The Buses of New Orleans

posted at 11:02 am on August 29, 2006 by Bryan

It was a year ago yesterday that hurricane Katrina roared ashore as a Category 3 storm and with a glancing blow destroyed New Orleans along with a direct hit that wrecked much of the Gulf Coast. That storm, more than any other single event, brought together the worst of dishonest domestic politics, Bush Derangement Syndrome and hysterical media coverage into a swirl of noxious ruminations and speculations that still echoes to this day. Spike Lee is still dumb enough to think that the government blew up the levees. Ray Nagin is still the country’s most incompetent mayor, re-elected by a city that forgave him for letting it drown and for keeping his foot firmly in his mouth ever since. Kathleen Blanco survived a brief effort to recall her, and is still the nation’s most indecisive governor. President Bush still bears the brunt of criticism for everything that went wrong, whether it was bad luck, the incompetence of state and local officials or the slowness of FEMA’s response. New Orleanse is still recovering, if more loudly than the sections of Mississippi and other states that Katrina also leveled. And the media is still hysterical and usually inaccurate, though it has moved on to misread and mislead about other stories since Katrina’s wrathful reign ended.

For me, it was one photo that summed up what went wrong and how the media misled the nation about it. While Sheppard Smith carried on with emotional, fact-free entreaties and while Ray Nagin and his disaster preparedness sidekick Terry Eberts and police chief Eddie Compass spread unfounded rumors of rapes and widespread murder–all the while covering up the fact that the city had dozens of what turned out to be ghost police officers who didn’t exist–and while anarchy began to grip the city, there sat over 200 buses in what came to be known as the Mayor Ray Nagin Memorial Motor Pool. I saw the AP photo taken by Phil Coale linked by Jonah Goldberg at The Corner, who merely called it “annoying.” It was more than that. It was evidence of grand malfeasance on the part of local officials.

New Orleans buses

That’s not to excuse failures at the national level; FEMA had its own problems. But FEMA was dealing with a disaster zone the size of Great Britian. Blanco, Nagin, Ebberts and Compass were dealing with a local disaster, and they failed, and having failed, blamed everyone but themselves. They left hundreds of buses within a mile of the Superdome, which along with the city’s convention center was full of people stranded by the storm.

It was Blanco who dithered over accepting help from FEMA, and over deploying the National Guard, and even over allowing the Red Cross to deliver supplies to several sites around New Orleans. She had to sleep on it, you see. It was Compass’ police department that had officers engaged in looting, and it was Compass himself who spread the rape and murder rumors, lending them a credibility they would not have had otherwise. Ebberts knew that the city’s disaster plans called for leaving many of its citizens behind to fend for themselves, but chose to blame the feds when disaster struck. Nagin screamed for 500 buses, knowing all the while that his own city owned at least as many there were never deployed.

The story of buses has become the seminal tale of dereliction in New Orleans. Though the city owned hundreds of buses, it failed to use them to move its most vulnerable citizens — vulnerable either because of poverty or physical infirmity — out of the bowl-shaped city to safe higher ground. Initially it seemed as if the city that knew the levees protecting it would one day break just didn’t have a plan to move so many people to safety. But it turns out that emergency-preparedness officials in New Orleans did have a plan, and they did think to use buses to evacuate the city before a major hurricane. They just decided not to fully implement it as Plan A. The plan was developed as a hurricane Georges lesson learned.

That’s from a National Review article I co-wrote with Chris Regan, whose research into Katrina led us to the inescapable conclusion that New Orleans officials simply failed to follow their own disaster plans.

The discovery of those buses in a photo the AP would later bury (try and find it in any of AP’s Katrina slideshows, and try to get its permission to interview the photographer) proved that the major twin failures of New Orleans–the breach of Corps of Engineers-constructed levees maintained by a local board and allowing the buses to sit idle and be flooded out of utility instead of putting them on the road to rescue the perishing–were beyond the reach of the Bush administration. While FEMA’s performance was far from ideal, the lynchpin failures happened before FEMA was even legally bound to respond. Local jurisdictions are supposed to hold out for 72 to 96 hours until FEMA provides assistance. New Orleans specifically was supposed to use the buses it had at its disposal. Thoses buses were ruined within hours of the levee breach, because they were never pressed into service in the first place.

They might have been left there to become submerged because the local school system that operated them didn’t even know how to contact the drivers. Or because the NOLA parish school system had lost $20 million, just poof and it was gone. That’s Bush’s fault?

