Saturday, September 10, 2005

Sheepdogs or Angels?

Duke University students, Hans Buder and Sonny Byrd, outside the New Orleans Convention CenterSo. There were these three college students. Stop me if you’ve heard this one already…

There were these three fun-loving college boys looking for a good time weekend. Funny thing is, they found it — and more than they had any inkling of when they set out to go get them some fun in the sun on the Gulf.

MTV tells the story:
    “I was just watching the news and was really becoming indignant about the way the situation was being handled. There was 20,000 people trapped in the convention center with no food and no water, living like animals,” Buder said. “So I called up my roommate Sonny and said, ‘I have a proposition for you. We’re going down to New Orleans.’ And he said, ‘I’ll be there in five minutes.’ So we grabbed one other kid from our hall and took off.”
Fourteen hours from Duke University to what was formerly the Big Easy and is now the Enormously Difficult. Fourteen hours to decide what to do when they got there and how they would be of help. It turned out to be both more and less than they expected.

First of all was the logistics: the fallen trees and flooded roads. They were able to make their way to LSU where a makeshift medical facility had been set up. They began helping with the evacuees but with the number of volunteers coming in, they realized they were superfluous.

They don’t say how they ended up at their next stop: a TV station, where they used those strong young bodies to load water into trucks (it hurts my back to think about it) and taking in supplies as they arrived. Good work for guys with no medical or rescue skills.

Now here is where the old Yankee (and Southern) “can-do” genetics in the American character take over. They’re at a TV station, right? And what are TV “journalists”? Why, they’re members of the Press. So the boys did what all college boys do: they improvised on the theme of their weekend of fun. They stole a press pass, xeroxed it for all three, added their own names, and set off to do some real rescue. Are you excited yet? Are you there with them in the car, yelling “Hoohah” and full of energy just sparking to do something?

It worked.
     Byrd swiped a press pass from a reporter’s desk, snagged T-shirts and business cards with the station’s logo, and made copies of everything at a local Kinko’s.
“We just changed the names, found the little lanyards that go around your neck, rolled up to the National Guard, waved the passes and next thing we know, we were on our way into the city,” Buder said.
And the city was theirs. Sort of.
     Byrd weaved their vehicle through roads littered with fallen trees and power lines, surrounded by rotting sewage and human waste. They blindly navigated their way through the city, guided only by a small map and directions they had received from friends.
The first thing they saw was a kid standing on a street corner with a sign bearing the legend: “Need Food and Water.” After a moment’s hesitation, they took him on — and presumably fed and watered him — and in exchange the boy, Mario, served as their guide. The group made it to the convention center.
    “It was an absolute disaster zone, and the fact that people had been living there for days with no food or water was too much for us to take in,” Byrd said.
“There were dead bodies upstairs, feces and urine was all over the carpet, people had been murdered and beaten inside,” Buder added. “It was a perfect hell on earth.”
They don’t say what they did at the convention center, only that they were distressed that three college sophomores with energy and a few feints, had managed to get to the scene and yet no one else was there helping.
    “The same question kept popping up in our minds: ‘Why were these people stranded for four or five days without food, no water, in hellish conditions — anarchy, murder, pillaging — when it took us, three college students who had never been to New Orleans, 20 minutes in a Hyundai Elantra?’” Buder said.
Here is the answer, young men. You were three students with some brains and initiative and you had no one to answer to. You didn’t ask permission — thank God for that — you just rolled up your sleeves and did what you could. No mayor or governor was blocking the way — at least they weren’t blocking the way for the Press, just for the relief and rescue people. So under the guise of observers, you were given access. Just like the UN. You could’ve put on some blue helmets and felt right at home.

This mess was way bigger than anything three college boys could handle, so they cut it down into manageable chunks. First they rounded up a bunch of evacuees, including three women who left their husbands behind. See, the rules still work: women and children first. Later , the boys returned for the women’s’ husbands. Everyone was re-united and put on a bus headed for Texas, including a man they’d found who had survived the rising waters by climbing a tree and spending the night being eaten by fire ants. It doesn’t say if Mario was among that number, but he probably was. And he’ll probably remember those three college sophomores for the rest of his days.

Washington has risen to the occasion by forming a committee to investigate What-Went-Wrong. Those politicos won’t see the rest of the country rolling its eyes at the thought of another incompetent 9/11-like “commission” to scuttle the truth.

