A Week Later: A Report from the Front Lines of Katrina

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Mr. Hoffman is Paul W. and Nancy W. Murrill Distinguished Professor Department of History, Louisiana State University.

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A week later, one thing is clear here in south Louisiana: Federal help came late and accompanied in some cases with well-intentioned bureaucratically minded FEMA and other officials whose desire for "system" delayed implementation. We did not have the resources/assets to rescue, and feed all of the thousands stranded in New Orleans and some other parishes (counties in the rest of the country), but the state, local governments, and especially civilians did everything they could from Monday to Friday afternoon.

You have to have been here to share not only the shame of watching your fellow citizens lined up for hours beside an interstate waiting for buses, walking with kids and bundles like the refugees you see in Africa and other places along highways and bridges, but also the pride in the energy with which people of all sorts pitched in to do what they could to help each other. Senator Mary Landreau has it right: don't anyone who was not here and working DARE to say that the local response was inadequate! We all did and are doing what we can. That we also needed National Guard units (some of ours are in Iraq) and heavy lift helicopters and the other resources that have come since Friday afternoon is true, and we are grateful for them. But no one in the country should forget how long it took to get them here or how often assets like field hospitals were kept idle while FEMA "got organized" and people died. Nor should anyone forget that the president and his operatives were more interested in photo-ops (on his initial visit to this area last week) than in understanding what had happened and what needed to be done (to judge by local news reports).

For that we had to rely on ourselves and, since Friday, on General Russ Honore, "one of us" who, like Mayor Nagin, Senator Landreau, and Governor Blanco took no BS and got to the tasks at hand.

My FEMA story is of the young man, fully outfitted with radios and other gear who appeared about 2 PM on Friday at the "watering station" where I and others were working outside of the LSU Assembly Center to tell us of a complaint, and then asked us to tell our boss and our boss's boss when we changed shifts .... at which point we laughed at him and told him we had no boss and no shift; we had simply showed up and done what needed doing. He assured us that organization was being created even as we spoke with him. OK, organization is needed for the long haul, but he was clearly out of touch with the volunteer effort of which we were but a small part.

As the crisis in New Orleans began to unfold, I walked up to LSU from my home nearby and went to work, as did dozens and hundreds of other people there and at other places in Baton Rouge. That was last Wednesday; I spent 6 hours in the heat helping gather donations. Thursday and Saturday I worked at my church, which is on the edge of campus. Friday I felt compelled to go back to the Assembly Center to help, and spent 8 hours (with others including students) giving out water and snack foods to people passing through that medical triage center. There was some organization, especially of the medical work (teams from California, New Mexico, and other points as well as local medical personnel who just showed up), but much of what we gave out until mid day Friday was water donated by private persons and church groups. Only the "MRE"s (not military issue, but a civilian variety) seem to come from some central store. By way of further illustration of the civilian effort, my church is, with others, sheltering women with newborns, women with some (but not all) of their children, the occasional family with a pregnant mom, pregnant moms separated from husbands, children etc. And Sunday, our congregation and our next-door neighbors, having learned of the need through informal networks (FEMA evidently had not), saw to it that truck loads of water sent from groups in Minnesota and Wisconsin (and other places) reached two towns (Bogalusa and Amite) that had gotten NOTHING from anyone until then! Sunday!

The human interest stories will be endless. The political stories are yet to be fully told. Both the administration and the congress share the responsibility for choosing to spend monies, or not collect taxes in the first place, in ways that have made this human disaster possible. For years knowledgeable persons have begged for monies to restore the coastal wetlands which reduce the force of storm surges, to improve the levees at New Orleans, and for many other needs to try to lift the poor of this country to a higher level rather than force them into places like the New Orleans 9th ward (under 10-12 feet of water right now). But most Republican politicians -- those "pro-life, compassionate conservatives" -- are more interested in helping the rich with tax cuts, carrying on their crusades abroad and at home, and just in general pretending that government has no role domestically since the "market" will solve all ills (a load of BS if there ever was one), unless of course it is to line the pockets of or provide security for people like them. Democratic politicans are little better in spite of the party's historic concern for the poor, labor, and the middle class. Perhaps what angers me most are the so-called Christians who are long on rhetoric and VERY short on doing. I have seen Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other people of faith and some of no religious affiliation at work down here. What they have done and are doing is the real deal.

To any of you who have contributed to the relief, I say thank you! And thank you for helping displaced students and people from New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf coast. Please keep it up, and remember to vote next time, and hold people accountable for the political choices they have made and will be making that are increasing poverty, lack of health insurance, etc etc etc....

The opinions expressed here are my own and not those of Louisiana State University.

