Hurricane Katrina Feed

Dubya's Heck of a Job: NYT reports White House knew of a levy break the night of the storm

From the New York Times, February 10, 2006

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 — In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Bush administration officials said they had been caught by surprise when they were told on Tuesday, Aug. 30, that a levee had broken, allowing floodwaters to engulf New Orleans.

Investigators have found evidence that federal officials at the White House and elsewhere learned of the levee break in New Orleans earlier than was first suggested. But Congressional investigators have now learned that an eyewitness account of the flooding from a federal emergency official reached the Homeland Security Department's headquarters starting at 9:27 p.m. the day before, and the White House itself at midnight.

The full NYT story is HERE.

Cruise Ship Adventures

Sometimes you read a line in a news story, and you just don't believe what you just read, it just seems so off-the-wall. I had that experience today.  The news story was Congressman plans cruise disappearance hearings on MSNBC, apparently picked up from The Business Journal of Jacksonville. The context was the emerging problem of people disappearing from cruise ships.

At least 16 people have gone overboard or missing from cruise ships since 2000, according to research by The Business Journal. Three were rescued, two were confirmed dead and 11 remain missing.

OK. That's sort of odd. But then we come to the next line of the article:

Officials with Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. have said their companies do not track such incidents.

Cruise companies don't track reports of physical disappearance of passengers on cruise ships?  Weird. Really weird. It would seem like something their insurers would require, even if no one else was interested.

But there have been several weird news reports about cruise lines lately. However did Carnival end up with a candidate for FEMA's most controversial contract following hurricane Katrina? From the Washington Post: $236 Million Cruise Ship Deal Criticized

But the Carnival deal has come under particular scrutiny. Not only are questions being raised over the contract's cost, but congressional investigators are examining the company's tax status. Carnival, which is headquartered in Miami but incorporated for tax purposes in Panama, paid just $3 million in income tax benefits on $1.9 billion in pretax income last year, according to company documents. "That's not even a tip," said Robert S. McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice. U.S. companies in general pay an effective income tax rate of about 25 percent, analysts say. That would have left Carnival with a $475 million tax bill.

Carnival's public records boast "that substantially all of our income in fiscal 2004, 2003 and 2002 . . . is exempt from U.S. federal income taxes," largely because it maintains that its operations are not in the United States but on the high seas.

Carnival does not want to see that tax status jeopardized just because three major ships are clearly operating in the United States. After it won the FEMA bid, Carnival appealed to Treasury Secretary John W. Snow for a waiver of U.S. taxes. "We do not want to jeopardize our tax exemption, nor do we want to interrupt our relief efforts for failure to secure this assurance from the Treasury Department," wrote Howard Frank, Carnival's chief operating officer.

(And who knew that they were headquartered in Panama to avoid taxes? And, yes, sure, their campaign contributions were munificent; but they also gave generously to the Democrats.)

And then there was the pirate adventure, on a ship owned by one of Carnival's subsidiaries. If those waters were so dangerous, why was the expert crew of the ship careless enough to let the ship wander off course off Somalia, of all places? Looking for adventure? Or, on the other hand, if cruise ship attacks are so rare, just what was the crew of the ship doing with their handy dandy military-grade LRAD sonic blaster? Communicating with whales?

And is that even legal? I mean, what if the pirates had gotten the LRAD rather than just an earful? And won't the public announcement that a cruiseship carried an LRAD attract upwardly-mobile pirates who'd really like one of their very own? And what other fine munitions might be available for the taking on post-9/11 cruise ships? Aren't there some really good reasons for passenger ships not to pack this kind of heat?

I breathlessly await the next installment of this amazing tale of adventure. (But, um, guys, it would be a really good idea to start keeping track of vanishing passengers.)

Clark Boyd's World Tech Podcast #55: A Must-Listen for Google Earth Enthusiasts

Worldpostcast55smClark Boyd's Tech report for The World (BBC/WGBH) has a podcast of the show from the other day, and the podcast (Tech Podcast #55) is much longer than the original show. Let me start by saying that this podcast is a Must-Listen for Google Earth enthusiasts. Yes, it has clips of me sounding really intelligent at the beginning, but that's not the part I'm talking about.

The part you need to hear is the interview from Anne Wright, of  Global Connection -- a collaboration between the NASA Ames Research Center, Google, and National Geographic -- which was too long and info-dense for the original BBC/WGBH broadcast, but which outlines the vision behind some of the perks Google Earth users are currently enjoying, and what can be done with this technology and others out there on the market.

She talks about the origins of the Global Connection project, the National Geographic project, how Global Connection came to process thousands of images NOAA from Katrina and Rita for Google Earth overlays, how she and I came to work together on the earthquake project, and her vision of how things could work in the future. It's packed with really great stuff!

Bruce Sterling, Furturist, Lets the Bush Adminiatration in on One of the Tricks of the Trade

Bruce Sterling lets the Bush Adminiatration in on one of the tricks of the futurist trade:

It's easy to predict the future when all you have to do is predict the past. Every time people in power who deny the Greenhouse get their ass kicked, they always proclaim that nobody could have imagine such a thing. We don't have to "imagine" it, guys. All one has to do is document it.

He directs his reader back to his writeup of the Canberra fire in January of 2003.

