Of all the countless questions that will have to be asked when investigations into the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina get underway, perhaps the first should be this: "How many local, state and federal administrators in charge of disaster management have actually been through a hurricane?"
When a Category 4 hurricane like Katrina reaches full roar, its energy can be expressed only in terms of the explosions of multiple atomic bombs. Unless you've experienced a major hurricane, it's all too easy to underestimate its awful power. Grasping its real danger requires something that so many of us find hard to do -- acknowledging that there's a force in this world that's powerful beyond our comprehension and against which we are helpless.
Politicians seem to find this kind of self-effacement especially difficult, and their unwillingness to acknowledge how little they know has led to disaster more than once. Katrina may be only the latest example of clueless leaders mishandling a crisis because they didn't realize the deadly consequences of ignorance.
Many times in the past century, stunned survivors and political leaders groped for explanations of how a hurricane could have caught so many people unprepared and inflicted so much death and destruction. Each time, determined investigators vowed to find out what went wrong. Those charged with looking into Katrina might find some useful guidance in the questions asked in those earlier inquiries. Although the times and places were different, there's a sad consistency in the mistakes that were made, the tragedies that resulted, and the lessons that apparently weren't learned.
Any inquiry into this most recent disaster might want answers to these broad questions:
Did the people in charge of emergency management really understand New Orleans's unusual vulnerability to a powerful hurricane?
The weaknesses in the levees protecting New Orleans -- much of which is below sea level and surrounded by water -- didn't appear a month ago. Since Katrina, it's been widely reported that many public officials at many levels knew the levees couldn't withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. Also, on June 29 of this year, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, told a congressional subcommittee on disaster prevention that the United States "is more vulnerable to a hurricane catastrophe today than at any time in our nation's history." Mayfield said that storm surge is a hurricane's deadliest weapon, "especially in hard-to-evacuate areas like the Florida Keys and New Orleans." He also told the committee that about 85 percent of U.S. coastal residents had never been through the worst of a major hurricane.
Was anyone at all listening when Mayfield made his presentation? Did any of these warnings sink in with emergency management officials at any level? Was there no money available to at least reduce the threat of flooding in New Orleans that would be caused by a powerful hurricane, which was certain to strike sooner or later? Did local, state or federal politics prevent work from being done on the New Orleans levees? Politics has taken precedence in other storm situations, with spectacularly tragic results.
In 1928, political leaders were very familiar with the dangers caused by flooding whenever hurricanes passed near Florida's huge Lake Okeechobee. But they couldn't stop squabbling over whether to build a flood control system -- until a massive hurricane blew across the lake in September and shoved a wall of water through several towns, killing at least 2,000 people. Work on a massive levee started the next year.
What happened with the lines of communication? Who was supposed to be communicating with whom, and did everyone understand what was being said?
As Hurricane Katrina departed the Gulf Coast, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security officials were claiming that New Orleans residents were being helped even as TV blared news reports of violent chaos at the Superdome and dramatic pleas for help from Mayor Ray Nagin. The ludicrous contrast undoubtedly made millions of viewers question whether anyone in Washington was talking to anyone in Louisiana, or vice versa. Watching and reading reports of the awkwardness and coolness between President Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- each seemed to be wordlessly blaming the other for the stumbling and inadequate response -- was enough to make you wonder whether this is the current example of a communications breakdown setting up a catastrophe.
After Katrina, timely federal aid would have saved lives and reduced suffering. Investigators need to find out whether there was a clearly defined plan for sending federal aid, how it was to be set in motion, and who was supposed to make the first call to whom. In the aftermath, I heard one U.S. mayor on TV say that he understood that federal aid in a disaster would be automatically triggered after 72 hours, while another said he expected it after 48. Which is it? Katrina reached Category 5 intensity a day before it made landfall. Was anyone in FEMA aware of this, and had anyone bothered to pick up the phone and touch base with Louisiana officials before the storm hit? Conversely, did local officials ask Washington to stand by?
The history of hurricane catastrophes is full of examples of botched communications, as the investigation into the great Labor Day hurricane of 1935, which killed more than 400, shows. That year, the Roosevelt administration sent hundreds of World War I veterans to the Florida Keys to work on a highway project. Their only sure protection from a hurricane was evacuation aboard a special train to be ordered from the Florida East Coast Railway in Miami. After discussing evacuation plans with railway officials, supervisors believed that a train would be available at a moment's notice. But the investigation showed they had completely misunderstood what the railway had said about a train's availability. As a monster hurricane approached over Labor Day, the supervisors called for help -- too late. By the time the railroad was able to dispatch a train, it was blown off the tracks.
