Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina Relief Work – Actors on Stage

1. Louisiana Governor Blanco
The weakest link in the overall apparatus of Governance. She failed to prod local governments in the first place to be more prepared and then could not muster enough resources in timely manner from Fed in the aftermath. She is supposed to be a crucial link in asking resources – it was too late and she could not back those requests with the needed political backing. Besides her demeanor has been very unimaginative, pedantic not at all the one which could motivate the government machinery. Jeb Bush in Florida has set the bar in this regard and she failed that.

2. New Orleans Mayor Nagin
Once the essential machinery at his disposal was completely overwhelmed, he had much less in his hands to make any difference. He remained in New Orleans all along and then did a critical function – basically being the official reporter about the state of affairs. His SOS call and the subsequent interview to a local radio station; dramatized the situation as warranted by the reality. One does not know whether it had any concrete positive impact in getting the Federal help by Friday; but it played out rightly in the Media. He proved to be quite an adapt and effective in playing the Media to the advantage of the city.

The thing he could have done better was making more forceful evacuation of the city. By earlier Saturday suddenly the storm turned into Category 4/5 from 2 and it became clear that it was heading straight to New Orleans. He and the State gave the evacuation order on Saturday and the mass evacuation started in earnest on Saturday. It left only 24 to 36 hours for the city to get empty. Looking at the traffic jam and the case of many with no personal transport; planning of mass transportation would have been helpful. It is also unclear how much of a role he played in deciding Superdome as the last resort shelter. Looking back, it is not simple to categorize that call as the best; especially considering the lacking supporting resources over there. But on the other hand that chaos at Superdome and Convention Center is better than having all these people stranded in their individual homes. That would have multiplied the potential deaths by ultra thinly stretched evacuation operation. How Convention Center became the shelter is an interesting story. It was not one of the originally designated shelters. Some police told some people to stay there. Surrounding hotels asked tourists to gather there and then it roll balled into a full fledge refugee camp with all the attendant problems – the problem of no law enforcement and some thugs with guns.

The agency which is receiving the bulk of criticism, rightly so; for insufficient planning, coordination and lack of resources. Frankly speaking it matters less whether it is a part of Homeland Security Department or an independent agency reporting to President. If the department boss gives only $150 million to states for preparedness for natural disasters compared to more than $1 billion for protecting states from terrorism; the agency failed to raise that issue earlier. The agency has to undertake the fight and has no choice but to fight the turf battles in Fed. These are simply unacceptable excuses. Within the same confines, Coast Guards are doing a remarkable job – they evacuated hard to remove 8000 people from the flooded city using helicopters.

Imagine if there was a terror attack instead of the national disaster. Many would have criticized at that time that money for terrorism protection is less. So it is not that money needs to be diverted from terrorism protection efforts to natural disaster protection; but both needs to get the adequate resources. Both efforts have many commonalities and harnessing that under one single department is a good way. Every time an agency feels it does not get enough money and decides to get away from a department; it will become unmanageable. Consolidation and tearing away the ‘silo walls’ is the message of 9/11 commission and it is generally applicable to all of federal bureaucracy.

It is very impressive the way this agency brings reasonably good, usable and actable piece of weather information consistently on so many occasions. Again the rule of ‘no lime light, more is the effectiveness’ works here.

5. Army Engineering Corps
Doing excellent job, but still far away from getting closure on the ‘levee’ problem. Much less information is available for their efforts in public when people need to know lot more. Looks like Media also do not dig lot here.

6. Oil, Dollar and Economy
Economist Anirvan Banarjee from ECRI with an impeccable track record contends that American Economy will wither this shock. Basically it is in a solid shape, much more efficient due to outsourcing of last few years and in recent days it is accommodating displaced 3.5 million workers in industries and roles. This long term labor adjustment is resulting in backbone support of sustainable employment, larger population with disposable income. For such economists, nominal oil price is less important than the relative price of the oil with respect to the state of economy. For an inherently weak economy, oil at $35 per barrel can be recessionary whereas for a solid economy oil at $70 also will not have impact. Anyone will be reluctant to bet against Banarjee because of his track record, strong scholarship and solid credibility. However, it is undeniable fact that money available for consumption is diverted to oil so the consumer demand will be weaker going forward. So it is bit difficult to guess where the wind blows. Some kind of softening of the economy is surely on the cards. Trade balance gap will increase, Fed deficit will increase and this will have impact on Dollar to weaken further. Oil will continue to have hard social and psychological effect on Americans. One wonders when will this society get out of the vice like grip of Oil dependence and start avoiding mortgaging it’s future due to Oil?

7. Media
Channels like CNN, FOX played to the full hilt in broadcasting this tragedy. But somewhere there is a feeling, it generated enormous pressure on the government to act. It would have been difficult and the government would have been off the hook if this constant stream of images would not have unsettled larger population. Web and blogs did not play that much crucial role. It was all TV show here. Newspapers are in declining influence. Because it makes a perfect story to broadcast a human drama; the focus was on human suffering; rightly. But that came at the cost of lesser time for vital issues like engineering of levee repair and overall other issues with less direct connections with humans. Media could have also tracked issues with each player and each location more systematically. Only late CNN started to do that (a menu driven approach). That way the coverage would have been more thorough and systematic. Web had an excellent chance to organize such a ‘matrix style’ (rows – locations / stages; columns – players / agencies) information; but missed it.

8. Rest of the world
Well, this is America. When she is preoccupied with her own wounds it matters less what happens in the rest of the world, who helps and who gives money. This is the tragedy which America herself would have to heal, howsoever long the recovery is. At this point of time, the hour is so dark that hope is the only real sister of America.

Umesh Patil
San Jose, CA
September 04, 2005.

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