The Buses of New Orleans

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.

Jazz Shaw Jun 22, 2021 6:01 PM ET