It’s only water

They order these things better in Cuba; there, evacuation means that everybody leaves, down to dogs and cats:

they have family doctors in cuba (!), who evacuate together with the neighborhood, and already know who, for example, needs insulin.

they also have veterinarians and they evacuate animals. they begin evacuating immediately, and also evacuate TV sets and refrigerators, so that people aren’t relucatant to leave because people might steal their stuff.

(The ‘(!)’ isn’t mine; I don’t know what’s funny about the idea of Cubans having family doctors.) Perhaps this isn’t a great source evidentially – the speaker is talking about how things work in general – but it is borne out by the Red Cross in this story from 2002:

Hurricanes Isidore and Lili battered the whole country, especially the tobacco-growing province of Pinar del Río and the nearby Isla de la Juventud, causing widespread devastation.Cristina Estrada, a regional spokeswoman for the Red Cross, told BBC News Online that only the country’s prompt and well-organised evacuation procedures ensured no-one was killed.

“In any other country in the region it would have been a disaster in terms of loss of life,” she said.

In any other country in the region, indeed.

Going back a bit further, in 1974 they ordered these things better in Australia. As Brian notes, Cyclone Tracy passed through Darwin on Christmas Day(!) 1974. The result was the effective destruction of 70% of the buildings in the town – and a death toll of 65, or slightly more than 0.1% of the pre-cyclone population. (‘Pre-cyclone’, because all but 10,000 of the population were evacuated, and many of them decided not to come back. Understandably, perhaps – apart from anything else, do you know where Darwin is?)

What happened in New Orleans wasn’t much like either the Cuban system or the Darwin experience. On Saturday 27th August the city authorities issued a mandatory [sic] evacuation order, which was followed by many (most?) of those able to do so. For those who remained behind, the city laid on buses – which transported them, by the thousand, to assembly points within the city and left them there. Once inside what were effectively internment camps, the people of New Orleans were treated like internees everywhere – which is to say, like cattle (and not very highly-valued cattle at that). Water, food, sanitation, shelter and medicine were supplied haphazardly or not at all. No one was allowed out of the camps: locals who had survived unscathed offered to take people away in their cars but were told to stay away; survivors who could have walked out of the city were told to stay put. When buses out of the city finally came, survivors were not told where they were going until they’d got on one – nor, almost incredibly, were they allowed to get off a bus before it reached its destination.

The city at large, meanwhile, was effectively written off – far more decisively than seemed to be justified by the outbreaks of gang violence, as alarming as those were. My immediate reaction to those pictures of stranded survivors, waving from balconies and roofs as TV crews passed overhead, was to imagine similar scenes in Britain. And there my imagination failed me: I couldn’t picture that scene without adding a boat of some sort, crewed by concerned neighbours or the RNLI or Red Cross or St John’s Ambulance or the WRVS or the local Rotary Club… If disaster struck a British city, I thought, surely there’d be half a dozen charities and voluntary organisations and ad hoc committees lining up to help, even before the flood waters began to subside. What had happened to civil society over there? I still don’t know if the St John’s Ambulance and the WRVS have any US equivalent, but as it turns out that’s not really the point. What had happened was that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been approached by several hundred locals who wanted to rescue survivors using their boats, and they had turned them away. FEMA had also refused to permit external agencies to enter the city – the American Red Cross included – on the grounds that their presence in the city would slow down the evacuation. They had also refused… but I won’t go through the list; you can see it here. The long and the short of it was, the city was locked down, and locked down it would stay – whatever the immediate cost to the inhabitants of the city. In the context of a disaster recovery operation, this order of priorities seems odd, to say the least.

If all this is hard to understand, the personal interventions of George W. Bush beggar belief. He visited New Orleans on the 3rd of September – by which time evacuations were, finally, proceeding; his presence promptly halted food distribution for several hours, by imposing a no-fly zone. More culpably, he had relief and rebuilding work started for his media appearances – and halted afterwards. The story of a Potemkin food stall in New Orleans which has been circulating seems to be unfounded (thanks to Chris (in comments) for the nudge). What has been reported on German TV – the video is here (from about 3:20) – is a sudden outbreak of ground-clearing and construction work when Bush and his media crew visited Biloxi. The workers downed tools after Bush left; it was all done for the cameras. But the Biloxi charade was no more than a missed opportunity to do something more constructive – the workers had been clearing an area where nobody had actually lived before the hurricane. More seriously, vital repair work in New Orleans was started for the President’s benefit – and stopped when he no longer needed it. Also via Kos, here’s Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, writing on 3rd September:

perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment.

Paul Krugman, writing on September 1st, sums up:

Katrina hit five days ago – and it was already clear by last Friday [26th August] that Katrina could do immense damage along the Gulf Coast. Yet the response you’d expect from an advanced country never happened. Thousands of Americans are dead or dying, not because they refused to evacuate, but because they were too poor or too sick to get out without help – and help wasn’t provided.

