Monday, September 05, 2005

Inside the New Orleans Convention Centre: how different it might have been

This fictional, alternative account of events was inspired by Mary P.'s persistent question:   Why did government officials evacuate thousands of people to the Convention Center, but not arrange a supply of water and other basic necessities for them?

Tuesday, August 30
10:00 p.m.

Outside the perimeter of the Convention Center, people have reverted to a Hobbesian state of nature. Intermittent gunfire is heard in the distance. Latecomers to the Center tell horror stories of looting, violence, and anarchy.

But here, inside the Convention Center, conditions are tolerable. The latecomers are profoundly grateful to join us in this safe place.

Conditions are just tolerable; no better than that. For example, the toilets are overflowing and the smell of human excrement is thick enough to taste.

After all, there is no running water here. The only solution is to dig latrines, but we won't be here long enough to warrant it.

There are thousands of people here, and they are grateful to government officials for providing a way of escape. For various reasons, they were unable to leave the city. And if they had remained in their homes, many would have died there.

The latecomers tell horror stories about this, too. Without exception, they have witnessed bodies floating in flooded streets.

But we were safely sheltered from the storm inside the Convention Center. And now our basic needs are being met.

Like many of you, I am suspicious of big government. Keep taxes down; let individuals keep what they earn and they will look after themselves — that has always been my belief. But today I see it differently.

To organize this many displaced people is quite a feat. All three orders of government — federal, state, and municipal — have worked together to bring about this miracle.

Thank God for modern technology. Meterologists saw this storm developing over the ocean days before it made landfall. That gave government enough time to get organized:   to order people to evacuate the city, to open up the Convention Center and the Superbowl as safe havens for those who could not travel, to bring in medical personnel, other staff, and limited stores of water and food.

The federal government supplied several hundred members of the National Guard to maintain order. Soldiers were stationed at each of the entrances when we arrived on Sunday.

I resented it when they frisked me, looking for a gun. But when I hear the gunfire in the streets of New Orleans, I think maybe it wasn't such a bad idea. The message was clear:   law and order are still in effect here.

There are two medical stations, each with a team of a dozen personnel. Many of the people here are elderly and in poor health, which is why they were unable to leave the city. And many of the latecomers have injuries that require medical attention.

Generators provide a limited amount of electrical power to refrigerate medications (insulin, for example) and other perishable supplies.

As soon as people began to arrive, administrators set up their desks outside each of the washrooms. When we went to use the facilities, they took down our names and asked if we had any medical issues they needed to be aware of. Then they provided us with a card to show that we had already been registered.

The Center has been divided into sectors, alphabetically. If people need to search for loved ones, they know which sector to look in.

The able-bodied among us have been organized into teams of volunteers. Our main task is to remove garbage to a designated area outside. By the end of the day yesterday, when the storm finally abated, garbage was already beginning to pile up. Several hours of steady work today has effected a noticable improvement.

The heat is stifling, and everyone is in need of a shower and a change of clothes. And there isn't enough food to satisfy us. They trucked in a supply of army rations, which don't need to be refrigerated or cooked. We've been provided with two meals a day, which means we're hungry most of the time. But we can tough it out as long as there's adequate water.

The key consideration is that we aren't left here too long. Now that it's clear we can't go home again, they've begun to evacuate us. The medical teams identified the people most at risk, and they were evacuated just before nightfall today.

Tomorrow, a team of Greyhound buses will arrive. (The President arranged for ten per cent of the fleet to be at his disposal.) Everyone is eager to get out of here:   it's a good thing the National Guard is present to ensure that people don't stampede when the buses arrive.

Of course, we don't know where we'll be going. That's preying on everyone's minds. We know we won't be returning to our homes in New Orleans any time soon. But we don't have jobs and homes anywhere else, so our future is a complete blank.

One day at a time. At least we know we don't have to bear the loss and uncertainty alone:   the government and the citizens of this great country are rallying to our aid.


At 6:26 PM, September 05, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

That's the truly terrible tragedy about all of this -- it didn't need to be so bad. The Republicans and Bush want to bankrupt the federal government and make states responsible. Instead they are ruining the entire country and our standing in the world.