Katrina’s aftemath represents the worst about our country–people all too willing to blame others for their own mistakes; government officials far more interested in maintaining their lifestyles and public images than in doing their jobs; a political opposition so fixated on hating the president that it whipped up a revolutionary air when the nation was reeling from an unprecedented storm; a media obsessed with emotion at the expense of facts and common sense; and dependency on government to such an extent that it’s apparently too much to ask anyone to make their own way out of the path of disaster you can see coming your way for days on end. Removing the thin blue line of law enforcement for an instant brings on anarchy on an embarassing scale.

But in its own way, the aftermath also represents the best about our country. Big-hearted, red-state Texas was but one of many that greeted the refugees from New Orleans with open arms, a sign of the nation’s basic spirit of charity. In the midst of chaos, a man stands up to represent order under no greater authority than that he is an American citizen. A year later, the people of Gulfport and other towns outside the corrupt NOLA region rebuild their lives in quiet dignity. While local and state officials in Louisiana never really owned up to their own incompetence, President Bush did clean house at FEMA and has been working to make the agency more responsive.

I doubt we’ll ever learn Katrina’s real lessons, which are that it matters who we put in office. It matters if they care about their responsibilities. It matters whether their character inspires them to lead or at least get out of the way when disaster strikes. It matters if we keep a cool head under pressure or succumb to the whims of rumor and emotion. In the crisis moment, the ability to discern the truth matters. Ultimately, we get the leaders we choose because of who we are as a people, and when the worst happens we get the leadership that we–on a local, state, and national level–deserve. That’s a lesson our nation knew at its birth but has been working hard to unlearn ever since.


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This disaster was a perfect convergence of bad ideas, bad planning, bad weather, and, not least of all, bad politics.

The “placement” of New Orleans below sea level was not mankind’s finest moment. I dont know how you stop a city from growing but this was simply a disaster waiting to happen. Only by grace did we make it as long as we did. There as no plan for such an event, not on any level. No one escapes the blame . . . it was a team effort. New Orleans is the most corrupt city in the most corrupt state in the US. Millions which should have been devoted to the levy system was misspent or not spent at all.

Frankly, I dont entirely disagree with Nagin when he says that had this been happened at some other place the recovery would have moved at a faster pace. But, New Orleans and Louisiana made their own bed, and now they have to lie in it.

Labamigo on August 29, 2006 at 11:11 AM

Well, recovery hasn’t moved any faster at Gulfport. You just don’t hear as much about that because they haven’t made a racial or any other kind of issue out of it. “George Bush doesn’t care about Mississippi people” just doesn’t carry the same political cachet.

Bryan on August 29, 2006 at 11:17 AM

Maybe Nagin intended to use those buses as water taxis.

pjcomix on August 29, 2006 at 11:29 AM

Bryan, thanks so much for that outstanding piece. Most especially, the conclusion–I cannot understand how anybody can belong to the Apathetic Party, but I see it too much. It matters so much who we put in office, and it’s just too few who realize that.

Anwyn on August 29, 2006 at 11:38 AM

You led the way on Katrina coverage last year at JTB, Bryan, and you’ve done a fantastic job here as well. That picture of all those buses will haunt a lot of people for the rest of their lives.

SisterToldjah on August 29, 2006 at 11:42 AM

I just read the link to Junkyard blog on “American Citizens” trying to keep order in NO after the disaster.
“Armies of 1 or 2 can make a difference”.
It struck me how similar this was to the Koreans in LA during the Rodney King riots. They did the same thing; armed themselves and protected their property and loved ones.

Babs on August 29, 2006 at 11:51 AM

It might be a good idea to run over to Wizbang.com and take
a look at the latest on the flooding of New Orleans.
It ain’t Bush’s fault and it certainly ain’t Katrina’s fault.
Looks as though the category 1 hurricane (grading when it hit NO) may have saved thousands of lives due to evacuation.
/jest sayin’

quark2 on August 29, 2006 at 12:00 PM

Great post Allah!

(Don’t fret Bryan… I’m just joshing you.)

Watcher on August 29, 2006 at 12:00 PM

A well written piece. I agree completely.

Speakup on August 29, 2006 at 12:02 PM

It’s all about leadership. If only Bobby Jindal were governor…

Sadly, in large measure, but not entirely, it was New Orleans that defeated Bobby in the gubernatorial race in ’03. That said, although the population of NOLA is significantly reduced and the population of the state is very different, the voter composition, particularly in NOLA, has not changed, which is worrisome. Nevertheless, Bobby’s stellar performance in congress and his extraordinary genius in dealing with the Katrina catastrophe just may put him over the top in ’07. Lately, he’s been sounding more like Governor Jindal than Congressman Jindal and that gives me hope.