Something’s going on. Or rather, something’s going wrong – really horribly wrong. Jamie nails the mood:

So the hurricane strikes and all of us foreigners watch the footage on the news with concern but without much anxiety. It’s just a matter of time before can-do America rolls up its sleeves and cleans up the mess, right? Time goes by and then the Mayor of New Orleans pops up on the BBC talking about bodies floating down the streets and suddenly the estimate of deaths goes up into the thousands. It’s like watching someone jump out of an aeroplane and slowly realising that that person does not, in fact, have a parachute.

There’s something weirdly soviet about all this. We’re seeing this immensely powerful country which has somehow stopped working. There’s sand in the joints and the parts don’t fit together properly. There’s a general air of sluggishness and fatalism. No-one in authority seems to know what to do about anything, or if they do, they don’t have the resources. The president looks on with vague stupefaction as bits drop off and float away.

As for what‘s going wrong, well, I’ve got a theory. Two theories, actually, and I’m not sure yet whether they fit together. I’ll let you know when I find out. Tune in tomorrow ect ect ect.

[Update: the analytical posts are here and here.]


  1. Alex
    Posted 6 September 2005 at 09:19 | Permalink | Reply

    And the Aussies remember Tracey as a national disaster of incompetence and complacency. I recall reading that the first report that the cyclone had actually gone straight over the top of Darwin came from a policeman hiding under a table in a pub who called the National Disaster Headquarters in Perth on a fortuitously still operational payphone. Most of the staff there had been permitted to enjoy their Christmas because it hadn’t been predicted to happen like that.

    The army eventually took over, and big changes were made to the emergency machinery. Darwiners had their consciousness of threat markedly increased – I was in northern Australia when Cyclone Thelma, a cat fiver and the biggest ever recorded there, headed right for the city before swinging away at the last moment, and they did a great deal of fleeing.

    (Thelma, by the way, veered towards Wyndham and Kununarra in the Kimberley, swung out to sea, threatened Broome – where I was – didn’t make good on it and eventually fizzled.)

  2. Chris Williams
    Posted 6 September 2005 at 09:38 | Permalink | Reply

    Has anyone got actual footage of the ZDF report? It’s all a bit ‘bloke in the off licence told my mate’ right now. Sure, GWB’s handlers are capable of that kind of shit (see: ‘Mission Accomplished’) but that doesn’t mean that they actually did it, and I’d rather that the goodies checked it to its source before echoing it

  3. Brian
    Posted 6 September 2005 at 12:05 | Permalink | Reply

    My recollection of Cyclone Tracy and the government’s response to it is very different from Alex’s. I was in Canberra at the time of the cyclone, and was in touch for the next few days with the emergency relief people because there were some British government employees living and working in Darwin and I was involved in getting them and their families evacuated without diverting Australian resources away from the main rescue and relief effort any more than absolutely necessary. I flew up to Darwin a few days after the cyclone and saw at first hand the relief and evacuation work going on. It was impressively efficient and successful. There are some facts and figures about the timeliness of it here. The army general in charge of the whole thing was in Darwin directing operations within less than 24 hours of the cyclone hitting.

    Australians are not great admirers of politicians and generals and I’m not surprised that history has been re-written to make them look as if they were inefficient in dealing with Tracy. And no doubt lessons were learned from Tracy that were applied in future emergencies. But I submit that the record shows that the official response to the Darwin cyclone was prompt, well organised, and extremely effective.


  4. Brian
    Posted 6 September 2005 at 13:23 | Permalink | Reply

    Oh, and another thing about Darwin and Cyclone Tracy: I’m pretty sure thet Alex’s story about the policeman under the table with a still-working payphone (how many payphones are situated under tables?) being the first to report the cyclone to the outside world is apocryphal. Darwin’s telephone system depended on a wireless link to the rest of Australia and almost all the wireless aerial masts were blown away by the cyclone. The British staff mentioned in my previous comment were there to operate a wireless relay station re-transmitting UK diplomatic traffic between London, S E Asia and Australia, and two of their aerial masts survived, although damaged. They managed to get them working and were able to radio messages reporting the cyclone to us in Canberra and to London. We in turn informed the federal government. I think they also got a message at about the same time from a Royal Australian Navy ship off Darwin. It took a while for ordinary telephone and radio communications to be restored.


  5. Alex
    Posted 6 September 2005 at 15:38 | Permalink | Reply

    All right then, I’ll fold and accept superior knowledge.

    @Christ: Try this link for a list of links to the TV footage and a translation:

    I speak German fluently and I can vouch for the translation’s accuracy.

  6. Chris Williams
    Posted 6 September 2005 at 19:24 | Permalink | Reply

    Alex (and Phil), there’s more here which significantly qualifies the ‘my mate told me’ version:

    It still leaves GWB looking bad, though.

  7. Phil
    Posted 6 September 2005 at 19:38 | Permalink | Reply

    Chris – yep, already fixed.

  8. Alex
    Posted 7 September 2005 at 13:16 | Permalink | Reply

    There is another German TV report from the same day, which says the same thing but comes from a reporter with ARD (=BBC1) rather than ZDF(=Ch4).

    You can get it here:,1315,OID4700936_RESreal256_PLYinternal_NAV_BAB,00.html

    That makes 2 independent sources.

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