Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Failing with FEMA

The images from the Katrina disaster in New Orleans struck all kinds of chords for everyone, but the images of the levee breaking and flooding the city had a special poignance for me:

Seeing that, I was immediately reminded of this:

This is an image of the failure of the Teton Dam in southeastern Idaho on June 5, 1976. As I described in my first book, In God's Country, I had considerable firsthand involvement in the aftermath of this disaster (which I have excerpted below).

The settings, the circumstances, and the scope couldn't have been more different. In New Orleans, the levee failure flooded a major urban area and the death toll is estimated to be in the thousands. In Idaho, the failure of the dam occurred in a sparsely populated area and wound up killing only 14 people. (As it happened, one of those 14 was my great-aunt.)

Both, however, are vivid examples of the incompetence of government bureaucrats wreaking real catastrophe that results in the deaths of ordinary citizens. Their similarities, as well as their differences, are instructive.

As the excerpt explains, the Teton Dam failed because government dam designers (working for the Bureau of Reclamation) neglected to account for the extremely steep canyon walls where it was built, in combination with the large amount of water that was going to flow around the sides of the dam through the extremely porous rock within those walls. It created stress fracturing in the key trench, a feature that was supposed to seal the water out of the dam structure; and this fracturing let water pour into the dam's core.

In a similar fashion, it's becoming clear that government bureaucrats used "fuzzy math" to calculate that a New Orleans levee failure from a Category 4 or 5 storm was unlikely to occur and was low on their list of priorities. Government officials are already using this flawed calculus to justify their longstanding failure to act in a way that would have prevented the tragedy.

Mind you, these are not the only times I've seen governmental arrogance in handling a disaster cost people their lives. Something similar occurred in 1980, when the eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people -- most of whom, as it happened, were well outside the danger zones established by government officials:
Of the 57 who died on the mountain, only three are known to have been killed within the "red zone,'' the area cordoned off by officials before the eruption. Another three -- all miners carrying permits -- died in the adjacent "blue zone,'' an area closed to the general public but open to permit-carrying workers.

Washington state officials argued that the blast was unprecedented and that there was no way for them to have foreseen the scale of the disaster, which ripped trees out of the ground 17 miles from the crater and devastated an area spanning 230 square miles. Within hours, its plume had blocked the sun over much of eastern Washington. Ash fell like snow as far away as Montana.

The possibility of a far larger eruption had been discussed, but it stayed among scientists, said Richard Waitt, a geologist at the USGS's Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver.

"We all have blood on our hands, if you want to look at it that way,'' said Waitt, who was one of a handful of scientists who had tried to warn his superiors that the blast area could be far larger than originally imagined. But even if scientists had predicted the true scope of the catastrophe, Waitt said, it's unlikely the state could have restricted access because much of the blast site was on private property.

In fact, there's a real likelihood that the government's failure to warn people away adequately was caused by its longstanding deference to corporate interests:
The red zone was almost entirely within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. It ended where the landholdings of timber giant, Weyerhaeuser Co., began, Waitt said.

That became the basis for a lawsuit brought by the victims' families, who alleged that the restricted areas were based on property lines, not science. The case against the state was dismissed in 1985, after the court ruled that state officials did not know how destructive the eruption was going to be. Some families sued Weyerhaeuser, settling for a reported $225,000 -- an amount that many said was a pittance.

In New Orleans, it's clear the government officials, both federal and local, calculated that the costs of preparing adequately for a Category 5 hurricane outweighed the risks involved in failing to do so. The chief evidence for this lies in the Bush administration's cutbacks in federal spending on planned improvements for the levees:
New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.

Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.

Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

Newhouse News Service, in an article posted late Tuesday night at The Times-Picayune Web site, reported: "No one can say they didn't see it coming. ... Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation."

That's not to say that, even if the funding had not been cut, the government would have been in position to prevent the New Orleans disaster. Indeed, it seems apparent that, at the pace with which the SELA improvements were occurring, it would have been another decade at best before those levees would have been made capable of withstanding a Category 5 hurricane.

The system that failed was only designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. Recent Army Corps of Engineers testimony makes clear that improving them to a Category 4 or 5 level had only recently entered the equation:
Wasn't that study to look at upgrading the levees delayed for funding reasons?

GEN. STROCK: You know, I talked to the study manager about that now, and again, it's a tough thing to talk about. He feels that he has had an adequate level of funding to move that study ahead. The nature of the work we do in both the studies and the engineering, some of it is not a question of throwing money at it, there is just analysis that must be done, coordination that must occur. And so I would prefer to let the people at the level really talk about that from their perspective. But it's my understanding that that was not a significant issue in this. And even if that study had been finished three years ago, it would not have made a difference in this event.

Gen. Strock also explains the calculations that led officials to remain content with allowing this vulnerability to remain:
Now, could this have been avoided? The area where the levee leaks -- where the levee breaks occurred was at its final design configuration. So that was as good as it was going to get. And what does that mean? Actually we knew that it would protect from a Category 3 hurricane. In fact, it has been through a number of Category 3 hurricanes. The intensity of this storm simply exceeded the design capacity of this levee. And those two points-- and others were over top, but those are the two main points of trouble. But that is the basic problem here, is that this storm exceeded the design capacity.

