Monday, September 05, 2005

European Misconceptions About The US

Here's my response to a long comment from a reader in Germany on my Katrina post - it gives US readers an insight into the damaging distortions of the Euro-media.

First, a prejudice. I've spent much of my career managing (non-lethal) disasters, and have learned to avoid assigning blame until the dust has settled - responding in the midst of battle wastes the precious time of the battlers. But this comment is a reflection of the information provided by the European media to its readers, so its worth Fisking.

To distinguish between the original Comment and other references, I've preceded snips from the Comment with (Comment).

The Ignored Warning

(Comment) I have read your piece on Hi/Lo trust societies and to some extent agree, BUT it doesn't alter the fact that most of the black native Americans who were left behind in the city, were there because they had no way of escape and were obviously reluctant to leave their homes and possessions as they in all probability had no insurance and no money to start over.

Firstly, there was a
Mandatory Evacuation Order (MEO) issued Sunday August 28th by the Governor on the encouragement of the President (my emphasis):

Gov. Kathleen Blanco, standing beside the mayor at a news conference, said President Bush called and personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation for the low-lying city, which is prone to flooding.

"This is a once in a lifetime event," the mayor said. "The city of New Orleans has never seen a hurricane of this magnitude hit it directly," the mayor said.

He told those who had to move to the Superdome to come with enough food for several days and with blankets. He said it will be a very uncomfortable place and encouraged everybody who could to get out.

Unlike many Europeans, Americans are raised to take responsibility for their actions. So people who deliberately ignore a MEO are regarded as culpable, not the folks who then have to risk their lives rescuing them. Personally, I think the American attitude is healthier.

"Black native Americans"

I guess you mean black Americans - "native American" means what we used to call "Red Indians". I hope you don't believe that blackness makes people victims - millions of blacks have overcome the legacy of slavery to operate successfully at all levels of US society - think Condi Rice. Blacks are not exclusively a racial underclass - unlike the Turks in Germany or the Muslims in France. And this picture may change your preconceptions of the race of the people involved -
hat tip Mark In Mexico).



The Mayor That Failed

Staying in a City threatened by a Cat 5 hurricane does NOT preserve your possessions - they will be trashed regardless. So, possibly people ignored the MEO because they had no transport.


You can see the planning prepared by Louisiana and the City
here. Here are a few snips (hat tip Mark In Mexico again):

V. TASKS
A. Mayor
* Initiate the evacuation.
* Retain overall control of all evacuation procedures via EOC operations.
* Authorize return to evacuated areas.
...
D. Regional Transit Authority
* Supply transportation as needed in accordance with the current Standard Operating Procedures.
* Place special vehicles on alert to be utilized if needed.
* Position supervisors and dispatch evacuation buses.
* If warranted by scope of evacuation, implement additional service.

However instead of staying to make sure that the stay-behinds were bussed out, the Mayor left the City and the result was this.














Between 250 and 500 buses sat unused as the apocalypse descended. They could have got 50,000 people out. Two runs and all100,000 would have escaped. That was gross incompetence.

The People Who Obeyed The MEO

(Comment) Those that had the means of escape did so knowing they would be covered if their homes were destroyed.

Only an idiot would expect their presence to protect their below-sea-level property from a Cat 4. I appreciate that you're trying to build a class narrative, but really, you can't possibly know whether the folks who obeyed the MEO had hurricane cover - I know some very upper-middle folks that had no cover. This is beacuse insurance coverage is very high for events that are likely, and many people take a calculated risk.

In the San Francisco earthquake, most of the yuppies in the Marina had no earthquake cover, so when their homes were wrecked they just put the keys through the letterbox of their mortgage company.

The Looters

(Comment) Now if you survive a disaster like Katrina, you are poor and there is no power or water, it is likely if no help arrives, you will steal food and water from a store, you will also be very scared and in a gun toting society like the states, you may well steal weapons if you have none.

Most Americans seem to agree that looting food, water and medicines are - just - OK in a catastrophe. But they don't accept thefts of anything else, including guns. Interestingly, although there are plenty of reports of looting, I could only find one picture, and that showed a kid pulling a plastic bag. So this may be a media fantasy, we'll see.

If the (again unverified) stories of rape are true, it seems that the gun looters were young men, rather than their victims.

The Help

(Comment). The fact that the help took so long to arrive exacerbated the situation.

After the equivalent of area bombing of an area the size of the UK, it was inevitable that things moved slowly - the relief of Dresden took weeks, and that was just one city. To be quite clear, the relief plan was run by the State of Louisiana - the Louisiana National Guard reports to the Governor. I don't think she was up to the job.

Those Levees

(Comment). Another point, as far as I can make out the Levees were known to be inadequate and nothing had been done to improve them, also the infrastructure of New Orleans was weak and the whole place had been going to pot for some time, SO why had nothing been done as hurricanes are not exactly unknown here?

