to make evacuation plans come from representatives of State Police and the National Weather Service, and from local officials such as Sen. Ann Duplessis, D-New Orleans, and State Rep. Arthur Morrell, D-New Orleans, said Allan Katz, whose advertising company is coordinating officials' scripts and doing the recording.

The speakers explain what to bring and what to leave behind. They advise viewers to bring personal medicines and critical legal documents, and tell them how to create a family communication plan. Even a representative of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals weighs in with a message on how to make the best arrangements for pets left behind.

The Bush-run federal government is far from blameless. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which has botched the Katrina operation from Day One, was also well aware of the problems of evacuating the poor. Its response:

Last year, FEMA spent $250,000 to conduct an eight-day hurricane drill for a mock killer storm hitting New Orleans. Some 250 emergency officials attended. Many scenarios now playing out, including a helicopter evacuation of the Superdome, were discussed in that drill for a fictional storm named Pam.

This year, the group was to design a plan to fix such unresolved problems as evacuating sick and injured people from the Superdome and housing tens of thousands of stranded citizens. But funding for that planning was cut, said Tolbert, who also was disaster chief for North Carolina.

Why did this have to happen? Why was the issue of getting the poor and the car-less out of New Orleans treated like there was no solution, when there was so much that could have been done?

Why were the municipal buses, as well as the hundreds of school buses that transport children in the Greater New Orleans area, not used to take the most helpless to those out-of-town Red Cross shelters, especially when the Red Cross had pretty much acknowledged that a hurricane would make the city uninhabitable?

Why was there no thought given to using the city's rail lines (there really is a train they call The City of New Orleans, you know), to ferry the poverty-stricken to higher ground?

With a problem on the scale that a federal role was clearly needed, why did FEMA suddenly punt?

The most disgusting part of all of this is now that the poor have once again been failed by their government leaders, local and federal, we see that the head of FEMA is now blaming the victims:

"I think the death toll may go into the thousands and, unfortunately, that's going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings," Michael Brown told CNN.

Actually, he's right. But those people who did not heed the advance warnings were our political leaders.

Will Bunch is a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and author of the blog Attytood.