Aunt B on August 29, 2006 at 12:27 PM

An excellent piece!

Catie96706 on August 29, 2006 at 1:09 PM

The Buses of New Orleans

Dealin’ card games with the politicians in the club car.
Million a point ain’t no one keepin’ score.

Pablo on August 29, 2006 at 1:20 PM

For me the biggest concern from the situation in New Orleans post Katrina has been the exporting of their crimminal element and “give me, give me, give me” population to the neighboring states. As bad as we want to send these people back home they won’t leave because they are still sponging off of any assistance given them and the courts simply won’t allow other states or municipalities to suspend the aid. What it has created in my little corner of the world is the opinion that if anybody went to NO looking for 10 honest people he would come back empty handed.
Just like Muslims say don’t judge all Muslims by the actions of a radical few, when other residents of LA say don’t judge us all we have no other choice. FL have survived something like 8 hurricanes in the last couple of years and they are not screaming into the cameras asking what is the goverment going to do. The rest of the Gulf Coast which actually took the brunt of Katrina after asking for assistance got off their butts, went to work, and are trying to put their lives back together.
I am sick and tired of poor, poor, pitiful, New Orleans.

LakeRuins on August 29, 2006 at 1:22 PM

Excellent work Bryan!

Every populace deserves its leader, how true!

Katrina proved to every objective analyst who the real dividers are.

Entelechy on August 29, 2006 at 1:24 PM

Good post, Bryan.

Something that always amazes me about New Orleans is how quickly the victims of Hurricane Katrina managed to squander the goodwill given to them by the American people. America came through with a lot of charity, a lot of help – and what we received in return were complaints that it wasn’t enough, and demands for more.

I have a feeling the reputation of New Orleans was severely damaged by the reaction of its citizens to the storm and its aftermath. After the ‘goodwill vists’ wear off, I expect tourism will diminish over time.

Slublog on August 29, 2006 at 1:44 PM

the really strange thing is that they had choices among democrats and reelected him

The only anaolgy I can think of is Ford Motors hiring Jeff Skilling to turn the company around…….

EricPWJohnson on August 29, 2006 at 2:02 PM

Very well written, Bryan. I, too, am sick and tired of Katrina, NOLA, and Nagin. What a nincompoop. I hate that people refuse to take responsibility for their own incompetence. I remember Nagin in a press conference just before Katrina hit. He was very nonchalant about the whole thing, telling people that they might want to leave the city. I’m just sick of it.

StephC on August 29, 2006 at 2:30 PM

Pablo-loved the reference to The City Of New Orleans-I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done!

Catie96706 on August 29, 2006 at 2:31 PM

Well done/said Bryan.

Katrina’s aftemath represents the worst about our country–people all too willing to blame others for their own mistakes

How true. It shocks me to see the garbage still sitting in places just piled up. Get a truck and move it! How difficult is that? *sigh*

labwrs on August 29, 2006 at 2:39 PM

Nagin has to be the most incompetent Leader ever. A year later there is still no plan to rebuild….there is no plan to restore power and water in neighborhoods….how are people supposed to rebuild their homes without basic services? But of course he will blame bush and everyone but himself….NO put this fool back into office…

robo on August 29, 2006 at 2:41 PM

Thanks for mentioning Texas. I live in San Antonio, and things were pretty interesting here this time last year, even though we weren’t in the danger zone. First we took in Houston’s overflow of Katrina refugees, with everyone scrambling to pitch in to help the people in the shelters.

Then when Rita threatened, much of the population of Houston, including their Katrina people, came our way in an enormous evacuation. All my siblings had relatives from Houston and Lake Charles staying with them.
Not to brag, but I was really proud of how the whole community stepped up, including businesses and the media. But it was just a typical example of American generosity.

juliesa on August 29, 2006 at 3:04 PM

It would be entertaining to see a list compiled of all the events leading up to, during, and after Katrina that were supposed to be President Bush’s fault, according to the MSM and the lefties. Here is a starter list:

Katrina even existed was President Bush’s fault because of global warming;

the levees were blown up by President Bush;

the delay of getting troops into NOLA due to blocked and damaged highways and roads was President Bush’s fault;

FEMA not being on site the minute Katrina cleared the area was President Bush’s fault;

The President’s flyover showed he didn’t care;

And, the President’s visit was a disruption to rescue efforts and he should have stayed away.

With the troops being in Iraq and National Guard levels “supposedly” to inadequate were President Bush’s fault.

Funding for levee repairs was cut, which was President Bush’s fault.