There's a lot of great stuff, and I don't want to try to quote it all, gutting it from it's very interesting context. This is definitiely a READ THE WHOLE THING post. 

Sterling concludes with remarks on Bush's idea that the military take over disaster relief (an idea that even Jeb isn't too keen on, by the way):

There's no cure for demolished cities that a contemporary army can give. A plethora of Katrinas doesn't mean Army control of evacuation. You can't park the populations of drowned cities somewhere off camera while Delta Force rebuilds their town. The only effective response to really savage and continuous weather violence has got to be vigorous civil defense and a paramilitarized general populace. Those millions of evacuees who were cluttering highways this week – they're the labor force. They and no one else are the ones who will have to do the heavy lifting, because it's their cities and their world that has been destabilized by climate change.

(Via Xeni Jardin at boingboing.)

The War on Weather

MilitarydisasterBack on September 6th, the new War on Weather was a Tom Tomorrow political cartoon. [If that link doesn't work, try this one.]  But the Bush administration is running a little low on ideas, so they are turning to some unusual sources. For example, the other day Bush's speech writers cribbed from a Naomi Klein Op-Ed piece for Bush's weekly radio address. If you read the Klein piece, the policies described in this passage from Bush's speech sound like they are paraphrased from Klein:

. . . the vision of a revitalized New Orleans should come from the people of New Orleans, and the vision of a new Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama should come from the people of those states. We will do everything we can to guide the recovery effort, and help them realize their vision so that communities along the Gulf Coast are better and stronger than before the storm.

Surely, he doesn't mean what she meant about letting the people rebuild New Orleans, but it sure sounds good, doesn't it?

But when White House strategists dipped into the Tom Tomorrow brain trust, the failed to notice that the War on Weather was supposed to be a joke.

But not only that, this borrowing of ideas from the left (serious or not) seems to be getting the President in hot water with conservatives. It seems that what he is proposing violates the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 which prohibits the military from acting as a police force within the United States borders. Congress made an exception to the Act to allow for the use of the military in the "war on drugs" (see why they called it that?). And since 9/11, the White House has been angling for a loosening of the acts restrictions (and that's why they called efforts to prevent terrorism "the war on terror").  This is from yesterday's CNN article:

Gene Healy, a senior editor at the conservative Cato Institute, said Bush risks undermining "a fundamental principle of American law" by tinkering with the Posse Comitatus Act.

Healy said the act does not hinder the military's ability to respond to a crisis.

"What it does is set a high bar for the use of federal troops in a policing role," he wrote in a commentary on the group's Web site. "That reflects America's traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that's well-justified."

Healy said soldiers are not trained as police officers, and putting them in a civilian law enforcement role "can result in serious collateral damage to American life and liberty."

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, told The Associated Press he would not favor expanding the federal government's disaster response role.

"I don't want the federal government to take over disaster response, believe me," DeLay told the AP. "Why? Bureaucracy. Bureaucracy. Bureaucracy."

I have a hard time understanding what it is that the Republican party still stands for if it is quite this easy for the Bush administration to discuss circumventing governors entirely and sending in the marines in the event of an "emergency." How elastic a definition can "emergency" have? When did states rights pass so thoroughly from the agenda?


High Country Conservative remarks:

I wonder whatever become of the concept of Federalism, once a major component of the Republican agenda. It seems that more and more agencies and government actions are being put under federal control. This, of course, give much more power to Washington, and vastly decreases the rights of the states.

Is this a conscious abandonment of the principle of federalism? Or is this whole line of thought just desperate ass-covering by an administration in freefall, indicative only of the ferocity of attempts to deflect blame to the locals?

(Anyone notice the extent to which the act was violated during the response to Katrina? Wasn't the whole rhetoric about sending in the military primarily concerned with restoring law and order? Certainly, having the military go in to replace the Fish & Wildlife Service, who had been defacto first responders in some areas rescuing people from their roofs, was an improvement. But to what extent were military forces acting as rescue workers, and to what extent as policemen? To hear the conservative bloggers tell it, policing the place was their main reason for being there. But I was paying more attention to what Blackwater was up to than the regular military, so I'm not sure what the real story is on the Posse Comitatus Act and New Orleans.)

Don_quichotte_1Or is it some kind of power fantasy? The whole notion of domestic militarization on this scale is hard to take seriously as policy. The 9/11 timelines, as concern Donald Rumsfeld, do not suggest that he would have reacted a lot faster than the slow-poke in charge of Homeland Security if faced with the Katrina disaster. Nor do Rumsfeld's failures to meet US goals (capturing Bin Laden? flowering democracies) in Afghanistan and Iraq make for a promising disaster management resume. But it is an idea with tremendous virility!

Just imagine the grand War on Weather. Donald astride his horse, in full military splendor, tilting at hurricanes.

UPDATE 9/28: After perusing posts using the word "Federalism" on Technorati, I am amused to report that the wingnut spin-of-the-day is that Democrats and Liberals are to blame for Bush's proposed attack on states' rights because we made him feel bad by suggesting that he take blame.

MEANWHILE, Karl Rove, busy creating his own more palatable reality, warns against "complacency."

UPDATE 9/30: Jeb Bush, writing in the Washington Post,  comes out against federalizing (i. e.  militarizing) disaster response. Perhaps that is the end of that.

