Myanmar or New Orleans? Let’s learn the RIGHT lessons from Katrina (edited: 17 May 08)

It didn’t take long before I saw the (incorrect) drawing of a connection between the Burmese government’s refusal to allow relief to enter Myanmar, and the US response to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region. (Note, it was far more than New Orleans.) I knew it was coming. In fact, when I heard Laura Bush plead for the Burmese government to allow the international community in, I knew it was coming. In today’s era of knee-jerk hatred of Bush, the minute one speaks, all rational thought goes out the window.

For instance, one blogger, in response to the various news stories, asks “ Surely I’m not the only one who sees the irony in this.”

Again, the regular reader of this blog may remember, I wrote at the time of the relief operations following Katrina, about the barriers that hindered the relief effort. While many chose to cast FEMA and specifically, President Bush, as evil characters, they have unfortunately confused politics with reality–and unfortunately this actually hinders real progress.

First, let me state that there were some political barriers to getting relief into the city of New Orleans. Alas, the politicians that hindered the operations were the Mayor of the city, and the Governor of New Orleans. I will leave it to my brother to add the specifics. Of course these were rather insignificant barriers, compared to some of the others.

The most important barrier to providing relief operations was the storm itself. People seem to forget that our usual “quick response” forces (the Air Force) couldn’t get into the airport for a few days because the runway was still under water. I hope it comes as no surprise that you can’t land cargo planes in water. Additionally, the storm blocked and destroyed the major roads used to move into the city. So even if resupply could have made it to the airport, there was no way to move it from the ramp, to downtown. Trucks from outside the area couldn’t move in either until the roads were cleared. Finally, ports were also damaged, so ships could not quickly move in. Once the physical barriers were removed, there were other problems.

Not all barriers to success were physical. There were problems with FEMA, and other disaster response organizations. Bureaucracy does at times get in the way. There were points of confusion centered around command and control. The local authorities did not want to relinquish their control, despite the fact that the operation was regional not local.

So, to get to the point of this post, we need to learn the important lessons from Katrina. The lesson is not that President Bush was a bad President, or that he willfully chose to withhold relief (as the comparison to the Myanmar tragedy would imply.) The true lessons are in how to plan for, and execute, relief operations. If we don’t learn those lessons then we will never leave the realm of political name-calling–condemning thousands more Americans when the next tragedy strikes.


5 thoughts on “Myanmar or New Orleans? Let’s learn the RIGHT lessons from Katrina (edited: 17 May 08)

  1. I totally agree with you. I am not a fan of W, but to put the entire fiasco on him is ridiculous. There were so many outside factors that contributed to the response.

  2. Several private contractors (responsible for various disaster prep/response functions) lost very lucrative government contracts as a result of Katrina. *Federal* monies were paid to firms selected by *local* and *state* government agencies specifically to perform tasks that were, well, simply not performed.

    My university worked a project for a firm that got a “reassigned” contract after the *federal* governemnt ahd to step in and take the contracts away from the Boudreauxs, Thibedauxs, Lassiters, etc. etc. “small family owned businesses” that were getting fat off of the Louisianna Democratic Parish machine Politics organizations.

    People died, remember?

    One of our immediate and compelling findings was that

    1) The feds (including FEMA) had very detailed and specific criteria for disaster preparedness AND response tasked to a variety of “local small businesses and government agencies” that were

    2) Totally ignored by the local spoils system of assigning big-money federal grants/contracts through local parish level politicos as payola to re-election campaign supports, who set up “shell” companies to rake in the cash.

    Now while our project focused on the contracts to local bus companies to 1) move disaster aid workers INTO the affected area and 2) evacuate affected citizens BEFORE and AFTER the event (gee, how well were *those* functions performed?) , we have evidence that non-performing local contracts were WIDESPREAD.

    Yeah, O.K., it’s Bush’s fault. For giving money to Louisianna Democrats in the first place maybe.

    the other steve

  3. When I commented on my blog that specifically the local politicians in New Orleans seemed to spend more time in front of the camera whining, a reaction symbolized by Kanye West’s “George Bush hates black people” comment, the reaction was “Hey you can’t say that”. The issue there was a lot of people blaming each other rather than sucking it up when it mattered the most.

    That is a far cry from a government so pumped in its image of self-sufficiency and one that will intercept aid for its own pleasure that people will die for reasons of what appear to be bureaucratic greed and power manipulation. The only comparison here is the tragic toll of life at the hands of a similar natural event. But that is about it – especially since Burma will not have the same resources at its disposal to rebuild. Perhaps that government should look to the far more powerful communist government of China who is asking for assistance in light of their own battle with nature’s after-shocks this morning.

  4. Yeah but we have another comparison that is relevant- in both cases a communist/socialist regime (that *needs* totalitarian control to function) was unable to provide for it’s own needs internally (well, duh- that’s communism/socialism in a nutshell) and so had to look to an external capitalist system for help.

    And, again in both cases, the failed communist/socialist leadership was equally unwilling to admit that their failed system failed- so they both were reluctant to ask for the help their citizens needed.

    The names and faces may have been different- but the root causes and effects were indeed pretty darned similar after all.

    the other steve

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