Barnie is right to be angry and he is right to call the pre-Katrina preparation and the post-Katrina response a governance disaster. He deserves better responses than blogspammers which was all I saw before his two Katrina posts vanished.

While I share much of Barnie’s disgust, I hope he is even madder about the workings of contemporary government after reading our column next Tuesday. But what to do?

We can all be fairly sure that – at least for the next decade – water, food and body bags will arrive in a more timely manner. We can all hope that police officers will not turn in their badges and head for high ground. I expect all sorts of post-event things will change even if the President and the Governor are also from different political tribes the next time there is a disaster.

But what is it that an individual can do beside being mad and hoping their donations do not end up in the wrong pocket?

Here is a brief list of items. It is not intended to be exhaustive, there are books on the topic and every household should have one. These are just things to jog your thinking:

In your New Urban Region:

Go to the regional agency responsible for mobility, access and settlement patterns and ask to see the long-range plan for preventing and managing known potential catastrophes. Find out if it outlines areas to harden the defenses against wind, water, fire and earth (as in quakes, slides, subsidence, etc).

Ok, that is a trick task. There is not one single agency in any region in the United States with that responsibility. Given the current trends in destructive weather patterns and stated threats to life and infrastructure would it not be a good idea to have such an agency for every region? Our next column outlines the issues our firm examined 33 years ago for the Louisiana State Office of Planning and the suggestions we made. If these strategies had been implemented the impact of Katrina and the next Big One to hit Greater New Orleans would have been fundamentally different.

So your first region-scale task is to work for Fundamental Change in governance–think PROPERTY DYNAMICS.

In the meantime, you can address some specifics. See if the building code in your jurisdiction is “post Andrew” and if the very same code applies in all jurisdictions in the region.

You can also be sure no one tries to sell “the roads for evacuations” myth. The physics of mobility / access and the reality of storm track predictions makes building roads to escape large urban are to avoid hurricanes a non-starter. Even with a lot of warning a large percentage of any urban population has no access to private vehicles. Trying to run away from most natural phenomena or acts of terror is useless but details are beyond the scope of this note.

Unfortunately, you will not have much more luck at the Alpha Community scale than at the New Urban Region scale. No big municipality (e.g. Fairfax County) covers just one Alpha Community and no small municipality (e.g. the City of Falls Church) covers all of any one Alpha Community. See our column “Where is Northern Virginia.” 18 August 2003 at db4.dev.baconsrebellion.com . Again the first long-term task is governance restructuring. The same is true at the Alpha Village and Alpha Neighborhood and Alpha Cluster scales.

At the Alpha Dooryard scale there are some things you can do.

Who in your dooryard has a generator? If it is not you, have you asked the owner if you could store extra gasoline and heavy duty extension cords. How about getting together to acquire enough generators in the dooryard so that power is available for a few hours a day–not just for the ice maker but for sump pump, fans and heaters–for say 2 weeks. How about a Labor Day block party where everyone test their generators and emergency wiring plans.

What about snowblowers? Take the same steps with snow equipment as with the generators.

What about tree maintenance? Even healthy trees fall in bad storms. If there are substantial trees in your dooryard treat chain saws like generators and snowblowers.

Are there enough plastic tarps in the dooryard to cover holes in the roof and ladders long enough to reach the roofs?

You have even more control inside the dwelling unit. Is there enough water and food for you and your pets for a week? Here we slip into the area where there is a lot of good advice. Be sure it is not just advice for other people.

If you have a hard to maintain house or yard, it might be smart to think smaller and more easily maintained.

The nice thing about the dooryard scale projects is that you can drum up citizens support for taking action at the larger scales of the settlement pattern.

Together you can get after the power company to harden and defend the power grid–not just the transmission grid but also the distribution grid.

Together you can get after VDOT to unblock the culvert that backs up over the road in every thunderstorm.

If you and your clustermates have a special vulnerability think about organizing a subdivision recycling program–recycling the subdivision, not plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

That should be enough to focus your post-Katrina anger into future event security.


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  1. I’ve often said that recycling bottles and cans was the wrong approach, that instead we should have deposits on capital goods like cars and refrigerators. If the manufacturers new they were going to get them back, they would build them so they can be repaired.

    But I never thought about recycling a whole subdivision. How do you propose that woulod work?

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    I think this advice very much misses the point.

