"To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?" -- C.S. Lewis

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Krugman And His Ombudsman: The public editor of The New York Times, Byron Calame, has caught Paul Krugman pulling a typical Kruggy. Calame has an issue with a sentence of Krugman's that Calame characterizes as "a sweeping assertion that was wrong in at least one respect." Here 'tis:

Two different news media consortiums reviewed Florida's ballots; both found that a full manual recount would have given the election to Mr. [Al] Gore.

That's how Krugman read the results. But according to Calame's research, there's much more to the story:

The Miami Herald actually did statewide manual recounts under four different standards for the validity of ballots. Two showed Mr. Bush the winner and two gave the election to Mr. Gore. The other consortium had six scenarios for its statewide manual recounts. Mr. Gore prevailed in five of those, but Mr. Bush was the winner in one—taking another slice out of Mr. Krugman’s earlier sweeping generalizations.

In a hilarious e-mail exchange between Calame and Krugman, Kruggy wrote of the second consortium, which awarded Bush the victory in 1 of its 6 scenarios:

I thought that was a minor detail—frankly I can’t believe that anyone really thinks it’s important….

Krugman defended his original false "sweeping assertion" with:

My first reaction ... is that we’re really down to small points, which have no bearing on the original point of my remark about recounts—which was, after all, that the election was so close that even modest vote suppression was crucial.

Translation (I think alicublog would call this "Shorter Krugman"): "If I make shit up to support a larger, less debatable point, I will. And I won't be made to feel guilty about it."

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Funny Lines: Slate's Dahlia Lithwick sums up the lopsided show down between Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and Senate Democrats:

Here's a man long accustomed to answering really hard questions from extremely smart people, suddenly faced with the almost-harder task of answering obvious questions from less-smart people. He finds himself standing in a batting cage with the pitching machine set way too slow.


Monday, September 12, 2005

The U.S.'s Response Record: Drudge links to an opinion piece today in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contending that the federal government's response to Katrina was faster than in the past.

Jason van Steenwyk is a Florida Army National Guardsman who has been mobilized six times for hurricane relief. He notes that:

"The federal government pretty much met its standard time lines, but the volume of support provided during the 72-96 hour was unprecedented. The federal response here was faster than Hugo, faster than Andrew, faster than Iniki, faster than Francine and Jeanne."

If this is true, all the more reason to focus future energy on evacuation plans. That's not to say that we won't study the government's response to Katrina and find hundreds of ways to improve rescue efforts. But even now, it will be weeks before the boots on the ground in New Orleans can finish a house-to-house search of the city. Is that kind of time line ever going to change? I don't know why it would. If we compare the number of lives that can be saved by evacuation to the number of lives that can be saved by rescuers in a flooded city, is there any question as to where to allocate future resources? No way. Again, evacuate.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Disaster Response: A reader points out:

...you made a claim that no nation has dealt well with a Hurricane of Category 4 status. Wrong. Check out Dennis and Ivan as they made their way through Cuba. Ivan: 1.5 million people evacuated, 20,000 homes destroyed, 0 loss of life.

Fair enough. And, not having studied those two situations, I'm guessing the pre-storm evacuations were key. In any case, that's my gut feeling about Katrina: The pitiful attempt at pre-storm evacuations, not post-storm rescue management (though equally pitiful), was the chief preventable cause of the majority of storm deaths. And as we decide how to best prepare for future storms, I'm guessing we'll find that there's far more incentive to devise plans for thorough evacuations--and not on beefed up rescue efforts. Disasters of this magnitude--in population centers--require exponentially more manpower and energy after the fact.

That said, I think it's important to avoid confusing hurricane planning with homeland security planning. With hurricanes, there's no question that your best option is to leave, get out of the way, before it hits. With terrorist attacks, you don't have a choice. So Katrina does leave us with the impression that our government isn't ready for a nuclear or large-scale bio/chemical attack. Will we ever be ready for those nightmare scenarios? I doubt it; but of course we need to strive for something better than we achieved in New Orleans.

But again: Since hurricanes do give us an option, the choice is a no brainer--evacuate.

The Levees: I keep reading that we have the engineering know-how to build levees that can withstand future storms of all category rankings. Another no brainer. But those levees will be an Achilles heel as well. While it may be possible to protect New Orleans from storm flooding, its levee system is now forever marked as a terrorist target. If New Orleans is going to rebuild, the entire levee system will require vigilant protection from intentional sabotage.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The USS Bataan: The USS Bataan, having just finished exercises off Panama, was in a position to shadow Hurricane Katrina as she headed for New Orleans. The Bataan boasts 6 operating rooms, beds for 600 patients, helicopters, and a crew of 1200 able sailors. Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan linked to a post on The Carpetbagger Report claiming that, once Katrina passed through New Orleans, the Bataan sat impotent some 90 miles south of the city awaiting President Bush's orders to help with the emergency. According to Carpetbagger, the Bataan needed permission to proceed:

Apparently, that permission could have been given right away, but it wasn't. Bush was on vacation, sharing some cake with John McCain , and pretending to play some guitar.

The Carpetbagger Report based its conclusion on a BBC interview with NorthCom Lt. Commander Sean Kelly. The transcript of the money quote from Kelly:

"Northcom started planning before the storm even hit. We were ready when it hit Florida, because, as you remember, it hit the bottom part of Florida, and then we were planning once it was pointed towards the Gulf Coast.

"So, what we did, we activated what we call 'defense coordinating officers' to work with the states to say, 'OK, what do you think you will need?' And we set up staging bases that could be started.