So the next question is, why Category 3 and not 4 and 5? A very complex question, but it involves an assessment of the engineering, the risk associated with that and so forth.

I think the bottom line message here is that we and the local officials knew the capacity of this levee system to handle this storm, and that is exactly why the mayor and the governor ordered the evacuation of New Orleans, because they knew that if a Category 4 or 5 hurricane were to strike New Orleans, that this levee system could not be relied upon. And that is why we evacuated the city. So had they not done that, the losses could have been even more significant.

... We have a study under way to talk about 4 and 5. The business of flood control is very technical and is very dynamic. When you put in a system of flood control, many things can change the level of protection that you once had -- development, drainage patterns, weather changes, that sort of thing. So we're constantly evaluating the level of protection. In this case, the New Orleans District has had a study -- and these studies take years to accomplish and then many more years to implement, to look at that. But yes, we are looking at a Category 4 and 5. And certainly, the government of this country, from the local up to the national level, need to reassess what level of risk is acceptable.

To try to articulate that, when this project was designed -- and this was designed about 30 years ago, the current one that is now being completed -- we figured we had a 200- or 300-year level of protection. That means that an event that we were protecting from might be exceeded every 200 or 300 years. That is a .05 percent likelihood. So we had an assurance that 99.5 percent this would be okay. We, unfortunately, have had that .5 percent activity here.

This calculus is deeply flawed, for the reason that just played out in New Orleans: Even if there were only a 0.5 percent chance that the city would be hit by a Category 4 hurricane or worse -- a questionable figure in any event, given that hurricanes have been rising in frequency and intensity in recent years -- the costs of allowing the flooding that would ensue under the existing system to occur were so high as to be incalculable. Planning to simply evacuate the city in the event of a Catgory 4 or 5 hurricane was horrifically bad planning.

Yet it's clear that all the government officials involved -- local, state, and especially federal -- decided that the chances of this happening were small enough to be worth the risk. They have known for over several decades that New Orleans was at serious risk in a major hurricane, and did not act immediately to address that. They gambled with lives in New Orleans -- just as they had 30 years before in southeastern Idaho -- and lost.


There are, of course, major differences between the Teton Dam disaster and the New Orleans levee failure as well. The starkest of these is the respective response to each.

Most of the differences arise from the circumstances: Teton Dam occurred in a sparsely populated farming region, so evacuation was much simpler to achieve, and rescue was not as logistically daunting.

Disaster-relief officials arrived immediately on the scene in Idaho, even before the flood's effects were fully felt (especially farther downriver). And support for relief efforts -- from feeding and housing both evacuees and relief workers -- was put immediately into action.

Much of this relief, however, came from the Latter-Day Saints Church, which is one of the world's wealthiest religions. The vast majority of the people who lived in the flood's path were LDS Church members. The relief work in Rexburg was centered around Ricks College, an LDS school. Indeed, most of the federal presence that was felt came much later.

There was no FEMA in 1976; the Teton Dam disaster, in fact, was one of the precipitating events that drove the government to create the agency in 1979. Congress realized that the federal government had a significant role in responding to major disasters (particularly those of its own making), coordinating rescue, relief, and recovery efforts in a way that could be far more effective than the often patchwork and makeshift response that occurs when various local and state agencies are thrown together into the mix.

This was why, when FEMA was handed the reins in New Orleans, they were expected to take the lead in coordinating the relief efforts. It was responsible for overseeing the evacuation and implementing it, but even more important, it was responsible for providing immediate relief to those victims unable to evacuate. Instead, food drops -- usually the first line in relief efforts -- did not occur for three days, a simply inexcusable failure.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, the Bush administration has attempted to make local officials culpable for its inaction:
Under the law, Chertoff said, state and local officials must direct initial emergency operations. "The federal government comes in and supports those officials," he said.

Chertoff's remarks, which echoed earlier statements by President Bush, prompted withering rebukes both from former senior FEMA staffers and outside experts.

"They can't do that," former agency chief of staff Jane Bullock said of Bush administration efforts to shift responsibility away from Washington. "The moment the president declared a federal disaster, it became a federal responsibility…. The federal government took ownership over the response," she said. Bush declared a disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi when the storm hit a week ago.

This kind of incompetence does not necessarily reflect a failure of Big Government; rather, it represents a failure of this administration -- or, perhaps more generically, Republican Big Government.

Unfortunately, for most of the early years of its existence, FEMA became known as a dumping ground for political patronage. This tradition was maintained throughout the Reagan and Bush years, but changed dramatically during the eight years Bill Clinton was president.

Clinton's FEMA chief, James Lee Witt, was the first emergency professional ever named to head the agency, and it soon came to reflect that fact. During his tenure, FEMA became known as one of the more effective and responsive federal agencies, especially in its response to hurricanes.

That obviously changed in 2001, when G.W. Bush took charge. Once again, the agency has succumbed to the cronyism that has come to define FEMA once again.

FEMA was created after Teton Dam to provide an effective federal response to disasters. But by failing to live up to the genuinely urgent nature of its mission, the Republicans in charge of operating it have created a response worse than if it never had been created at all.

It's evidence, once again, that the main reason Republicans hate big government is that they're so bad at it.

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