The Flensing of the Aid Packages


First, read this story from The New York Times:
Many Contracts for Storm Work Raise Questions

More than 80 percent of the $1.5 billion in contracts signed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency alone were awarded without bidding or with limited competition, government records show, provoking concerns among auditors and government officials about the potential for favoritism or abuse.

Already, questions have been raised about the political connections of two major contractors - the Shaw Group and Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton - that have been represented by the lobbyist Joe M. Allbaugh, President Bush's former campaign manager and a former leader of FEMA.

OK. Pleanty of potential for corporate profiteering. But you knew that already, right?

NOW go read Josh Marshall on how choice cuts of the proceeds will end up feeding the hungry political machine.

Continue reading "The Flensing of the Aid Packages" »

"many calls and pleas were made by the elderly woman, a deputy came to her house and promised they would be evacuated only to be left behind"

I should say before I begin, that I have a hard time understanding how this could happen. The story I'm about to relate seems to me more appropriate to old Pompeii than 21st century New Orleans. And before we let certain politicians get too cozy in their new-found ability to actually respond to emergencies, we should realize that not all of the New Orleans bodies have yet been recovered.

Earlier this afternoon, I was informed by a man with whom I had corresponded about the depth and time of the flooding that his relatives' bodies had been discovered Friday by the husband of one of the parish officials who took it upon himself to go see whether these people were still in their houses. I feel a personal responsibility to those to whom I've tried to offer direct help, so I find this news hard to take.

2625rosettadrchalmettedr2I looked into the story a bit, and it is extremely sad, and their deaths were truly unnecessary. The dead are Dorothy Hingle, age 83, and her son Russell Embry, a quadriplegic, bedridden man, age 54. (The image to the left is a NOAA aerial photo of their house at 2625 Rosetta Drive; the black arrow is approximately in the back yard.)

Here is an account from a missing persons report written by a relative:

He is a quadriplegic and lives with his mother. They were supposed to be evacuated to a medical facility. Someone last talked to his mother Dorothy Hingle Monday morning and they were still at home. Please contact Margaret at [email address] with any information.

Here is another, dated August 31st:

Subject: Dorothy Hingle age 83, Russell Embry, 55 quadriplegic    

Abandoned at time of rescue. Has been on the list of evacuees for several years. They were told they would be rescued by offical rescue operations. All procedures were followed, many calls and pleas were made by the elderly woman, a deputy came to her house and promised they would be evacuated only to be left behind.

What a tragic thing to allow two helpless individuals to experience. Only by the grace of God will they survive. Shame on all responsible for neither evacuating nor having the respect to inform them that other means of rescue would be necessary.

HingleSo finally, Friday, September 23rd, the family is informed that the bodies have been discovered at home. Dorothy Hingle was found with her arms around her son in their home on Rosetta Street in Chalmette.

How could this happen? It was so unecessary. These people didn't have to die. Why did they die? The family deserves to know what went wrong. Why weren't they evacuated? Why did it take weeks for anyone to go to the house and check despite the family's continual pleas?

I just don't understand.

Can people still react to this, or are we already too desensitized by wanting that chapter of our history to be over? And can't we of the twenty-first century get past the desenisitization of so much death?

UPDATE 9/30: See also, Michael Bérubé's post Disability and Disasters.

9/23 Industrial Canal Breach and Possible Others.



Caption reads Water flows through a breach in the repaired Inner Harbor Canal toward the Ninth Ward District Friday in New Orleans.

Anyone got a longitude and latitude on this? (KC approximation: Lat 29.978333240947077, Lon -90.02085221140939.) Anyone want to send me the image on a Google Earth satellite image? Or do some complicated thing like place it on the Katrina image and that on a pre-hurricane season satellite picture?

I think the breach is in the general area of the Florida Avenue Bridge and Surkote Road, as shown below. Can anyone confirm? Here's a closer shot from a screengrab from CNN streaming video:


Leveen clearly broken. The CNN reporter also mentioned another broken levee in the Chantilly (he pronounced it something like Chintilly?) Gentilly area. There are other reports of multiple breaches, but none I can find that name locations.  Here's another view of the same breach.


Above is the Google Maps satellite image of the area before the hurricanes. Below is the Digital Globe August 31st, 10AM image showing one the Industrial Canal breaches. (The bigger one is further south.) I can't tell if the new breach is in the same spot as in the 8/31 image, butit looks to me like it's not.


The New York Times provides the best explanation I've seen so far of multiple breaches, but so far all the images I've seen are of the same one. (We don't have TV reception, so I'm not watching TV.)

One break in the levee was in the lower Ninth Ward, on the east side of the canal. The storm sent e water rising so quickly that it had reached windows of houses up to three blocks east of the levee by late morning. Dozens of blocks in New Orleans's Ninth Ward were under water.

Later today, another break was found in the Upper Ninth Ward, on the west side of the levee.

Here's another shot of that breach found on the LA Times site:


ScreensnapzI'm not sure if this next photo (found on the CNN site at 6AM 9/24) is a breach or just overtopping, but it is clearly not the same spot.

UPDATE 9/24, 7:46PM: I see the Washington Post has another view of the same breach, described in the caption as a 30-yard breach on the east side of the Lower Ninth Ward:


Continue reading "9/23 Industrial Canal Breach and Possible Others." »

Sonic Weapons?

