As Hurricane Gustav slows down into a tropical depression today, some people in southern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi are beginning to make their way back to their homes. The last few days have been a harsh reminder of the 2005 hurricane season that changed the lives of so many.
In Gustav's aftermath, press coverage continues to applaud the improved preparation of federal government and the evacuation procedures of state governments.
The media reported that federal and local officials were ready to respond this time: there were better coordinated efforts between FEMA and other government bodies; local officials gathered enough evacuation buses and trains to take thousands of people out of New Orleans; FEMA stockpiled enough food, water, ice and other supplies for 1 million victims before Gustav hit; the Red Cross placed 3,000 volunteers beforehand.
Nagin was right. In 2005 local Louisiana officials were criticized for botched evacuation efforts, and fears of another Katrina led Nagin and Gov. Bobby Jindal to use strong language to convince people to leave and to issue an early massive mandatory evacuation that removed 95% of New Orleans' population. Across the Gulf Coast, nearly 2 million people evacuated to safety.
This time the buses did come. A 2006 Facing South investigation asked: Why didn't the buses come? before Hurricane Katrina hit. Back then we explained that the "botched evacuation of hurricane survivors was one of Katrina's biggest tragedies, perhaps the ultimate symbol of the incompetence and neglect of the relief effort. Federal agencies failed to coordinate with each other and police the corporations given hundreds of millions of dollars worth of government contracts." Evacuation buses didn't show up until a week after Hurricane Katrina hit because FEMA contracted out disaster transportation to Landstar - a trucking company run by Republican donor Jeffrey Crowe - that had no idea what it was doing.
At the national level, the Bush administration aimed to show tangible improvements this time. President Bush flew to Austin, Texas this week, to a federal emergency operations center, where he praised the performance of the government and insisted that it had learned from their mistakes. "The coordination on this storm is a lot better than during Katrina," Bush said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff toured the area before the storm, and went on to oversee the preparations from Baton Rouge. As reported by the Associated Press, Chertoff said the most important lessons learned from Katrina that have been applied in the case of Gustav are "planning, preparation, and moving early."
In fact, while many news agencies have reminded us of the failures of Nagin and Michael Brown, the head of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina, not many have pointed out Chertoff and the DHS' failed response coordination. But Chertoff's DHS, as well as other federal and state agencies, had a lot to make up for. As reported on Media Matters for America, two 2006 congressional reports on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina specifically faulted Chertoff and the DHS. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs issued a report that concluded Chertoff's agency "failed to lead an effective federal response to Hurricane Katrina" and listed specific steps Chertoff failed to take both before and after the storm. Similarly, a Congressional bipartisan committee investigating the Katrina response found that "critical elements of the National Response Plan," parts of which Chertoff was responsible for, "were executed late, ineffectively, or not at all." The report also asserted that "DHS and the states were not prepared for" Katrina.
Given the disastrous federal and local response history, it should be no surprise that in the runup to Gustav may residents of the Gulf Coast remained skeptical about the government's actions throughout the evacuation. As Salon.com reported:
New Orleanians are cynical about government. Gustav is not necessarily being overhyped, given how horrible Katrina was and how vulnerable the city remains, but there is suspicion about the motives of the responsive, attentive local officials. Hurricane Katrina's aftermath reflected horribly on the federal and local governments, and politicians cannot afford to repeat that. The mandatory evacuation protocols for Gustav have been thorough and swift-moving, whereas the protocols for Katrina seemed improvised and last-minute. Residents wonder whether by being vigilant -- or hysterical, depending on one's perspective -- officials are putting themselves in a position to be able to say "I told you so" if anyone stays behind. This time around, Mayor Nagin and all disaster-response spokespeople are making it clear that if you stay behind and are stranded on your roof waving a flag made from a bedsheet, it is you who will be held accountable, not them. Many who are riding out the storm feel that's the motive behind Nagin's emphatic plea during a press conference Saturday for citizens to flee "the mother of all storms," and "get their butts out of New Orleans."More than anything, the 2005 federal and local response and preparation failures are scarred into the memories of many along the Gulf Coast, causing many to lose faith in the ability of local and federal government to adequately prepare and respond. The levees held this time, but will they hold the next? The government responded this time, but will they next time? While vast and lauded improvements have been made during the last three years, it may still be a long while before residents regain faith in the operations of state and national agencies during a time of disaster.
People having their final pre-storm restaurant dinner in the French Quarter were heard murmuring about the government "coverin' their asses." This time around the city may have acted with the utmost caution and thoroughness in its coordination of agencies and resources. But it might be generations before New Orleanians let go of the grudge they hold against the government -- city, state, and federal -- for its failure to protect against and respond to Katrina.
(Photo: New Orleans, LA, August 30, 2008 -- Buses with evacuees empty while a State police officer watches and direct people to the lines toward check-in. Jacinta Quesada/FEMA)