It turns out that there was an article in the July 18, 2005 US News and World Report pointing out the dangers to New Orleans of a big hurricane:
New Orleans is more vulnerable today than ever. Development and levee construction have put 500,000 acres of nearby coastal wetlands under water since 1965, eliminating buffers against the wind-fueled spikes in water levels known as storm surges. Even a Betsy-like Level 3 storm, which has winds of up to 130 mph, is now more likely to trigger storm surges in the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain that could spill over levee walls. The resulting flood could take months to drain. "You're talking about creating a refugee camp for a million homeless residents," says van Heerden.
The city's levees, meanwhile, aren't intended to protect from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane (a 5 has winds greater than 155 mph and storm surges above 18 feet), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at least a decade away from upgrading to that level of protection. The corps says the current levee system doesn't provide full protection from even Category 3 storms, which could be the scariest scenario of all. "If a Category 5 storm enters the Gulf, I don't think we'll have to encourage people to leave--it'll be an easy sell," says New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. Category 3 or 4 storms, though, "are more dangerous . . . the community says, 'We might ride this out.'"
There's quite a bit of blame to go around. The local and state officials who delayed the evacuation order and made next to no provision for evacuating those without cars bear significant blame. As is shown by the above article, this was predictable. The Federal Government bears some responsibility, although it is important to note that for the most part the Federal Government's role is to act upon invitation from the state and local first responders. But they should have been more geared up. Unfortunately, I think my ex-boss Michael Chertoff is going to bear the brunt of the criticism (as opposed to the bleating mayor of New Orleans and governor of Louisiana), but maybe instead of taking the hit by being pilloried President Bush will nominate him to the Supreme Court (that's my hope, anyway). That said, Chertoff's agency does bear some responsibility; although I know they've been focuses on terrorist acts and the like, terrorists blowing up the levees was certainly a scenario they should have anticipated, and the detonation of a radiological weapon would have a lot of the same effects; required evacuation of a large affected urban area to remain in effect for some time.
Robert Tracinski wrote a column in TIA Daily which underscored a very interesting difference between this disaster and other disasters (big and small) in U.S. History, though:
For journalists, natural disasters also have a familiar pattern: the heroism of ordinary people pulling together to survive; the hard work and dedication of doctors, nurses, and rescue workers; the steps being taken to clean up and rebuild.
Public officials did not expect that the first thing they would have to do is to send thousands of armed troops in armored vehicle, as if they are suppressing an enemy insurgency. And journalists—myself included—did not expect that the story would not be about rain, wind, and flooding, but about rape, murder, and looting.
. . . .
For the past few days, I have found the news from New Orleans to be confusing. People were not behaving as you would expect them to behave in an emergency—indeed, they were not behaving as they have behaved in other emergencies. That is what has shocked so many people: they have been saying that this is not what we expect from America. In fact, it is not even what we expect from a Third World country.
When confronted with a disaster, people usually rise to the occasion. They work together to rescue people in danger, and they spontaneously organize to keep order and solve problems. This is especially true in America. We are an enterprising people, used to relying on our own initiative rather than waiting around for the government to take care of us. I have seen this a hundred times, in small examples (a small town whose main traffic light had gone out, causing ordinary citizens to get out of their cars and serve as impromptu traffic cops, directing cars through the intersection) and large ones (the spontaneous response of New Yorkers to September 11).
So what explains the chaos in New Orleans?
. . . .
75% of the residents of New Orleans had already evacuated before the hurricane, and of those who remained, a large number were from the city's public housing projects. Jack Wakeland then told me that early reports from CNN and Fox indicated that the city had no plan for evacuating all of the prisoners in the city's jails—so they just let many of them loose.
. . . .
There were many decent, innocent people trapped in New Orleans when the deluge hit—but they were trapped alongside large numbers of people from two groups: criminals—and wards of the welfare state, people selected, over decades, for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness. The welfare wards were a mass of sheep—on whom the incompetent administration of New Orleans unleashed a pack of wolves.
All of this is related, incidentally, to the incompetence of the city government, which failed to plan for a total evacuation of the city, despite the knowledge that this might be necessary. In a city corrupted by the welfare state, the job of city officials is to ensure the flow of handouts to welfare recipients and patronage to political supporters—not to ensure a lawful, orderly evacuation in case of emergency.
. . . .
What Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological consequences of the welfare state. What we consider "normal" behavior in an emergency is behavior that is normal for people who have values and take the responsibility to pursue and protect them. People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don't sit around and complain that the government hasn't taken care of them. And they don't use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men.
But what about criminals and welfare parasites? Do they worry about saving their houses and property? They don't, because they don't own anything. Do they worry about what is going to happen to their businesses or how they are going to make a living? They never worried about those things before. Do they worry about crime and looting? But living off of stolen wealth is a way of life for them.
People living in piles of their own trash, while petulantly complaining that other people aren't doing enough to take care of them and then shooting at those who come to rescue them—this is not just a description of the chaos at the Superdome. It is a perfect summary of the 40-year history of the welfare state and its public housing projects.
It's a pretty harsh assessment of the survivors, but I think it bears some thought; I've never (thankfully) lived through anything so disastrous, but I have lived through storms in Arizona during monsoon season. After one (which included a small cyclone) which knocked out power for a couple of days and caused massive flooding, everybody in my neighborhood ran around making sure people were OK, and went door to door with generators and sump pumps to help each other out. Instead of seeing those stories (which, as Tracinski notes, is the typical story you see after these types of disasters) I saw stories about a terrified woman who had to defend her house from marauding looters with a handgun, which she fired in the air to frighten them away. Those people should have been coming to make sure she was OK, not to pillage.
This just isn't the American way.