When reading Xeni Jardin's new post, Xeni on NPR, CNN: Sonic Weapons in Iraq -- and now, US cities, I had this terrible feeling of de ja vu. Hadn't I just read something very like that, say yesterday, but it was fiction?

In the July/August issue of Analog, Gregory Benford had a story called "The Pain Gun" about a future Middleeast conflict after a nucler war or two in which nonlethal weapons were used in preference to other types so as not to inflame the political situation back in the direction of nuclear war. The story concerns the use of a weapon that causes extreme pain but does no physical damage. I read the story yesterday.

Back in August, Defense Tech had a write-up on "sonic blasters" (aka "Long Range Acoustic Devices"), which apparently the NYPD had ready during the Republican convention and a new "improved" model was being tested by the LAPD.

This device far exceeds anything I'm aware of. Others are childrens' toys compared with this thing. The developer tells us that there are other configurations they believe will allow it to take even more energy. They estimated we were using 15,000 watts, but with a different type of magnet they believe we they can easily exceed 100,000 watts without overheating.

Further, by rearranging the orientation of the magnetic speakers, they can increase or decrease the width of the lobe, as well as decrease the size, weight and power. The device we tested is "full range;" that is, it provided clear sound from about 50 Hz to about 20,000 Hz. But if we were going to use it just for human voice or a siren, or some other specific frequency range, they can also "tune it" to provide maximum effectiveness for a specific frequency range and reduce the size and power, while increasing the range.

Back in March of last year, the Associated Press reported the use of the devices as weapons in Iraq. Earlier in September, Xeni Jardin documented the deployment of sonic blasters to New Orleans. OK, so there's no electricity and you want to get the word out to those hard-of-hearing old folks stuck in the flooded zone.  Is that what the sonic blasters were brought in for? This is from Xeni's article:

American Technology is donating four devices -- three MRADs (medium-range acoustic devices) and one LRAD (long-range acoustic device). The four devices will be shipped out Friday to a Marine military police unit that is deploying to the Gulf States area for disaster-relief efforts.

"We are donating the use of one of our most powerful prototypes, LTPMS-2, for use in Mississippi as soon as possible, because the governor of that state said that the biggest problem they have right now is the fact that they have no communications infrastructure to get information or instructions out to people," he said. "They can very easily put this on a truck and send sound out for a minimum of at least a mile in either direction."

And Blackwater's just there to help get the word out, too, right? Here's more from Xeni:

Vehicle-mounted devices were used by Israeli authorities to scatter groups earlier this year, when Palestinians and Jewish supporters gathered to protest Israel's West Bank separation barrier. Dubbed "The Scream" by the Israeli Army, the device sends out streams of noise in intervals of about 10 seconds. The specific sonic frequencies chosen affect the inner ear, creating dizziness and nausea in human targets.

Is it my imagination, or isn't the use of sonic blasters as weapons to deliberately inflict pain on crowds "torture" as defined in article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture?

For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

When sonic blasters are used as weapons, their use is in violation of the UN Convention Against Torture. I think the US is a signatory.

Continue reading "Sonic Weapons?" »

Who Helps People Help?

Here's a question I just got by email from someone in Louisiana, and I don't really know the answer. So I put it to you:

We have taken in a young Mother and 3 children that are from Westwego, LA. We put them up in our mobile home on the same propety as our home. My question is, who do we need to contact about help with the expenses such as the electric bill etc., as we do not have the funds to last much longer and I won't kick them out?

This sounds like the sort of thing the Red Cross helps with, but is it? Where should someone with limited means turn for help when providing shelter for hurricane victims?

A Few More Katrina Photo Resources

Here are a couple of places I found useful images:

"Mammalian biologists cite development as new evidence for late-stage testiculogenesis."

Josh Marshall had me choking on my coffee this morning with this post:

House-Senate Katrina probe dies as Dems refuse to participate in GOP-controlled probe.

Mammalian biologists cite development as new evidence for late-stage testiculogenesis.

-- Josh Marshall

(I don't usually like political rhetoric involving balls, but I think this is one of the best versions I've seen.)

"Fears abound as government warns data could be used for deportation"

From the Washington Post:

The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that information provided by illegal immigrants seeking federal aid could be used against them later in deportation proceedings.

"The administration's priority is to provide needed assistance: water, food, medical care, shelter," said Joanna Gonzalez, a DHS spokeswoman. "However, as we move forward with the response, we can't turn a blind eye to the law."

"luxuriant blue color Earth"

For those of you who read Chinese, here is an article on the Google Earth and the Katrina aftermath in Chinese from the Xinmin Weekly by Zhao Yanyan, and I'm in it. For those who don't read Chinese, here is a very strange translation created by Google's Language tools.

Gently clicks on the mouse, the luxuriant blue color Earth starts to revolve, ever such giant Earth, now actually is all controls in the palm.
Writes a draft / the Zhao colorful swallow king is attractive (reporter)

(Wouldn't it be nice if Google's Chinese translation tools worked as well as Google Earth?)

Urban Removal: "Our own experiences after the Loma Prieta quake is that outsiders are very much into destroying damaged buildings."

