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Katrina: what went right

Posted by Richard on September 12, 2005

After Mike Brown resigned (good riddance), I started to write a recap of what went wrong. There are certainly plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made of everyone involved — federal, state, and local officials, and even individual facility managers. How in the world can someone fail to evacuate all the patients in their hospital or all the residents in their nursing home?

But I’ve scrapped that post. A hundred other people have written it already, and a hundred more will do so soon. They all have their own take on who’s most to blame for what went wrong (I vote for the state officials, FWIW) and how to "fix" the process (no, please don’t federalize it even further!).

I scrapped that post because I decided that — although there are certainly things that could have been done better — all in all, the response really wasn’t that bad. In under two days, over 80% of the population of New Orleans — 400,000+ people — safely evacuated inland, as did I-don’t-know-how-many hundreds of thousands of others in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. I don’t know if there has ever been such a rapid and complete evacuation of a major American city.

Of the 100,000 who remained in New Orleans, virtually all survived. The death toll, once breathlessly predicted to top 10,000, now looks to be a few hundred. The people who gathered at the Superdome may have been terribly uncomfortable for three days (more uncomfortable than they needed to be, according to the Red Cross), but virtually all of them survived.

Don’t forget that this was an intense, cataclysmic storm, worse than anything to hit that part of the country in recorded history. And it caused the complete inundation of a major city — a city that’s largely below sea level.

No other country in the world could have responded to a similarly intense weather event even remotely as well. I’m not talking about third-world countries. I’m pretty certain that if Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, or Korea had faced a comparable catastrophe, there would have been tens of thousands of deaths. And the survivors would have been waiting for the U.S. military to help out.

Sure, let’s talk about what went right and what went wrong, and let’s try to learn how to do it even better next time. But let’s stop the carping and finger-pointing long enough to salute:

  • The people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama — both those who evacuated and those who helped the evacuees. 
  • The first responders who remained on the job and did their duty under the most adverse conditions.
  • The troops who restored order, brought in supply convoys, and by their can-do attitude and organizational efficiency once again demonstrated that the United States military is a remarkably effective institution.
  • The Coast Guard chopper crews who plucked thousands from rooftops, day and night, day after day. Simply amazing.
  • The corporations and individuals who’ve helped raise three-quarters of a billion dollars and who-knows-how-much more in in-kind contributions.
  • The people of Texas — and especially Houston — who’ve shown a remarkable willingness to step forward and help their neighbors, doing far more than their share in this regard.

All these people deserve a great big pat on the back and our gratitude.

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4 Responses to “Katrina: what went right”

  1. Jan said


  2. Nathanael said

    You’re right. We should look at the good things about this tragedy. Thank you for your perspective.

  3. Martin said

    Regarding the estimate of 10,000.

    It seemed to me that that number just happened one day, coming out of the blue. I suspected it was so high in order to be able to report later, happily, that not that many people got killed after all. Am I just too suspicious?

  4. Anonymous said

    The estimate of 10,000 was originally made by Mayor Nagin. I can’t speak to his motivation, of course, but he seemed distraught and sincere. Did he just pluck the number out of the air, or was it an actual estimate that had some basis in fact? I don’t know. But the media certainly repeated it often enough to suggest they had some basis for confidence in it. They wouldn’t keep repeating it just to hurt the Bush administration, would they?

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