14 November 2005

A quick note on Katrina

A professor in my department, Bob Kinzie, just forwarded me an interesting quote from Simon Winchester's book on the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The contrast between this and what happened in New Orleans after Katrina is really quite pitiful:
"Just after 5 in the morning of April 18, 1906, a massive tremor picked up San Francisco and shook it like a rug. Within 90 minutes, solders had surrounded the Hall of Justice. By midnight, aid had arrived from Los Angeles. And by 4 AM the next morning, Washington had authorized every possible assistance, dispatching solders, rations and the longest hospital train ever assembled. All this had been done be telegraph and Morse code."

Is it really too much to expect for the Federal Government to be no worse at responding to disasters now than they were 99 years ago?


Hey Skipper said...

First: what would an immediate response have changed?

Second: what was the role of state & local authorities?

Third: was all planning based upon having the city evacuated in the face of a hurricane this size? (Hmmm...how is a hurricane different from an earthquake?)

Number three is the biggie -- no one was supposed to be there.

wolfwalker said...

Hmmm.... Just out of curiosity, does it say how long it took for any of the aid that Washington "immediately" authorized to get to Frisco?

"Is it really too much to expect for the Federal Government to be no worse at responding to disasters now than they were 99 years ago?"

Leaving aside the differences between the entirely unexpected '06 Quake and the very-well-predicted New Orleans Hurricane, the answer to your question is yes. Two reasons:

1) for any large bureaucratized entity, the better communications of today _hinder_ effective action. The easier it is for juniors to pass the buck, and for seniors to demand centralized control, the slower they're going to react. Even if the higher-up guy makes the correct decision instantly as soon as he has all the information, it will take time for him to collect that information, and more time for his decision to be transmitted back down the chain of command.

2) the command-and-control philosophy for the US and state governments has changed since 1906. Then, it was "do something NOW, and sort out the details later." Now, it's "don't do anything unless it's the procedurally-right thing."

It's worth remembering that where the command-and-control network was gone -- the Missisippi Gulf Coast -- the recovery effort after Katrina was actually more effective than it was in New Orleans, where the C&C network was left basically intact.