Left Behind

Saturday, September 3, 2005

THE LACK OF National Guard troops because of the war in Iraq; the Bush administration's failure to protect coastal wetlands; the reorganization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: All have been blamed, somewhat arbitrarily, for the stunning scenes of chaos at the New Orleans Superdome and convention center, for the unprecedented floodwaters in the city, and for the huge numbers of people without food or water. But if blame is to be laid and lessons are to be drawn, one point stands out as irrefutable: Emergency planners must focus much more on the fate of that part of the population that -- for reasons of poverty, infirmity, distrust of officialdom, lack of transportation or lack of information -- cannot be counted on to leave their homes after an evacuation order.

Tragically, authorities in New Orleans were aware of this problem. Certainly the numbers were known. Shirley Laska, an environmental and disaster sociologist at the University of New Orleans, had only recently calculated that some 57,000 New Orleans Parish households, or approximately 125,000 people, did not have access to cars or other private transportation. In the months before the storm, the city's emergency planners did debate the challenges posed by these numbers, which are much higher than in other hurricane-prone parts of the country, such as Florida. Because a rapid organization of so many buses would have been impractical, the city's emergency managers considered the use of trains and cruise ships. The New Orleans charity Operation Brother's Keeper had tried to get church congregations to match up car-owners with the carless, and it had produced a DVD on the subject of hurricane evacuations that was to be distributed later this month. Unfortunately, none of these plans was advanced enough to have had much impact this week.

Instead the city decided to use the Superdome as a "shelter of last resort." Following that decision, a major mistake was made: Not enough food, water or portable toilets were made available to accommodate the enormous number of people who turned up. No one in the federal, state or city governments appears to have been prepared for the possibility that thousands would be forced to stay there nearly a week. With some forethought, the National Guard troops who arrived yesterday could have been en route before, or even immediately after, the storm. Five days was too long to tell people to wait without supplies.

The question now is whether other major U.S. cities have focused on their immobile and impoverished residents to the degree that they should. Much of the emergency preparedness literature that has appeared on the Internet and elsewhere has focused on driving, on evacuation routes and on portable supplies. The events in New Orleans should force homeland security officials across the country to understand that this is not enough: Some thought must also be given to the fate of people who cannot or will not leave. The National Guard and FEMA should anticipate that some will remain behind, and food and water should be set aside for them. If fingers are to be pointed in the wake of this tragedy, this is one direction to point them.

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