At 7:45 PM, September 05, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

In your story the National Guard you mention were activated and sent in by the state government, not the feds. The buses were "arranged for" by the feds, but loaded by the state. Their destination was provided by another state, but the fuel costs to get them there were paid by the feds.

the misanthrope is simply biased and misinformed when he voices an unfounded belief concerning the imagined motives of GWB and the feds. The states already ARE responsible. These are the "United States". We are a "federation" of states. Duh!

At 11:00 PM, September 05, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

49erweet, it is not I who is misinformed if you do not believe that the Bush gang is not intent on bankrupting the federal government in order for it to put the onus on the states.

I readily and happily admit that I never voted for a Bush because I believe that the federal government needs to provide a safety for people (prisons do not make good safety nets) and to referee big business that will eagerly take advantage of people and consumers. In Bush's world it's every person for themselves, rather Christian isn't it.

I am guessing you're giving Bush and his gang a pass on this horrific tragedy in the south.

At 11:13 PM, September 05, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

Let me just this from Bob Herbert columnist for the New York Times:
And it is this incompetence and indifference to suffering (yes, the carnage continues to mount in Iraq) that makes it so hard to be optimistic about the prospects for the United States over the next few years. At a time when effective, innovative leadership is desperately needed to cope with matters of war and peace, terrorism and domestic security, the economic imperatives of globalization and the rising competition for oil, the United States is being led by a man who seems oblivious to the reality of his awesome responsibilities.

At 6:38 AM, September 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

In previous comments, 49er acknowledged that President Bush has handled this crisis badly. He graded the three levels of government as follows:

NOLA city goverance - D minus
LA state goverance - D
US Admin governance - C minus

And he provided a rationale for placing more blame on the local governments than on the feds:

US law places upon local and state administrations, and not the feds, the responsibility for performing every manner of disaster planning and response. The fed support was in place and available. But the local effort was ill-planned.

Please avoid personal put-downs. The m.o. of my blog is to invited people to defend opposing points of view, and marshall facts to support their positions. But in a spirit of unfailing respect for those who disagree with us (as you have always demonstrated on previous occasions). You and Misanthrope both like to be provocative, which is a perfectly acceptable rhetorical device.

Now for my response. As a Canadian, I am uncomfortable telling Americans how their country should be run and who they should vote for. But I admit I agree with the broad outlines of Misanthrope's position.

I think the invasion of Iraq was a collosal blunder. President Bush has hidden his real motives for the invasion (which makes me suspect they were not very noble), he alienated international allies who were solidly behind the USA after 9/11, the war is consuming hundreds of billions of dollars, and too late President Bush has discovered that it isn't the cakewalk he anticipated.

Now this crisis has developed on the Gulf coast, and the USA is not in a good position to respond. Money that might have been available isn't. Ditto with respect to manpower. Meanwhile, President Bush (a) continued vacationing; (b) gave a speech in which he came across as unmoved by people's suffering; and (c) was slow to go to the scene of the disaster and show any compassion for people who have lost everything: houses, jobs, loved ones.

Misanthrope, I am puzzled when you say that President Bush is deliberately bankrupting the federal government. I assume you mean, it would leave the USA with only one option: smaller government. But I always hesitate to judge people's motives. It is obviously true that President Bush is running the country into huge debt. Whether that is a deliberate policy, motivated by a nefarious hidden agenda, I doubt.

At 8:46 AM, September 06, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

It's not nefarious hidden agenda it's a public philiosophy that they want to shrink government. Bankrupt could've been too harsh a word if Bush was not providing tax breaks for the rich and about to further help the rich by eliminating the estate state, which they have named the death tax for PR purposes.

Q, you should venture and tell Americans how to vote, many do not know the facts and as an outsider you provide an objective opinion.

At 10:54 AM, September 06, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

Mea culpa concerning my biased comments. I will certainly abide with my hosts wishes.

The nice thing about the US is you don't need to 'be one' to have an opinion, so as the misanthrope sez, opine away. No offense would be taken (by reasonable readers).