Suddenly everyone's an expert on levees! We walked around them with friends a few years back. One was being rebuilt at vast expense, and that was one of the two that failed! The levees have been rebuilt over the years to enable the City to survive a Cat 3 hurricane - protecting from higher than that is a huge project that is at the very early planning stage.

New Orleans has nearly completed its Hurricane Protection Project, a $740-million plan led by Naomi to ring the city with levees that could shield residents from up to category-3 storm surges. Meanwhile, Winer and others at the Army Corps are considering a new levee system capable of holding back a surge from a category-5 hurricane like Ivan, which threatened the city last year.

To determine exactly where and how high to build these levees, the engineers have enlisted the aid of a 3-D computer-simulation program called ADCIRC (Advanced Circulation Model). ADCIRC incorporates dozens of data points—including seabed and coastal topography, wind speed, tidal variation, ocean depth and water temperature—and charts a precise map of where the storm surge would inundate New Orleans. The category-5 levee idea, though, is still in the early planning stages; it may be decades before the new barriers are completed. Until then, locals had better keep praying to Helios.

The locals knew this:

There currently is no defense against a surge from a major storm, a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale used by meteorologists. Such storms can generate surges of 20 to 30 feet above sea level — enough to top any levee in south Louisiana. Sustained winds from major storms — 131 mph to 155 mph for a Category 4, even more for a Category 5 — can shred homes and do damage to almost any structure.

Blame Game


Lastly why didn't Dubya show his face earlier and even he admitted that the rescue operation was too slow. All in all even allowing for the size of the disaster and the numbers involved, I can't help feeling that had it happened in Washington or any other wealthier and White area, the reaction would have been different.

Actually Washington is almost solidly black, but I guess you're saying that some unspecified people in the US are racists. In my long experience there, I've found vastly less race hatred than I've seen in the UK, France and Germany (remember the Turkys?).

It's a common European misconception that the US is just a big version of, say Germany. It ain't so. With the exception of Switzerland, European states are "modified monarchies", in which the President, Prime Minister or whatever calls the shots. Hence Tony Blair can radically "reform" the House of Lords and there's nothing to stop him.

The founders of the US hated this model - it had led to their persecution by George III. So they built a constitution in which power is with the individual States, excepting only areas that the States voluntarily pass to the Feds. This is the opposite of the EU, which has all powers and "derogates" some to, say, the UK.

Americans pay attention to their local State legislature, not the Feds, beacuse it does the things that most effect their lives.

So when there's a disaster, the State is the first responder. This works very well if you have good managers- Giuliani in NYC, Jeb Bush in Florida (I bet you never even heard of the heroic way they dealt with the last big hurricane). But when the local management is weak, as with Louisiana, the Feds have to step in. They do so carefully, beacuse they're going against American law and history.

My guess is that it cost a day for the President to push Louisiana out of the way. But, given the choice, most Americans are happier with power split this way.

I'm not privy to what the President has on his plate right now. But he's an excellent manager, and will know that visits by dignitaries often cause more harm than good. When he did tour, in response to lefty yowls, here's what happened:

Three tons of food ready for delivery by air to refugees in St. Bernard Parish and on Algiers Point sat on the Crescent City Connection bridge Friday afternoon as air traffic was halted because of President Bush’s visit to New Orleans, officials said.

Bottom Line & Further Reading

There's still a lot to do, and I'm worried about several of the Fed agencies and the absence of a kick-ass crisis manager. But have my fingers crossed they'll sort it out - they usually do.

There's a reason why most of my information is from New Orleans news sources - they know the history, what is going on, and are less likely to be written by lefties (in a study a while back, 92% of all reporters said they were Democrats). Here's a recent example of a blatant lie by the New York Times/Herald Tribune.

Unfortunately, European papers get their news from this biased media in the US, add on their own slant - often anti-American, and so their readers get badly misinformed.

This is not a put-down - I would find it hard to understand the issues about a disaster in Bavaria, and the responses by Munich, Berlin & Brussels. But I'd start by looking in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (Babelfish to hand) to find out what was really happening.

So now you know:
1. Everybody who stayed in New Orleans did so knowing that they risked their lives.
2. Not all African Americans are in the lower classes, and vice-versa.
3. Most of the folks without transport could have been saved by the available buses.
4. The US is a federation, so Louisiana had first dibs at dealing with Katrina, and the Feds could only get involved after they screwed up.
5. The levees had been expensively rebuilt for a Cat 3, and Cat 4 defenses are at the very early design stages. (don't tut-tut at this - Venice is far worse).
6. The President is a good manager who prefers substance to gesture.
7. Racism is rare in the US.
8. Don't believe what you read in the papers.

For an alternative German view on the US, take a look at Davids Medienkritik.