    Katrina was a disaster, in no small part, for the same reason that September 11 occurred – inability to admit what one saw was really happening.

    I have a sister whose family lives in Metairie – and have been visiting New Orleans regularly since I was ten or eleven. Bluntly, the key failures here were:

    1. An inability to suspend disbelief and admit that the big one was really happening.

    2. Not following the disaster plan, which included additional counterflow of traffic – the traffic DID get out of the city, people were not stuck on I10 when the hurricane hit – and busing people without cars out of the city. There were city and school buses sufficient for tens of thousands to leave in a single trip.

    Please look at the series “Washing Away”, originally published in 2002, on the Times Picayune web site, specifically the “whols left behind” portion and the portion discussing the disaster plan – which was not followed.

    3. I fail to see what a New Urban Region Government would have accomplished, other than preventing those parishes that did maintain order from doing so. This was a failure of leadership and a failure to follow a known and workable plan.

    4. The most important thing, in an emergency, is rapid response. The fire department needs to get there before the house burns down. The EMT’s need to get there before the patient dies. The rescuer needs to get there before the homeowner drowns in their attic. RAPID RESPONSE is key.

    5. The other suggestions you list, frankly, would have made virtually no difference.

    There were generators – which were in some cases flooded and in other cases ran out of gas after a week.

    Trees cannot be cut when they are under ten feet of water and trees were not the main problem.

    Plastic tarps were not a key missing need.

    Water and food for you and your pets for a week do not matter when you are stuck in your attic up to your neck in water. Furthermore, people with water and food were being robbed by those who had not planned.

    No matter how much you harden the power grid, it’s going to fail when you have ten feet of water in a city for months.

    Bottom line – what New Orleans needed was to BELIEVE. From that they needed to follow their emergency response plan, and bus out their vulnerable residents. The state and the feds failed in not getting there fast enough – would you accept a one week turnaround from an ambulance? – and in not keeping civil order.

    These are not do-it-yourself tasks.

    People died because those basics were screwed up. They did not die because there was not a New Urban Region. Governments already knew what to do and they failed miserably at every level.

    I have rarely been so angry as when I heard Chertoff call the levee breach a second disaster and claim it was unexpected. In fact, a levee breach was EXPECTED to happen in a major hurrican.

    His statement was arguably the most criminally stupid thing I have heard an government official say in my entire life. When the press and the New Orleans general public know more than the Department of Homeland Security, something is VERY wrong.

  3. E M Risse Avatar

    I do not usually respond to anonymous post but will make and exception because you completely miss the intent of this post.

    None of the suggestions relate to the New Orleans New Urban Region. They relate to your New Urban Region and to your dooryard.

    Our next column deals with the New Orleans New Urban Region. I suspect if there was time to sort out the facts and perceptions you and I would agree about Greater New Orleans.

    The core of Greater New Orleans may have been the most vulnerable urban agglomeration in the United States. Much of the costal United States is as vulnerable as Costal Mississippi which learned nothing from Camile, 1969.

    Dysfunctional human settlement patterns are indefenceable death traps in every region.


  4. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Ed, One of your comments really hit home: “See if the building code in your jurisdiction is “post Andrew.” I spent the Labor Day weekend in Sandbridge (south of the Virginia Beach resort area, for those not familiar with it) and took a long, early-morning walk with my Dad. He was describing the three generations of housing there. The 40- to 50-year-old houses were squat cinderblock structures. Many got wiped out in some long-forgotten hurricane, and the city enacted a zoning code that required all new structures to be built on pilings that could withstand a major storm surge. The second generation of Sandbridge houses, built on pilings, has withstood what the Atlantic Ocean has hurled at the area so far. Now we’re seeing a third generation of housing. Coastal real estate is so valuable that people are tearing down the modest piling-built houses and building million-dollar homes without pilings. At the very least, the downstairs of these structures will be obliterated in any storm surge. I’m not sure why the previous code wasn’t being applied, but it most certainly isn’t.

    When the inevitable hurricane hits Virginia Beach, the damage will be far more extensive than it need have been. Someone will have to pick up the tab — either the insurance companies or the federal government, probably both. I’m not one to engage in class warfare. I have no problem, for instance, with cutting tax rates for the upper-income brackets. But I do have a problem with subsidizing the construction of milion-dollar houses on fragile coastline and then having society at large share the financial risk associated with that that construction. Something is terribly out of whack.

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