Further information allows me to alter and amend my grading system thusly:

NOLA City C minus
Orleans Parish D
LA State D minus
FEMA D minus
GWB C minus
Neighboring states A
MSM local coverage B plus
MSM national coverage C
Other A minus

For those two who may be interested, I intend to blog later today on my site to qualify today's ratings - which in the interests of fairness are based on a ten day performance factor.

At 11:01 AM, September 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Keep us informed, 49er. Jack has also been grappling with this issue (e.g. FEMA communication breakdown so he may be interested in your perspective, too.

At 11:35 AM, September 06, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

Q, while I obviously lean left and very far left compared to supporters of the Bush gang, I do attempt to see both sides and I fully think the mayor of New Orleans and the Louisiana governor did a terrible job of protecting the state's poor, and our president was clueless returning to his vacation on Wednesday, making jokes about Trent Lott's second home's patio on Friday, while people lay dying or dead in the streets. This is a long way of saying I checked out 49er's site and there is no pretense to objectivity. Here is an excerpt from the post “It Took Less Than One Day”:

…Liberalism is a mental disorder. It causes the brain to rot out and the mouth to become overloaded from the intestinal tract. If it gains too strong a foothold on the body politic it may only be excised by means of radical surgery. Is it time for pre-op yet?

This is not wit (to avoid name calling I have not mentioned what it is). It is this kind of thinking that got Bush close to officially winning both presidential elections and has served to neuter our media to be lap dogs to the white house gang. However, I will give credit that 49er is reading your site.

Jack at Random Thoughts is open minded and he and I have disagreed on a couple of topics, but there is a level of intelligence to see both sides.

At 11:52 AM, September 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...


I called 49er on that same quote shortly after he first commented here. I am afraid he may never live it down!

As mentioned above, 49er likes to be provocative, and I regard it as a legitimate rhetorical device. Whether he regrets the comment about liberal brain rot, I can't say. But he has been very respectful of my left-wing positions here at Simply Put, and he has capably supported his own assertions with hard data of one sort or another.

49er was a bit quick on the draw with you. But give him a second chance and you'll see he's more objective than he first appeared.

Sorry, 49er, to be discussing you like this!

At 12:16 PM, September 06, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

I feel a like I am a little late to the party but wanted to comment.

I think that there have been a number of very large mistakes made here. My opinion is spelled out fairly well herebut in short I think that the premise of your post sums it up well:

Why did government officials evacuate thousands of people to the Convention Center, but not arrange a supply of water and other basic necessities for them?

They should have done this. Had they made advance arrangements we would be looking at this very differently.

I fault the local and state goverment for this first and then the Feds.

I have lived through two very large earthquakes '71 and '94 and the LA Riots so I have a certain sensitivity to this.

The Federal Gov't's resources are vastly superior to the state and local, but they should not be considered a first line of defense.

My biggest complaint with the Fed has been a lack of leadership.

At 12:28 PM, September 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Yes, the lack of leadership is painfully obvious, for reasons that I've already outlined in an earlier comment.

I am a federal bureaucrat, and I understand that political leaders don't carry out the actual administration of programs. Sometimes their presence is more symbolic than practical. But the importance of that symbolic presence cannot be overstated in a time of national crisis. If anyone says it is "merely symbolic", they're missing the point.

In this case, the final death toll may be as high as 10,000. President Bush didn't know that at the time, but he should have ended his vacation the moment New Orleans was flooded.

He will have a hard time living down this image of his lack of engagement and compassion. And he'll have a hard time deflecting attention from himself to others, even if the blame at the practical level should be shared among several political actors.

Nobody else can replace the symbolism of the President on the job, responding to a calamity.

At 1:41 PM, September 06, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

I blush. And I double blush if TM takes offense at an old posting.

But to return to the point, has anyone seen other than hearsay evidence that "officials" directed people in need to the convention center site? I haven't.

At 3:12 PM, September 06, 2005, Blogger B2 said...

Wow -- this is some party, all right. Q, feel free to put in your two cents; we are often too close to our country to have an objective viewpoint.