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    More Comments:

    Mark Ward - 9/13/2005

    I’m sorry, but I must comment on Mr. Hoffman’s other assertions, “For years knowledgeable persons have begged for monies to restore the coastal wetlands which reduce the force of storm surges, to improve the levees at New Orleans, and for many other needs to try to lift the poor of this country to a higher level…”

    Mr. Hoffman – For DECADES, Louisiana (and New Orleans) have been under the political governance of the Democrat Party. Monies HAVE been allocated for “infrastructure” (including improving the levees). In FACT, Sir, the amount of money allocated for Loiusiana infrastructure (Levees, etc) is HIGHER under the Bush Administration than it was under the Clinton Administration. So WHAT are your talking about?

    If I’m not mistaken – a majority of the funds were NOT spent on reinforcing the levees, but on the more (speculatively) profitable Industrial Canal Widening project. Outspoken Presidental Critic – Louisiana State Senator Mary Landreau – HERSELF – added an amendment to Iraq War appropriation bill calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to re-work its estimates for this “pork” project.

    In short, Louisiana is PERFECT example of Liberalism… EVERYTHING is someone else’s responsibility (or fault, when something goes wrong).

    I’d also like to ask YOU, Mr. Hoffman – Where were YOU when the San Francisco area was devastated by Earthquakes? Did YOU fly out, and DO SOMETHING? Or did you sit on your ass in Louisiana, and wonder aloud why people would choose to live in an area subject to earthquakes (kind of like people NOW wondering why YOU would choose to live in an area which is below sea level, and surrounded by water)…

    The point, Sir, is that EVERYONE has problems… Some are able to help PHYSICALLY, while other must work for a living (and can only help financially)… I should point out that MANY “evil” “right wing” radio stations have raised over half a BILLION dollars in direct financial aid for those affected – so for YOU, Sir, to imply that we don’t care about those affected (regardless of their race, social status, political affiliation, etc.) is insulting beyond belief!

    Mark Ward - 9/13/2005

    With all due respect to Mr. Hoffman and Nancy W. Murrill ("A Week Later: A Report from the Front Lines of Katrina", September 6, 2005), but when the last sentence of the opening paragraph is, well, blatantly FALSE, you know the rest is not going to be any better.

    Specifically, "We did not have the resources/assets to rescue, and feed all of the thousands stranded in New Orleans and some other parishes (counties in the rest of the country), but the state, local governments, and especially civilians did everything they could from Monday to Friday afternoon."

    You've got to be kidding! State and Local governments "did everything they could"? I've never read such a load of CRAP (that wasn't in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times) in my life!

    When you have Mayor Nagin (that would be "Local Government") publically scoffing at the idea of using the HUNDREDS of School Buses (photos of these submerged buses are too numerous to count) - demanding, instead, that Greyhound send all of THEIR buses (while HIS citizen drown).

    Then, you've got Governor Blanco stating (according to Mayor Nagin - in response to a meeting with President Bush) that she needed 24 hours to make a decision (as to what action to take).

    Not that the Bush Administration is FREE from blame - BUT President Bush ordered TWO Navy Ships into the Gulf Coast 48 hours BEFORE Katrina hit. President Bush declared New Orleans a DISASTER AREA 24 hours BEFORE Katrina hit.

    In the IMMEDIATE aftermath of the flooding, the American Red Cross ATTEMPTED to get TRUCK LOADS of Food, Water, Personal Hygiene, etc. to the people in the Super Dome and Convention Center, BUT that the Louisiana State Department of Homeland Security (under the auspice of Governor Blanco) DENIED them access to those people. THEY (State Government) denied those people Food and Water (NOT the Federal Government).

    Finally, with respect to FEMA... Let us remember that FEMA is NOT a "First Responder" organization. It is a coordinator of OTHER agencies' services.

    For those wishing to cast aspersians on President Bush (or any agency within the Administration) - would you PLEASE ARTICULATE what, EXACTLY, SHOULD have been done, that was not done?

    I would like to remind EVERYONE, that the President DOES NOT have the authority to send Federal Troops (or to assume control of State National Guard Troops) UNLESS a NATIONAL EMERGENCY is declared OR he has permission from the State Governor (neither of these requirements were met, in this case).

    John Austin Matzko - 9/10/2005

    I especially take exception to the notion that Professor Hoffman can speak with authority about relief efforts just because he's on the scene. Soldiers on the ground are often the last to comprehend the significance of what they've experienced in combat.

    John H. Lederer - 9/8/2005

    It is troubling how many people are unable to report on a catastrophe without weaving into it their political obsessions. All is viewed through the political lens.

    Sudha Shenoy - 9/8/2005

    The Governor had to sign the authority to use the buses in this --otherwise unauthorised -- way. Apparently she only signed on Thursday the 2nd Sept.

    Michael Glen Wade - 9/7/2005

    I think Paul Hoffman is largely right on all counts. However, my wife asked days ago why the city did not use the school buses in particular to evacuate citizens, thus moving them and the buses out of harm's way. I finally saw that issue raised on TV last night, complete with footage of a vast lot of water-damaged buses. Perhaps there is a
    good reason these vehicles were not employed, but I haven't heard anybody from the school system or Mayor Nagin's office give it yet.