Lucy Kemnitzer writes in the comment section:

Our own experiences after the Loma Prieta quake is that outsiders are very much into destroying damaged buildings. FEMA had a program where they'd bulldoze your house for free for a limited time. Getting buildings properly assessed would take much longer, and a lot of buildings were bulldozed that shouldn't have been, including our beuatiful sandstone and brick nineteenth-century courthouse, which was supposed to be about to fall down of its own accord but resisted the wrecking ball for several tries. In this case, the feds are going to be even pushier about it, and it will take outright rebellion to keep serviceable old houses.

As for mold -- mold is killable and cleanable. It's a health hazard while it's growing and sporulating, but it's not a structural threat to the houses. The houses will need super cleaning anyway: that water that they've been under is dirty.

Volunteer Cook Needed

I'm sure some of you out there have been wondering what you could do to help with disaster relief. Are you a good cook? Here's your chance!

The Fire Department in Abita Springs, Louisiana, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, needs a volunteer cook to cook for the Firemen:

A cook that would be willing to volunteer services
to cook in the station, Abita Springs Fire Dept. They
would need to be able to prepare 30-80 meals 3 times a
day. The station kitchen will be used and housing can
be provided. It would great but not required if they
would be responsible for meal planning and stock

To volunteer, respond by email to [email protected]. They also need frozen and fresh food of all kinds. All email should contain "Katrina" within the subject line.

They have a number of other material needs, since the Emergency
management system has let the department down. Email for the current list.

For more in the current situation in Abita Springs, see this aritcle in The Slidell Sentry-News. See also The Pensacola News Journal.

UPDATE 9/18: Good news! They've gotten everything they need for now:

I just got off the phone with the fire chief of Abita,LA. He said all immediate needs have been met and further assistance will not be required.


The Red Cross Is No Substitute for Competent Government

One of the early media photos of a NOLA dead body was of a woman weeping over the body of her husband who had been suffering from lung cancer. When his prescription oxygen supply ran out, he suffocated and died.

Yesterday the Harvard School of Public Health released a survey of evacuees in shelters in the Houston area conducted in cooperation with The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey had the following health-related findings:

  • 52% report having no health insurance coverage at the time of the hurricane. Of those with coverage, 34% say it is through Medicaid and 16% through Medicare. Before the hurricane 66% of people evacuated to Houston shelters used hospital or clinics as their main source of care and of those, a majority (54%) used Charity Hospital of New Orleans, substantially more than the second most common care site (University Hospital of New Orleans, at 8%).
  • 33% report experiencing health problems or injuries as a result of the hurricane and 78% of them are currently receiving care for their ailments.
  • 41% report chronic health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and asthma.
  • 43% say they are supposed to be taking prescription medications, and of those, 29% percent report having problems getting the prescription drugs they need.
  • Of the 61% who did not evacuate before the storm, 38% said they were either physically unable to leave or had to care for someone who was physically unable to leave.
  • 39% report that they did not get help from any government agency or voluntary agency during the flood and evacuation.

Earlier this week, I had my adventure trying to solve a prescription problem for someone long distance, which I chronicled in my post, Walmart Wonderland: A Strange Tale. While the situation  I was trying to help with was potentially life-threatening, I remember thinking how glad I was that it didn't involve either psychiatric meds or withdrawal. This morning, Navy Blue emailed me a link to the story of a discussion board's attempt to help someone out of a situation involving both.

About the post, she writes:

I am frustrated. AND I am concerned.  This is an entry on the teeny little tale of me, a couple a people, and our friend Dan. He needed medication and had to have it sent from halfway across the country.

I still have the Red Cross link on my pages, and I still feel people should donate and that it is better to have the Red Cross trying to help than not, but as disturbing anecdotes involving Red Cross folk pile up in my inbox, it seems to me that for someone out there there is a book in this: a case study on how the Red Cross is just no substitute for competent government. (And neither is FEMA, for that matter.)  Here are notable passages from Navy's account:

Now it was Saturday, the 9th. Two of his medications will run out tomorrow.  One is a moodstabilizer and an anticonvulsant.  When one quits an anticonvulsant 'cold turkey', you are at risk for seizures.  The other one is a strong anti-depressant- known for heavy withdrawal symptoms. Combine this with such a traumatic experience and the physical and psychological stressors that come with it and Dan was in a very bad situation.

He emailed FEMA and The Red Cross, asking for information on what he can do.
A Red Cross truck came and delivered water and meals.

The Walgreens, a couple towns over, opened.  He drove through the dirty roads to  the store, stopping to wait three hour for gas. Then he brought his medication bottles, which were current and clearly had refills on them, to the pharmacy. They wouldn't be refilled unless the pharmacist could get in touch with his pharmacy or doctor.
. . .
On the 15th, 6 days after he had contacted them, Dan finally heard from FEMA, by email and the Red Cross, via a representative.

“Fema said that in a few days I will be assigned to a case handler who will check into the situation and drive out to interview me for an assessment of my needs. ”
“Red Cross said they only get involved in drugs when it is a matter of life or death.  I tried explaining; the guy, who had a double digit IQ, stood there with a sort of glazed look in his eyes.  Nothing I said penetrated the fog. ”

He received the last package [FedExed by a member of the online discussion group] and has taken four doses, and the discontinuation symptoms are generally improving.

While in Walgreens, Dan ran into an acquaintance of his, who's psychiatrist is still in the area.  He will tell the psychiatrist of Dan's situation and likely enable Dan to get new scripts for his medications.  In the meantime, he will be ok with what he was able to receive.

