Saturday, September 10, 2005

Rubbernecking

This post is a bit out of date. I'd written it up last week but didn't manage to post it then. Anyways...

I had followed the Katrina tragedy for the first few days so closely that my office-mate called me a 'rubbernecker.'

It was quite impressive the way the authorities managed to empty the city systematically. One-way only traffic on highways and efficient early-warning systems worked flawlessly.

I was following the story almost all night long when the hurricane was about to strike, because I was wondering if any of the worst-case predictions would come true. Because of their excellent infrastructure and preparations, most such events have a happy ending in America. The dangers are usually exaggerated and the worst fears are mostly unfounded.

That seemed to be true again, because there was no direct hit on New Orleans. But the story all of a sudden took a completely new twist.

The levees broke, and it turned out that several thousand poor folks were left in the city after all.

For those first couple of days, CNN etc. had no clue about what was going on. Boingboing had links to nola.com and a bunch of other blogs and some of those blogs started reporting about the developing crisis.

I wasn't going to do anything about it, but I was developing almost a morbid fascination. I told myself I was interested because I wanted to see how the Americans respond and how India and others should respond in such a situation. I'm not sure if that was the truth though...

Boingboing also added a link to Interdictor - a blog that seemed to corroborate the overall story as it developed: first the tragedy, then the violence, then the anarchy.... The mainstream media was still mostly clueless.

At this point, I thought that the American machine (the Federal government) would move into top gear and fix the problem. Bush returned to DC - I didn't expect anything to come of that. He took some little irrelevant actions - like asking Clinton and his dad to raise money. Silly!

But folks like Chertoff lined up on TV and said they'll fix it. I believed they could. I thought folks like Interdictor were not smart when they asked for the military to step in. What would the military do differently? And didn't the Americans have a law that did not allow for military intervention in civilian situations?

The news continued to get worse. Ray Nagin and the Louisiana governor kept complaining and the Interdictor kept providing illustrations and pictures - lawlessness on the streets, stolen guns, powerless cops... Other blogs added more info. Someone who'd left New Orleans explained that some cops had also left with their families since they assumed the worst this time around.

Only after 4-5 days did the actual, appropriate response materialize: the military stepped in, they started dropping food packets, and started rescuing people using all their awesome equipment.

Some lessons to draw:
  • The initial response to an 'unscripted' tragedy is always haphazard, be it the Gujarat earthquake or broken New Orleans levees
  • The military will have a role to play for a long time even in the US; at least until the different Homeland Security organizations develop interoperable communications and learn to work together by pooling resources; the DHS does not have a plan and the guys who run it don't seem to have a clue; going back to multiple individual agencies won't solve the problem either
  • I am going out on a limb here, but it seemed like they weren't even dropping food packets until the military came in; that's pretty much standard operating procedure in such situations, no? It seems like the US government may have some lessons to learn from other governments
  • The problem is not one of resources - the US has sufficient resources on the homeland security front - but they are not efficiently used at all

Was I rubbernecking? May be. But there are so many lessons to learn here also. Wish I could do more to help the victims though.


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