Wednesday, September 07, 2005

About Those Schoolbuses...

There's been a lot of talk lately about a fleet of schoolbuses in New Orleans, which could supposedly have been used to evacuate people from the city. I think this discussion is silly at best and ghoulish at worst, and I want no part of it, but that's just too bad for me; if I'm to assess the health of the body politic, I must be willing, as Hippocrates said, to "inspect the unseemly and handle the horrible."

There are a lot of assumptions involved in the evacuation-by-schoolbus scenario. You have to assume that the schoolbuses really were available, and in good working order. You have to assume that someone knew where the keys were, and, if needs be, how to open the gate of the parking lot. You have to assume that each of the buses had enough gas, and that sufficient gas was available for any that didn't. You have to assume that the buses got enough gas mileage to reach a safe destination, despite bumper-to-bumper traffic, and that if they didn't, more gas would be available along the way.

There are other considerations, too. Before you send the buses, you have to decide on the maximum number of people each bus will be allowed to pick up, and how many belongings each passenger will be allowed to carry. Can they bring one suitcase? Two? None? How do you accomodate wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, and other bulky but necessary impedimentia?

When there are more evacuees than seats, who decides who goes and who stays, and by what process of triage? Does one person make the decision for every busload, or are others deputized to do it? How are the decisions enforced, if people become violent or distraught? Do you have troops or police backing you up? How many? Suppose you make room for a woman and a child, but she refuses to leave unless her husband gets a seat, too. Can you force her to get on the bus for her child's sake? Can you take the child away from her? If so, who looks after it en route and at the destination? And how do you mantain contact with the parents? Can you tell people who get left behind where the buses are taking their loved ones, or is the destination simply "anywhere but here"?

Speaking of destinations, how many are there? Will you inundate one location with thousands of people, or scatter them across a variety of locations? Who decides who goes to which facility, and who keeps track of them? What structures are in place to house and feed the evacuees? Are there sufficient toilets, water, and bedding? Who's responsible for keeping order, answering questions, and handling communications with relief agencies and government?

My point, as you've probably guessed by now, is that responding to a disaster requires a plan. Without a plan, and enough trained personnel and equipment to implement the plan, a city in a state of crisis will almost certainly fail to allocate and use its resources properly, and lives will almost certainly be lost.

The supposed virtue of George W. Bush is that he would run government as a business. Well, the business world is full of concepts like contingency planning and risk management and supply chain management. Every business book on earth emphasizes the importance of planning, and the necessity of integrating different functions into a "seamless" whole. Supply chain experts - among whom the military is supposed to be pre-eminent, being as they invented the discipline - understand that no activity is context-independent; each activity requires supporting structures and personnel, and these must be in place when and where they're needed. If you're going to put people on buses, you need to be able to keep order while you're loading them, and you need to be able to take care of them once they get where they're going. All of this requires cooperation, communication, leadership, and infrastructure.

If you simply have some vague idea that you're going to load a bunch of people into schoolbuses, and take them to "higher ground," you're already a criminally negligent failure. We're talking about the most foreseeable disaster in the country...foreseable not just in terms of its inevitability, but in the fact that hurricanes provide advance warning. That no plan was in place reflects poorly on everybody for whom public safety was a responsibility, but the blame falls primarily on the federal government, who alone had the resources, money, and authority to put a plan in place, test it regularly, and enforce compliance.

And when you consider that this administration wrote itself a blank check for homeland security-related program activities, and arrogated to itself powers that are implicitly tyrannical, the failure to assess New Orleans' preparedness, and bring it into compliance with what are optimistically called "best practices," is, again, criminally negligent. Efficiency, after all, is supposed to be one of the consolations of fascism.

A national disaster requires federal preparedness and federal responsiveness, period. How well New Orleans managed to improvise, after having been left to sink or swim by the irreproachable defenders of "homeland security," is not worth debating. We know that in the absence of a coherent, humane plan - one that includes an accurate assessment of logistical needs - there'll be chaos and death; we also know that some decisions made under the resulting duress will be bad ones. These are not exciting new concepts.

This isn't a failure of a mayor, nor of a state, nor even of a president. This is really a betrayal of the ideals of American government, and of the social contract, and of the sense of shared destiny that ought to be as central to patriotism as it is to morality. To complain that in the midst of the greatest natural disaster this country has ever seen, an improvised "rescue" operation with schoolbuses wasn't accomplished, is to proclaim how little we expect from our government, and from ourselves as the putative legitimators of that government.


Engineer-Poet said...

The claim people were making was not that the buses should have taken people to the French quarter or other high ground, it was that the buses themselves should have been moved as soon as it was obvious that the water was going to hit their parking area.