By the time FEMA sends him a case worker for an interview, he will have probably already gotten his refills.   If he hadn't had another resource, which happened, in this case, to be online friends, he could be severely ill.  In a worst case- Dan could be dead: seizures; acute dehydration- he was getting weak and likely wouldn't have gotten food and water very easily in the next few days; physical illness [ he was extremely sick and lost 11 pounds in about three days, no doubt lowering his immune system when he is already weak and prey to several infections]...

(The other Red Cross anecdote I received was from someone whom I had tried to help assess possibilities of rescuing a trapped relative in the early days of the flooding crisis. After exhausting all governmental avenues to place a request to have some people in a specific spot in NOLA rescued, the family tried calling the Red Cross. The person they reached didn't want to help with the rescue but did want a donation. The desperate family tried to exchange a donation for the person taking the rescue request and passing it along to someone who might help. The representative eventually allowed as how no rescue request would be passed along even if a donation was made.  At that moment, as nearly as my correspondent was able to assess, there was NO organization anywhere in the country willing to receive rescue requests. The request was ultimately conveyed via helpful journalists to the Coast Guard.)

People are suffering and dying because the emergency prescription infrastructure just doesn't work well enough. The Red Cross can help, but the nature of that help is far from ideal. We should not rest assured that all we have to do is donate money and that the hurricane survivors' needs will be taken care of, because it just ain't so.


  • Reed Hundt has a bunch more excellent questions that need to be asked of the government we have, competent or not.
  • Boy, our President sure knows how to roll up his sleeves, doesn't he? I'm very impressed with his sleeve-rolling competency. He's been practicing a lot lately, hasn't he?


"we are identifying some breaches in levees we did not see initially"

PlaqueminesbreachesScary stuff from a military briefing yesterday: Defense Department Briefing on Hurricane Katrina Repairs, Presenter: Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. Carl Strock. (A PDF of the slides from the briefing is available here)

One of the questions that we are dealing with now is the status of the levees.  It's a very important question for two reasons. Number one, we want to make sure that if there are weakened portions of the levee or there are breaches that we haven't identified yet, we know about those.  Because as the decisions are made to move back in to these parishes, we need to understand the level of vulnerability that our citizens have moving back in.  So we've got a very intense effort going out to assess the condition of the levee systems and put in repairs where it makes sense.

The other thing, of course, is we're looking down range a little bit and we realized when we get through our response and the initial stages of recovery, we've really got to understand exactly what occurred here.  So part of our project condition survey is to capture the conditions as the water recedes so we can do the analysis later on to ensure we have the right engineering and we're doing the right steps to protect the people in the future.

So that's it.  It's a sort of a forensic aspect of the effort now, principally for operational and safety purposes, but also so we can go back and understand what happened.  And that's an ongoing effort.

As we do that, we are identifying some breaches in levees we did not see initially.  Our attention was really drawn to 17th Street and London Avenue canal in the inner harbor.  But now we're finding some levee breaches in places like the National Wildlife Refuge up here.  So there are other sections of the levee which breached.  We also have levee breaches down in Plaquemines County.  If I could go to that one real quick.

This is Plaquemines County, which is -- which is south and east of New Orleans.  They have breaches down there which we're working as well.  Plaquemines has been kind of out of the news, but clearly, it's an important area, it needs to be brought back up.  One of the reasons for that is a lot of the support for the oil fields moves up and down this corridor here, so we need to bring -- bring that area back up as quickly as we can.

"How could it be that people were not monitoring the walls?"

Schempp1_3Physicist Ellery Schempp, a friend of sf writer Jim Morrow's and a fascinating character in his own right, sent in the following interesting analysis of the levee failures:

First of all, we recognize that the flooding in New Orleans was predicted in an article in Scientific American in October, 2001.   There have been many disputes between environmental groups and the Army Corps of Engineers as to how to manage the lower Mississippi.  It surely is not a black and white matter.

There is dispute as to when the first levee broke--some say it was ca. 10 AM on Monday on the 17th St canal.   Others say it was later that evening.  In either case, all the catastrophe and suffering occurred after the levees broke, which resulted in flooding the city.  Before that moment, the remaining residents were not in severe danger.  All the horrors occurred because of the flooding.  All the future expenses are due to the flooding.

It is truly amazing that no one seems to know when the first levee wall broke.  How could it be that people were not monitoring the walls?  Relatively simple and inexpensive measures could have been implemented in the months before.  The levees did not fail because the water was so high that it overran them; it wasn't the direct effects of a category 5 hurricane that destroyed New Orleans.  In fact, 99% of the miles of levees held perfectly well--there were two breaches, one about 50 ft wide on the 17th Street Canal and the other about 200 ft long on the Lake Pontchartrain levee.  Maybe there was a third one--no account seems to know.  How could people not know?

I emphasize that this was not a case of an overflowing bathtub.  Cement walls failed, not due to a category 5 hurricane, but because there was no system in place to monitor and support the levees.

This  is well explained in the graphics of the recent History Channel description.  No earthen levee or cement wall failed { via snap}; in every case the failure took place over hours.