President Bush warning Gov. Blanco to issue the evacuation somehow caused her to delay, which then became President Bush’s fault.

Fewer black people perished than whites, but the President still didn’t care about NOLA because it is a “chocolate city.”

Mallard T. Drake on August 29, 2006 at 3:17 PM

For me the biggest concern from the situation in New Orleans post Katrina has been the exporting of their crimminal element and “give me, give me, give me” population to the neighboring states.

Yes, look at what Houston got – more crime, more poverty, and a more uneducated population who doesn’t contribute to the tax base. Previously safe Houston neighborhoods are now seeing a flood of new crime. It’s a pity, really. Houstonians have big hearts, but they are really sick of it and are ready to give ‘em the boot.

pullingmyhairout on August 29, 2006 at 3:32 PM

PMHO-I saw something on the news that the City of Houston is not going to figure the refugees into the crime stats, is this true? I know in Baton Rouge where my cousins live they talk about how the crime has gone up there as well.

Catie96706 on August 29, 2006 at 3:37 PM

Thoughtful and well written, Bryan.

…to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…

I may take some heat for this, but frankly, I don’t think it is the federal government’s job to put everyone in New Orleans back on their feet. And it seems to me that those citizens who are doing the most complaining are the same ones who, prior to the hurricane, were sitting around on their duffs waiting for their monthly welfare checks (another bone of contention for me, but let’s not go there.)

The American Citizens who did what they could to restore order when lawlessness surrounded them are true American heroes. But do not forget the people who, when learning that a hurricane was approaching, gathered their essentials, their children, their pets, their parents and grandparents, their handicapped neighbors, and walked, biked, bused or drove themselves to safer ground. Then they came back weeks later and quietly went about picking up the pieces of their lives. True American heroes; God bless them.

IrishEi on August 29, 2006 at 3:58 PM

I am about to puke..I am watching the HBO Special “When the Levees Broke”. I can’t believe I just saw Blanco dissing Bush in this thing..The all incompetent Blanco, the delaying delayer, the all great pubah of ignorance…With a smile on her face, she’s blaming Bush for not having the aid there ‘on time’…ummm, I think I remember the Red Cross being not allowed in because they didn’t want the covention center nor superdome to become a ‘magnet’??? Isn’t it the Governor’s responsibility to deploy national guard troops?? Not to mention, the picture in this blog just makes my blood boil.
It’s the leaders like these in this state that trully make us look awful.
The one thing I can not get through my mind is the fact that Florida has been through this same situation so many times, but there is never a ‘blame game’ going on…the ppl just pull up thier sleeves and work for a better day. Makes me feel embarrased to have grown up here.
I can’t wait until election day..but then again..Willie Nagin was once again crowned king of the chocolate city…when will we learn….

lsutiger on August 29, 2006 at 10:08 PM

I am about to puke..I am watching the HBO Special “When the Levees Broke”.

Better you than me …! :-)

I hit the ‘Info’ button, saw the name Spike Lee, and decided to take his advice (“Do the Right Thing”) and steer clear.

I can’t believe I just saw Blanco dissing Bush in this thing.

In the hierarchy of disaster planning (Federal, State, City), I will always think of her fondly as the “monkey in the middle”. By that I mean no disrespect to actual monkeys, or to the game by that name. She bears more blame than Nagin for the way the fiasco unfolded IMHO.

And we might as well make room for her in the BDS wing of the Mayo clinic. At least she can take solace in the following irrefutable “facts”:

F—in’ Bush – first, he’s responsible for the global warming that caused the hurricane. Then, he causes the levees to fail by withholding money. Next, he doesn’t come to our rescue when we need him the most.

Don’t you realize? He’s three times guilty. That monster… F—IN’ BUSH!!!

RD on August 30, 2006 at 5:06 AM

On the Chocolate city theme: does anyone here know a candy manufacturer? I’m so inspired by Mr. Nagin’s historic speech that I would actually buy a “Chocolate City” confection if it were available.

Like a chocolate Santa or chocolate Easter Bunny, it would be hefty in size, flashy on the outside and hollow in the middle. Instead of bunny rabbits, the shiny tinfoil would show a stylized graphic of all our favorite landmarks: the Cafe du Monde, Bourbon Street, the Underwater Schoolbus Parking Lot, the breached 17th Street Canal Levee, and the high-rise hotel with Nagin’s face peering out of a 13th floor window.

Yes mayor, New Orleans can yet become a “Chocolate City”. All that remains is a willing entrepeneur. My only questions are, would they sell, and if so, what shape would be best? Perhaps a miniature Superdome…

RD on August 30, 2006 at 5:29 AM