Dry buses are assets; they would have been available for future plans.  Wet buses?  They could be anything from mostly useful to junk.  Prompt action could have made the difference.

Phila said...

The claim people were making was not that the buses should have taken people to the French quarter or other high ground, it was that the buses themselves should have been moved as soon as it was obvious that the water was going to hit their parking area.

Well, you're obviously listening to different people than I am, because I've heard the claim made incessantly that the buses should've been used to transport people. I've heard it more times than I can remember.

Again, it's a failure in planning. And my guess is that with chaos reigning, people were probably more focused on saving humans than buses. If what concerns you here is the failure to prevent damage to a physical asset, I hardly know what to say, except that your argument is not the one this post addresses. In fact, I don't really have any response to your argument...except that ideally, yes, they should indeed have been moved.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

Your thinking on this has been utterly profound, Phila. You state what should be the obvious, but has become arcane. What planning is there to move entire populations of modern American cities? To focus on buses is to forget or dismiss that there must be ready destinations, fuel to get there, people ready to embark on an unknown journey, and coherence in the midst of a catastrophe.
Our federal government is finally small enough to drown in the bath tub, unfortunately it took the citizens of New Orleans with it. An oversight, I'm sure.

roger said...

i don't suppose that new york, chicago, san francisco, miami, los damn angeles......or any other large city has a truly coherent plan, and the required physical stuff, to evacuate all their inhabitants. whatever the failure of local officials, it was, as you so well lay out phila, absurd that we could all watch on our tvs what was needed and that our national leaders weren't paying attention, or worse, caring enough to do something. the reports so far of fema incompetently holding up available help are deeply disturbing.

Engineer-Poet said...

Planning?  Roughly 80% of the population of New Orleans heard the news, evaluated the prospects and then evacuated themselves.  Baton Rouge was jam-packed by Sunday night, full of people who did their own planning.

Some of those who stayed did so because they had no vehicles.  We already know what happened when one of those buses was abandoned on a city street; a kid hopped in, filled it with strangers who wanted to go, and headed for Houston.  He'd never driven a bus before, but his bunch arrived at the Astrodome before any of the official evacuees.  They chipped in for fuel and got there on their own.

This thing could have been done one or two hundred times over if the buses had been moved to high ground.  Fuel can be arranged; worse comes to worst, getting people to dry ground where there are toilet facilities (even interstate rest stops) is better than the zoo at the Superdome.  If you can get to any town with electricity and running water, the public health menace is largely controllable.

Leaving 200+ buses to be soaked by the levee break pretty much eliminated all those possibilities, and what we did see was not pretty.  It has to count as one of the major failures of initiative and imagination of this disaster.

Phila said...


People who are able to evacuate themselves have nothing to do with anything; they're not the focus of emergency response efforts, and they're not the standard against which the effectiveness of that response should be measured, obviously.

Did the bus lot flood before or after the levee broke (in the middle of the night)? That's worth considering, it seems to me. Do you know, by any chance?

It's great when rugged individualism saves the day, as it did in the story you cite. But what's possible for one kid to do, in one bus, is not necessarily possible for lots of other people in lots of other buses. One case of rugged individualism, times a hundred or two hundred, can just as easily result in chaos and injury and death.

What I don't understand about your argument is why you'd imagine that the same officials who couldn't manage to put a real plan in place - one that didn't require some kid who'd never driven a bus before to drive a group of evacuees to Houston - would be so goddamn assiduous about some theoretical Plan B involving schoolbuses. It seems to me that a serious plan, with engaged federal involvement, would've obviated the need for improvisatory use of these buses. To consider this "one of the major failures of initiative and imagination" is your right; personally, I'd put it way, WAY down on the list, with the stipulation that it's simply one more thing that happens when you don't have a plan (or alternatively, when the plan involves purposefully witholding aid, as increasingly seems to be the case here). And the offhand claim that "fuel can be arranged"...well, I guess it sounds to me like an offhand claim. What do you base it on?

Let me make it clear that I was not in New Orleans, on either side of the economic or political divide, so I don't know what was and was not possible, minute to minute. It's true that an awful lot of people's thinking seems to stop dead before reaching what I consider to be the logical conclusions, but that may just mean it's me who's missing some essential point.

Then, too, I may be making kneejerk assumptions about people's unwillingness to jettison some cherished libertarian dogma or other, no matter how untenable events have proved it to be...if so, I apologize.

And I also admit that for me to say that the outrage over this comparatively minor aspect of an incalculable disaster is "silly and ghoulish" might be wrongheaded or unfair. Nonetheless, that's how it looks to me, and that's probably how it will continue to look to me unless someone can explain to me why the most vulnerable American citizens should be left to fend for themselves in a disaster.

ThomH said...

Found this via -- just an excellent post, thank you.