Did officials understand the advisories they were getting from weather forecasters? Did they grasp how long it would take to accomplish their evacuation plans, and what could happen if they didn't?
On Aug. 28, as Katrina strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Weather Service issued an unusually alarming advisory, warning of "devastating damage" and calling Katrina a storm of "unprecedented strength" that rivaled the intensity of the infamous Hurricane Camille.
Invoking the name "Camille" should have sent a chill down the spine of anyone who grew up on the Gulf Coast. The second-strongest hurricane to strike the United States, Camille made landfall at Pass Christian, Miss., in August 1969. Was anyone other than local officials aware of how dire this warning about Katrina was? Did local officials alert those farther up the chain of their worries? Or was this merely the latest in a series of advisories that had been coming out for days, thus not alarming to anyone outside the Gulf Coast?
A complicating factor is that a hurricane warning may not mean much to anyone who's never seen one before. The supervisors in charge of the Keys work camps in 1935 received warnings that a storm had formed in the Florida Straits. They made frequent phone calls to the U.S. Weather Bureau in Miami, fixating on the words "immediate danger." As long as they were told they weren't in immediate danger, they didn't move to evacuate the veterans. But they seemed to think that immediate danger meant the storm had to be visible on the horizon. By the time it became clear that the danger was upon them, it was too late to carry out their evacuation plan.
How much did the people living in New Orleans understand about the dangers they faced every summer and how to protect themselves? Did local officials work to combat complacency?
Leaving your home in the face of a hurricane warning is an annoyance, and the more often it happens, the more annoying it becomes -- especially if the storm changes course at the last minute. This had happened several times in New Orleans, even as recently as last year, when Hurricane Ivan menaced the city before veering away and striking just west of Pensacola, Fla. Sometimes, people simply don't have the means to leave -- certainly the case for many in the Crescent City.
So the question becomes this: How did New Orleans officials enforce the evacuation order before Hurricane Katrina? Dealing with stubborn residents who refuse to obey an evacuation order is difficult, time-consuming and sometimes dangerous. In some coastal cities, police give residents who refuse to leave an indelible ink marker and tell them to write their Social Security numbers on their arms so their bodies can be identified if they're killed -- a tactic that often gets reluctant residents moving. Was New Orleans's evacuation order effective? Or were too many people left to make their own decisions about leaving? Could more have been done to make residents aware of the dangers they faced?
Could local leaders have made better use of the resources available to them?
Perhaps there weren't enough New Orleans city or school buses to evacuate everyone who didn't have the means to leave, even after the flooding began. But the question needs to be asked. After the 1935 Keys hurricane, camp administrators were asked why they didn't use construction trucks to evacuate the veterans. Some thought that would have been too dangerous, especially as the storm approached. Others thought the vets should wait for the train.
Katrina's aftermath and the New Orleans flooding are unique in U.S. hurricane history, so there also are questions peculiar to this tragedy:
* Why wasn't the Superdome supplied with enough food and water to take care of 30,000 people for two or three days? Hurricane-savvy residents in coastal cities know they need to stock their homes with enough food and water to last several days. If the Louisiana Superdome was designated the "shelter of last resort," shouldn't it have been stocked with supplies for those who came there?
* Couldn't National Guard troops have been moved in more quickly to maintain order?
* FEMA moved quickly and efficiently into Florida last summer to provide relief after four powerful hurricanes struck there. If the agency was able to do that in 2004 -- an election year, many will point out -- why couldn't it do something similar in New Orleans and Mississippi?
No government agency can prevent a powerful hurricane from inflicting massive damage, nor can it completely eliminate the chaos and suffering that follows. It can't eliminate the orneriness of human nature that inevitably complicates even the best plans for disaster relief.
But hurricane experts say we've entered a cycle of more active hurricane seasons, expected to continue at least another 10 years. So we need answers to what went wrong this time -- and we need to apply what we learn to our emergency management procedures, with more success than in the past. Otherwise, the spectacular death and destruction caused by Katrina could be only the beginning of a deadly deluge of disasters on our coasts.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Willie Drye is the author of "Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935" (National Geographic). He lives in North Carolina.