What should have been done:
1. All the major levees should have been outfitted with electronic sensors to monitor them.  There are a host of simple means from simple water sensors on the dry side (shielded from rain), to breakable wires to monitor continuity, to tiltmeters--dozens of technologies geologists use to monitor volcanoes and earthquake zones.  These could all have been connected to redundant monitoring centers provided with multiple battery and diesel generator backup.  In the event of an incipient failure, alarms would be sent pinpointing the area.

2. The important levees could have been constantly patrolled on the parallel roads so any signs of trouble would be seen quickly.   Trucks filled with sandbags and crews ready to work would be stationed at intervals.  Mobile cranes, too.   

3. How did the levees fail?  The most probable scenario is this.  Levees are at risk of water infiltrating under the barrier, percolating through and undermining the footing.  This is well known, so engineers prevent this by carefully sealing the water side with mixtures of clay and grout to prevent any water infiltration.  However, the dry side is usually not so protected. 

Probably, water started to slosh over from waves.  As it did, it ran down the dry-side walls and began to undermine the easily-penetrated dry-side foundations, possibly somewhat weakened by the heavy rains.  Eventually, one section began to tilt slightly, allowing more water over, more erosion, and from then the result was foregone.  The first breach probably was over only one or two 8-foot sections.  But as everyone knows, as soon as water starts flowing fast through a breach, sections on either side go quickly.  So a small breach became 200 feet wide.

4. Had the sensor monitoring system been in place and had the patrols been in place, this could have been prevented.  Sensors and patrols would have noticed the water coming over and immediately two-feet of sandbags placed on top of the levee, preventing further undermining.  The levees would have been saved, and there would have been no massive flooding.

5. Assume that even with monitoring for an incipient situation and timely response, a cement wall breaks {snap?  there were no warning signs?}.  How to stop the rush of water?  Well, you have barges prepared for this--they move into place and block the flow enough.  Takes some engineering to make it work, but certainly doable.  Street-based crews provide back up.

6. In a worst case scenario, the levees would have failed despite these early warning and corrective activities.  In that case, the monitoring and patrols would have been able to raise the alarm.  In a well-organized emergency management system, immediately loudspeaker trucks and buses would fan out throughout the city.  "The levees have broken,  The levees have broken.  You must leave now.  A flood is coming.  You must leave now." 

At the time the levees broke, there was a 12-18 hour window to get into the city and evacuate people.  In New Orleans, when the levees broke, everybody was clueless,  there was no early warning, and there was no effort whatever to repair a small break before it became unstoppable.  There was no effort to evacuate the residents with warnings of the NEW danger, after the hurricane had passed. 

It is clear that a mere $50 million in monitoring technology and levee patrolling and response teams would have saved $400,000 million in future costs.

There is no excuse for the lack of a constant monitoring system; there is no excuse for not patrolling the levee walls; there is no excuse for not having a response plan to prevent a minor break from expanding to flood the entire city.  Incompetence and stupidity are high on the list.  I mean, why wasn't a simple monitoring system for failure in place?

(One minor point: The people swarming around this web site were able to verifiy three breaches in three different locations by matching media images to satellite images; and as far as I know we were the first "media" source to do so. Pretty sad, yes? I entirely agree with Schempp's general point about the shocking lack of information about the breaches.)

Schempp's CV concludes:

In a 1999 interview, Ellery said:  “I have had the good fortune to have worked 400 miles from the North Pole and then 800 miles from the South Pole thanks to Prof. Robert Nichols at Tufts; I enjoyed these unique places immensely and they were transforming in my life; I had the good fortune to have the Supreme Court agree with my understanding of the First Amendment, with lots of help from the ACLU and my parents.  I had the good fortune to do a PhD in physics at Brown, with support from Prof. Philip Bray and many professors.  I am happy to be acknowledged, and I guess I made some contributions, but I think many others are to be recognized.”

He is also the author of the widely circulated satirical essay, Warning: Gravity is “Only a Theory.” Of his gravity essay, he remarks, " Amazingly, I found a lot of responses that took me seriously.  I therefore had to write an annotated version that explains the science and jokes. "

Advances in Katrina Map Technology

Mapwise, a lot seems to be happening.

First of all, the New Improved! Clickable Depth Map (aka the C&C Technologies New Orleans Flood Map) now has an address field! Hooray! (Now you don't have to go into Goggle Maps first in order to pin-point and address before using the depth map.)

Secondly Microsoft's VirtualEarth has joined the effort. Today I got t his message from a Program Manager:

After the Hurricane, a number of us began a project to show before and after imagery in an effort to help victims discover if their homes are under water. Instead of relying on low res satellite imagery, we worked with a company who specializes in low altitude oblique imagery which gives a MUCH more useful view of the area. Anyway, we just got the results of this effort online yesterday at msnbc. I hope you find it helpful.

I tried the site in both Safari and Firefox (G5 Mac; OSX Tiger). On neither broswer did their aerial photos display properly, although the bugs were different. But the project only launched yesterday, and I could see what they were trying to do, which looks very promising.It might work for you today. Or it might work for you next week when they get a few kinks out of it.  Very promising.

UPDATE: My correspondent suggests the following to get around browser incompatibility issues:

Here is an idea since images aren’t displaying for you in the browser properly. At the end of the day, Eagle Eye images are standard JPG images. You can view them in any picture viewer, not just the online viewer we built at MSNBC. If you right click (or whatever the Mac equiv is) on an image that didn’t display, you can see the full URL for the image. You can just enter that URL in your browser to display it. Like this:

The image he links to I find quite affecting. The boats look like toys forgotten by careless children, an odd collision in the semantics of scale.


