Sept. 1, 2005 – In the years, months and weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States, engineers, environmentalists and military personnel predicted disaster for the Louisiana city of New Orleans. Now, with most of the cityâ€™s downtown area under water, hundreds if not thousands of residents dead, and tens of thousands of evacuees relying on government aid for survival, the forecastersâ€™ worst fears are being realized.
As the humanitarian situation worsened in many areas hit by Mondayâ€™s monster hurricane, authorities from local, state and federal bodies defended the level of preparedness and response to the disaster. In stark contrast, 24-hour news coverage of Katrinaâ€™s aftermath showed a deepening crisis as desperate storm victims in Louisiana and Mississippi pleaded for help in finding water, food, shelter and missing loved ones.
In New Orleans, as floodwaters continued to pour into the city yesterday, much of which lies below sea level, live video coverage depicted the sluggish rate at which rescuers in helicopters were able to pluck stranded residents from rooftops.
By early evening, local authorities said the water level was not rising anymore, but an unknown number of people were still waiting evacuation, including medical personnel and patients stuck in hospitals without running water or reliable electricity. And journalists on the ground, such as CNNâ€™s Kim Segal, were simultaneously reporting that water levels were still visibly rising, forcing people seeking refuge on Canal Street to move block-by-block toward the Mississippi River.
In a series of high profile press conferences and interviews with major news networks, authorities promised help is coming and said they are putting aid infrastructure into place as quickly as possible.
Yet, officials and experts have known for years that a strong hurricane could devastate bowl-shaped New Orleans much like Katrina just did, prompting questions about why more was not done in advance to mitigate the damage or respond more effectively in the stormâ€™s wake. For years, scientists had warned that a direct hit on New Orleans by a large hurricane could create the conditions for massive flooding. The cityâ€™s system of levees and pumps, they said, might not withstand such extreme weather conditions.
The US Army Corps of Engineers had been working with local officials to strengthen the cityâ€™s defenses in case of a massive storm, but federal funding for improving the levee system and implementing other projects to keep water from overtaking New Orleans dwindled under the Bush administration.
Earlier this year, an article in the New Orleans CityBusiness detailed the funding shortfalls faced by the Corps of Engineers in efforts to build $114 million worth of hurricane protection projects. With federal funding down by more than 44 percent from 2001 levels, Stan Green, project manager for the Corpsâ€™s Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, told CityBusiness that no new contracts for construction had been awarded since early in fiscal year 2004. Even before that, reported CityBusiness, work had slowed and fewer projects had been taken on because of funding shortfalls.
Iraq war funding had taken priority over domestic disaster prevention to the chagrin of local officials. "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay," Walter Maestri, a New Orleans emergency management official, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in mid-2004. "Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."
The Bush administration also has made significant changes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), shifting funds away from pre-disaster preparation and implementing policies to promote outsourcing of relief efforts to private companies.
In the summer of 2004, reported the Independent Weekly, FEMA denied Louisiana funding for pre-disaster preparation. Such funding has traditionally paid for items like generators and other necessities for dealing with a stormâ€™s aftermath. Meanwhile, FEMA workers had been warning that the emphasis on cutting costs and farming out tasks to private contractors had the potential to slow response times in emergency situations.
Whether the underfunding of the Army Corps of Engineers projects or FEMAâ€™s shifting priorities contributed to the widespread death and suffering this week in Louisiana and Mississippi is unclear so far. But it is apparent that for many, government help is not arriving fast enough.
In New Orleans, thousands still await evacuation, many stranded on rooftops, their houses completely surrounded by water. Hospital workers in the city told national news media that they are desperate for help while they battle disease, exhaustion, power outages and shortages of food and water, awaiting evacuation of their patients and relief for themselves.
In Mississippi areas that bore the brunt of Katrinaâ€™s winds and storm surges, thousands of newly homeless, cut off from the outside world by buried roads and downed communications, begged through TV camera lenses for help as they waited for food, water and emergency shelter to arrive.
The dire situation and lack of immediate assistance has critics of the Iraq war clamoring to point out that National Guard forces, which traditionally provide a crucial source of personnel in natural disasters, are depleted in the states hit by Katrina. In fact, even before the hurricane formed, some predicted that with so many of Louisianaâ€™s soldiers in Iraq instead of at home, the state would face shortages in the case of a large storm.
An August 1 story by ABC 26, a local news affiliate, detailed how many of the Guardâ€™s high water vehicles, refuelers and generators â€“ coveted equipment in Louisiana right now â€“ are in Iraq.
"The National Guard needs that equipment back home to support the homeland security mission," Lieutenant Colonel Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard told ABC 26.
Both the Department of Defense and the White House have been quick to insist that the war in Iraq is not affecting the level of responsiveness to Hurricane Katrina.
According to the Associated Press, about 6,000 National Guard members from Mississippi and Louisiana are in Iraq right now. Officials told the AP that of the remaining personnel in Louisiana, more than half -- about 3,000 soldiers â€“ were assisting with the hurricane relief effort in the hours after the hurricane passed; the rest were on standby. Mississippi had deployed fewer of its available soldiers â€“ 853 according to the AP â€“ and had available nearly 3,000 more.
But on-the-scene accounts from people living the horror of rising floodwaters and the snailâ€™s pace of the evacuations in New Orleans make the need for more personnel apparent. In Mississippi towns nearly completely destroyed by the hurricane, survivorsâ€™ frustration and anger rose as days passed without the arrival of basic necessities or even emergency instructions.
National Guard members from other states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, are mobilizing to help with the relief effort. The Department of Homeland Security, which is coordinating the federal governmentâ€™s response, said it is sending urban search squads, medical teams, and more than 1,700 trucks carrying water, generators and other supplies.
But for many of those trapped and without basic necessities, the help literally cannot arrive soon enough.