For the record, I'm a registered Democrat who didn't vote for Bush but did vote for Schwarzenegger (which make me less a centrist than an optimist, I think). I dobn't believe that Bush actually hates black people and poor people, but he does seem to be thinking about certian things that, in my mind, should be of lesser importance. This isn't the place to rant against Bush (and, frankly, if you want to read such stuff the Misanthrope populates Toner Mishap with that all the time), but I think we all agree that given four days' notice about a natural disaster, and one against which all civilized nations have worked for thousands of years, the preparation and response to Katrina have been worse than pitiful -- they have added to the tragedy by not being of more aid.

At 4:01 PM, September 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

You raise a good point about the Convention Center. I've spent about ten minutes searching for information, and I can't prove that authorities directed people to the Convention Center.

Here is a report on Mayor Nagin's mandatory evacuation order. The report says,
the city set up 10 places of last resort for people to go, including the Superdome.

Obviously the Convention Center could be one of those 10 places, but I can't confirm that from any of my sources. The report continues,
He told those who had to move to the Superdome to come with enough food for several days and with blankets. He said it will be a very uncomfortable place and encouraged everybody who could to get out [of the city].

Here's the second point of note: Mayor Nagin encouraged people to bring their own food and blankets with them to the Superdome. Apparently there was no intention to provide such supplies.

Here is a very interesting account of events from the New York Times. From page 5:
With the Superdome overloaded and without food or air-conditioning, the hotels guided visitors to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Which suggests that the Convention Center wasn't one of the 10 official shelters, but was an improvisation on the part of hotel owners. In fact, the attention of the authorities was directed to the Convention Center by reporters:

Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera of Fox News, among others, reported thousands of evacuees stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center. Rivera tearfully pleaded for authorities to either send help or let the evacuees leave. Prior to the news reports, authorities were not aware that a large number of citizens were stranded there.

Conclusion: perhaps I should have set my story in the Superdome instead of the Convention Center. It is clear that authorities directed people to the Superdome without providing food for them. Evidence suggests that they didn't direct people to the Convention Center.

But I'm still not certain of that. I would like to obtain a list of the ten official shelters referred to in the report of the evacuation order. The Convention Center seems like an obvious candidate. And, if authorities were unaware of the refugees at the Convention Center, it may have resulted from a breakdown in communications.

At 4:47 PM, September 06, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

Good research work. That was the reading I've been finding, too.

And if that proves out it logically requires some rethinking vis-a-vis the 'blame game'.

At 12:18 PM, September 07, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

Here's a verbatum report from "bigfoot" a NO barman & DJ, stolen directly from Morphing into Mama's site:-)

Three days ago, police and national guard troops told citizens to head toward the Crescent City Connection Bridge to await transportation out of the area. The citizens trekked over to the Convention Center and waited for the buses which they were told would take them to Houston or Alabama or somewhere else, out of this area.

Obviously there was some official direction to the convention centre

At 12:48 PM, September 07, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks, Mrs. A. I wonder what 49er will make of your source.

I wish I could find a list of the ten official shelters, but when I do a Google search I get about 7,000 hits, all posted in the last two or three days. It's hard to get back to August 28, when the evacuation order was made official.

At 5:51 PM, September 07, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

Interesting report, but I see some problems with the supposed 'timing'. National Guard troops are included in those giving directions to the 'connection bridge', which is apparently adjacent to the Convention Center. But the popular legend has it that NG forces didn't arrive in the city until the fourth day - wouldn't that be Thursday? Wasn't this reported as a crowd problem two days earlier?

The others credited with directing folk there were the NOPD. It might be interesting to read that portion of my "49er Updates Grades" blog on that addresses the horrible lack of police communications. They essentially didn't have any.

So this report may be fairly accurate, but the timing might be off, with the "officials" directing folk there being field officers making on-the-fly judgements that seemed to them at the time to be the least of multiple evils. After all, the hotels had already been directing people there for three days, and by that time there must of been quite a crowd.

It is still slightly possible that police headquarters - and thus the city administration - did not yet have the looming tragedy at this location on their radar - until it was too late, and they then became simply overwhelmed.

Remember, the 'shelter of last resort' was always supposed to be the Superdome. It's easy for us, watching all the available media, to think we know more than the folks manning the command post - who don't even have power. Sometimes we did know more. Sometimes we didn't.
My personal jury is still out on this, but I really appreciate Q and his readers staying the course.


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