FURTHER UPATE: The folks at Microsoft have volunteer to take care of my current address query  load, so current inquries have been passed along to them. I've been working on a bit of a case of eye strain, so it comes at a good time.

94.5 FM on the Air in New Orleans

Algiers_antennaFrom Gizmodo: Joel Johnson writes about an improvised radio station set up by volunteers now on the air in New Orleans:

Some volunteers came down with a low-power FM station, a hundred feet of coax, and a makeshift antenna. What they didn’t have was a tower. I was going to strap a pole onto the chimney of the house we’re staying in, but another volunteer named Jackie said she was pretty handy with a Skill saw and would be happy to rig something together.

About 8 hours later, we lofted this home-built antenna tower onto the top of the roof and begin broadcasting 94.5 FM, a station the radio operators are calling ‘The Battle for Algiers’ (which has a political connotation that I have not had the time to grok).

After the sun set, I walked a little ways down the street (but not too far, because of the curfew), listening to scratchy, mono sounds of John Coltrane beaming our from an community radio tower built from the salvaged lumber of destroyed homes. With the helicopters overhead, it felt like a lull in an 1960’s American war in our own streets that never happened.

Picture by Bradley Stuart, Creative Commons, non-commerical.

(Thanks to Xeni, who told me it was coming, and to Matt Harris who told me it had happened!)

Walmart Wonderland: A Strange Tale

I've been debating for a day or so whether to post this, because I don't want to advertise myself as someone who can solve this kind of problem. But I think this tale needs to be told. So here is it, as I wrote it up in email yesterday:

In addition to queries from people wanting help with NOLA disaster maps, I get a few from people asking for help of other kinds. The missing persons queries I really can't do anything with. But I got one that, after a little bit of discussion to clarify the issues, had something I might be able to help with.

The woman I'm trying to help is displaced from Jefferson Parish. She has type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. She was given a one week supply of each of her three medications. It was paid for by the Red Cross, and filled at the Walmart in Baton Rouge. She was running out of medication. She said the diabetes medication was crucial to the maintenance of her blood sugar levels, and without it she was at risk for going into a diabetic coma. Also at the time of our first email exchange, the only aid she had received was the one week prescription.

She had applied unsuccessfully for food stamps (since resolved). She also said, "I went online and applied to FEMA and received an application for an SBA loan."

In the meantime, she had relocated to a rural community, Baywood, LA. The nearest Walmart is in Zachary, LA. She went there to refill her prescription, but was told that the Red Cross picking up the tab was a one-time thing.

So, I thought about this a bit, and called up Melanie Miller, the Assistant Minister at the First Congregational Church in Chappaqua, NY. We kicked around some ideas of how to help, and our first thought was for Melanie to get in contact with a Congregational Church in Louisiana. She tried calling the one closest to Baywood. But for understandable reasons, their phone line was perpetually busy.

So we had another thought. Why couldn't Melanie just call the pharmacy department of the Zachary Walmart and give them the church's credit card number and have the church pick up the tab? Sounds easy, right? An elegant solution.

So Melanie called. And she was told, not very nicely, that we didn't have enough information to get the prescriptions refilled and that their usual policy was that they didn't take credit cards over the phone. So we get more information, and Melanie calls again and is told that the only one who can authorize phone credit card charges is Pat, the Manager, and that he won't be in until after 11 AM. She Melanie calls and calls. Pat is 45 minutes late to work. When he finally arrives, Melanie gets him on the phone and he declines to allow the First Congregational Church of Chappaqua to buy this woman her medication because he won't take a credit card number over the phone.

It seems to me that anyone managing a pharmacy would be fully aware of the risks of taking someone of the medications the woman was prescribed without a doctor's supervision. So I don't really understand what Pat the Manager is thinking. Now, I don't want to rag on Walmart, because their distribution system may be the backbone of the recovery. And I don't even want particularly to rag on the Zachary, LA Walmart. But PLEASE, people, WAKE UP. This is a national emergency.

My next thought was to give a call to the Westchester office of one of our elected officials to see if she can help, which I did, leaving a request from a constituent for assistance. Hillary lives just around the corner from the First Congregational Church, at 15 Old House Lane.

When Melanie got upset with Pat the Walmart Manager, he told her that there was a  possibility that our woman might be eligible for some form of free aid, but that she would need to call or come in to determine whether she was eligible. I suspect that if she contacts him to inquire, she will be told that the one week prescription from the Red Cross that she has already gone through is all that's available.

We're still working out it. Meanwhile, the woman is looking for a more cooperative pharmacy to which to transfer her prescriptions. I think she ran out of her diabetes medication a day or so ago.

UPDATE: Senator Clinton's office in on the case.

A FURTHER UPDATE AND EPILOGUE: First of all, our woman got her meds, so she isn't going to die. We had Senator Clinton's Westchester office all set to call Pat the Manager, but before the call took place, our woman transfered her prescriptions to a much-more-cooperative CVS, where she received her essential medication for free. Also, in the comments, Madeleine of the Red Cross explains that the Red Cross prescription help is not supposed to work the way the Zachary Walmart employees said. So if you have this kind of prescription problem, get in touch with the Red Cross for help solving it.