"We had the USS Bataan sailing almost behind the hurricane so once the hurricane made landfall, its search and rescue helicopters could be available almost immediately So, we had things ready.

"The only caveat is: we have to wait until the president authorizes us to do so. The laws of the United States say that the military can't just act in this fashion; we have to wait for the president to give us permission."

To Carpetbagger, this sounded like a subtle bit of whistle blowing. And indeed, the written word seems open to that interpretation. But upon listening to the actual interview, I came away with the impression that Lt. Commander Kelly, acting as an information official to the media, was merely offering his "caveat" as a friendly aside--as non-essential but useful information.

I e-mailed my concern to Carpetbagger and received news of a clarification from Kelly:

The President and Secretary of Defense did authorize us to act right away and are not to blame on this end. Yes, we have to wait for authorization, but it was given in a timely manner.

Is Kelly under pressure to tow the company line? That's always a possibility, but I don't think that's the case here. Kelly's statement is entirely consistent with a story in The Chicago Tribune, which sheds light on the operations of the USS Bataan in the days following the landfall of Katrina. The story is well worth reading, but a quick summary: The Monday of landfall was a wash. There were sighs of relief as people assumed that Katrina's turn to the east had spared New Orleans. Then the levees broke on Tuesday. The Bataan's helicopters were immediately in the fray, rescuing stranded residents. A 135-foot landing craft was sent 90 miles up the Mississippi to New Orleans:

It took a crew of 16, including a doctor, and its deck was stacked with food and water. The craft carries enough food and fuel to remain self-sufficient for 10 days.

The commander of the craft considered landing near Venice, La., but packs of roving dogs made him reconsider. The time line of the Tribune's story is unclear, but it seems that soon after the landing craft returned to the Bataan, FEMA redeployed the Bataan to Biloxi, Miss.

According to the Tribune:

The role in the relief effort of the sizable medical staff on board the Bataan was not up to the Navy, but to FEMA officials directing the overall effort.

From this I presume that the White House permission to which Lt. Commander Kelly had referred had indeed been granted; and operational control over the USS Bataan had been delegated to FEMA.

There's certainly an open question here: Why the redeployment of the Bataan to Biloxi when its hospital beds and emergency rooms could have aided New Orleans? Was this wise? Was it a mistake? Did Biloxi indeed have needs that trumped those of New Orleans? We can't really know at this point, can we? More to come, I assume.

Worth Noting: The Chicago Tribune story I refer to above is a bit misleading on a key point. In the fourth paragraph of the story, Stephen Hedges writes:

But now the Bataan's hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, are empty. A good share of its 1,200 sailors could also go ashore to help with the relief effort, but they haven't been asked. The Bataan has been in the stricken region the longest of any military unit, but federal authorities have yet to fully utilize the ship.

The problem is that, at this point in the story, Hedges seems to be saying that the USS Bataan is still sitting off New Orleans--a jaw-dropping bit of information, if it were true. Casual readers who don't follow the story into its second page will leave not knowing of the redeployment to Biloxi.

Monday, September 5, 2005

Sober Analysis of Katrina?: Try The Washington Post and the BBC.

Sunday, September 4, 2005

Gulf Coast Disaster II: It's pretty clear that our government, at all levels, has done a poor job of helping the victims of Katrina. But, while I'm all for efforts to improve rescue and clean-up contingencies for future hurricanes, I really wonder what sort of goal the public thinks we fell short of here. With all of this angry criticism, should we think a massive loss of life could have been avoided?

Well, if sometime in the last century New Orleans had imagined the worst possible hurricane Mother Nature could have sent its way, and then had built a levy system to withstand it, then, yes, we could sit here today and complain about the magnitude of the aftermath of Katrina.

But given what the levy system was designed to do--defend against a Category 3 storm--let's not harbor a misconception that the "best case" rescue and clean-up scenario was ever a good one. Katrina was a no-win situation--no matter how the various politicians and heads of government agencies decided to allocate resources last week.

Before we sit and stew too much over Katrina, let's find out why certain decisions were made and how priorities for the rescue effort were arrived at. The difference between the best case scenario and what we saw happen last week may not be as dramatic as our frustrations are tempting us to believe.

Friday, September 2, 2005

Gulf Coast Disaster: The reason I continue to agree with Bush's overall strategy in the war on terror--although I wouldn't exactly give him a high grade for managing it--is because major disasters are too difficult, if not impossible, to plan for.

When the "big" earthquake hits LA, when an F5 tornado hits Dallas, will those cities be prepared for the aftermath? Of course not. Our large population hot spots present clean-up and rescue problems unprecedented in the history of the world.

And governments (civic, state and federal) never plan properly for these events in advance. That's our m.o. It's how our nation-state operates. We can blame Republicans, we can blame Democrats. But it won't change. It's who we are.

And that's why I support the "fly paper" strategy.

We are a free country. It will always be possible for Al Qaeda and the Timothy McVeighs of the world to successfully attack us--and create urban disasters that need cleaning up. But with Al Qaeda, there is a hope that we can militarily defeat them on their own turf, or at least keep them busy on foreign soil.

Sure, our homeland defenses need to be strong; but there will always be holes--and always a good supply of large ones. I find it interesting that so many of the people who make fun of the SDI missile "umbrella" for being impractical, seem to think we can spruce up homeland security to the point that Al Qaeda won't be able to enter the country and stage attacks. I don't have faith in either, but I'd give better odds on the unlikely event of the former coming to pass.

To close: What country on earth has ever demonstrated the ability to respond to a strong Category 4 hurricane? Not one. We should refrain from getting caught up in the politically motivated attempts at assessing blame for the aftermath of Katrina. It badly misses the point.

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