Here’s the truth of it:
  • The mayor never thought it would happen on his watch. He had his CYA in place with lots of paper plans but he hadn’t as much as a clue bag to clutch when the bad news hit. Without a clue bag to put it in, what can you do with the information anyone gives you? Tear it up and eat the scraps, maybe, hoping to incorporate at least some of the decision-making abilities he’s supposed to have. You can tell a person is without a clue bag when he sends the people who are supposed to be in charge on a vacation in the midst of the crisis. Those two policeman who committed suicide? They knew they were already in hell. Pray for the repose of their souls.
  • The governor: hand-wringer extraordinaire. Polly-put-the-kettle-on, we’re sure not going anywhere under this lady’s watch. She’s been termed “deliberative” when “petrified” might be more appropriate. It beggars the imagination that this woman could be asked by the nation’s president to restore order in very specific ways and she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Reminds me of the DU story I read about the woman in the flooded area who was going to stop and help a woman whose car had broken down in the flood. However, as she slowed she noticed a “Bush” sticker on the car so she sped on. If that’s not a modern day example of one of the villains in the set piece about the Good Samaritan, what is?
  • FEMA, SHMEMA: Whatever. A bureaucracy frozen in place by rules and regulations and ineptitude. Bureaucracy is always inept. It’s inherent in the structure. That’s why, when you give, give to the little places that deal directly with the people they serve. The ones who live there — churches, TV stations, the local gas station owner who has decided to organize things on his end of town. I will make two exceptions here: Salvation Army, the special ops people in emergencies. They aren’t taken in by the stories and the jive; Salvation Army has seen it all and still thinks we all deserve to eat. Catholic Charities in New Orleans for the same reason. They’ve been in the area forever and they know what to do. Not only that, they know what not to do.
  • Our President. Could he have been more decisive and less deliberative? Probably. Could he have twisted some arms in Louisiana? I doubt it. Don’t forget that the governor and the mayor are yellow dog Democrats. If they are presented an opportunity to make the President look impotent, do you believe they’d turn it down? One of Bush’s characteristics is to move with deliberation — but he actually moves, unlike the governor of Louisiana. He didn’t respond as well as Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi. But then Barbour wasn’t out to make political hay out of the situation. That’s why you don’t see nearly as much of him on the MSM. He’s not very helpful in pushing the MSM meme of Bush Derangement.
  • The citizens of New Orleans. We’ll never hear all the stories of valor and courage, the times when people worked at their own level to secure the safety of their own and others. The stories are there, but like Iraq, the MSM simply isn’t interested in finding them. Compared to Bush-bashing, stories about the good are less than interesting, they’re downright obstructive to the main task: get Bush. Get Bush.Get Bush.
We owe our gratitude to the boys from Duke. As one of the women said:
    “On the way out, the women just kept, praying, thanking God,” Buder recalled. “They kept calling us the three wise men and their angels.”
Not wise men. Sheep dogs in training who just earned their certificates.

Makes you feel good about the next generation.


who, me? said...

One angle on this that's really important is that the first job of government in crisis is to LEAVE ROOM for self-organization of intelligent volunteers turning on a dime. This Leaving-Room may, counterintuitively, require keeping a much more orderly, no-toxic-social-pockets, society in ordinary times. It appears in retrospect that the LA reflex was the opposite -- tolerance of looting, but turn away the Red Cross.

The problem of government "failure" in its big schemes is probably less important than government cutting off this kind of self-help and other-help action everywhere they can. Apparently, when things get critical, the default tactic is to herd everyone into inadequate concentration camps, at the same time not really shouldering the responsibility of caring for them and protecting the vulnerable from the pathological.

How to structure the kind of 21st-Century Emergent Design demonstrated by these young men, while using the strength and wealth and power of government? It is not yet clear. But The Blame Game implies that government should do more, better, faster. That's the wrong direction to be going, because there need to be interstices where the brave, clever, large-minded, and effective [Sheepdogs!] can cut through inevitable semi-paralyzed bureaucracy.

hank_F_M said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
hank_F_M said...


We should not forget the predecessors of the current incumbants in NO and LA.

A plan to evacuate a place like NO is complex and expensive even if never used. The work to turn a statement of intent “we will conduct a mandatory evacuation if necessary” and have a working plan on the ground takes several years - then you need a staff to maintain it. (As the Baron would say a bunch of God damm bureaucrats!)

For example, us9ing the school busses to evacuate the city. This requires a contract with bus company renewed annually, if the owner is not willing to sign such a contract the emergency laws in most states can require it to be signed. But you need a State Governor who will spend the political capital to make it happen. Then you have to be sure owner can get drivers in that situation. And you have to keep in contact with the owner to be sure they remain able to fulfill the contract. You may have to pay the bus company to maintain a higher level of equipment availability than he normally would. Limited rehearsals would be nice, finding some one who will spend the money is a pain. Geting political leaders to particapate is worse. A last minute order to the bus company would be legal, but he would have already told his drivers to take care of their families, or not enough gas on hand, or he might be in bankruptcy with a court seal on his property.

This is all very expensive in terms of money, and political capital. A lot of politicians from both parties have a hard time with the concept that they need to do this, especially spend political capital.

I would not be surprised if none of the above happened. The current incumbents most likely inherited a dead plan. That they did nothing to revive it is their fault, and even if they had tried they might not have had enough time. But let us not forget the people handed it to them, who were grossly failing over a much longer time.

airforcewife said...

My Dad is a city manager. After 9/11, their city (a small one of about 40,000 people) was required by the federal government to have a detailed disaster and evacuation plan in place. Oodles of fed money has been provided for this, as well as for disaster drills.

My dad's complaint has been that there is no clear chain of command in issuing threat warnings, something that was not an issue in NO.

So, how come a little rural ag economy based city can be ready and rarin', and NO with it's vastly superior resources cannot?

Because they didn't care enough to be. Because they were too busy worrying about cultural events (while important, they are useless if there is no city there to hold them in). Because everyone assumed the government would do it for them. Because when you make excuses for bad behavior, the behavior is never corrected and when given an opportunity it takes advantage of it (NO had a much higher than average crime rate pre-Katrina). Because, when the time came to crush the lawlessness, there was too much worry about litigation.

Nagin is not the only problem, but to try to shift any blame from his incompetence is ridiculous. He holds the base of the blame pyramid.

I'm rather preaching to the choir here, though.