Thursday, September 08, 2005

Katrina, Leviathan

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

-- Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan - 1660

I've been thinking a lot lately about the aftermath of Katrina; not only about its consequences for the residents of New Orleans, but about its implications for American society as a whole. Not since 9/11 have I seen more disturbing images than the scenes of catastrophe that unfolded live on television and over the internet; the despair, terror, and misery of thousands of people and families as they gradually realized that there was no one coming to their aid. Part of what made the event so dramatic for me was this: the fact that the technology of communications has advanced to the point that even here in Brazil, literally halfway around the world, I could follow an up to the minute account of what was going on within the zone of destruction. The end result was a profound sense of impotence and despair as I watched a tragedy in progress without being able to help; and an overwhelming sense of outrage that those who should be helping were nowhere to be seen. The ironic part is that, apparently, even here in Brazil, it seemed as if I were more aware of what was going on than many officials charged with making decisions within the very region affected.

I'm not joking. Even as the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, an ad-hoc network of bloggers and websites formed to fill the vacuum left by the traditional media and official authority. Many of the bloggers are local journalists who didn't have any other way to get their stories out; but a large number of others are just common citizens who rose to the occasion. Bloggers within New Orleans were reporting extensive flooding and levees broken on Monday night; by Tuesday morning, there was no excuse for the whole world not to have known that Worse Case Scenario #1 was in progress: New Orleans would not survive.

Of all the blogs and other web resources that I have been watching since early last week, by far the most interesting is Michael Barnett's blog. Mike is "Crisis Manager" for a major New Orleans data center located on the 10th floor of an office building in downtown New Orleans (DirectNic). An ex-military (6 years in Special Forces Group), together with his girlfriend, the CEO of the company, and a group of 4 or 5 others, he was charged with keeping the datacenter online through Katrina and its aftermath. Starting from before Katrina hit, his blog reads like a novel, as he narrates one crisis after another as they struggled to keep the generators running, links up, and still report to the outside world what was happening as everything fell apart in New Orleans. They kept live webcams up throughout the calamity, and were one of the prime sources of information for the media when no other reliable information was available.

Even now they are online, blogging updates throughout the day. If you haven't been following it, it's worth reading from early on: on Sunday, the day before the hurricane, is a good place to start: The Interdictor, Sunday Aug. 28, 2005

Just click [Next Day] at the bottom of the page to read through the following days. Or click on [Calendar View] to navigate by date.


At 8:54 am on Tuesday, Aug. 30, Michael posted the following prophetic blog entry:

I do not want to be an alarmist, but people who have the means to leave the greater New Orleans area need to do so. The infrastructure required to maintain a city is down. It could be a long time before it's back up. There will be too many people fighting for exceptionally scarce resources. It's one of those situations where you need A in order to fix B, but you can't do A until C happens and C can't happen until B is finished. Right now, it's a matter of survival. There are 3 important aspects to surviving this: you need food/water/medicine, you need personal protection, and you need the means to conduct personal hygiene in such a way that you're not creating more of a problem than you're solving. For any media out there reading this, it would be very helpful for you to post guidelines for survivalist hygiene. This aspect is often the most overlooked. The possibility for disease is very high, especially in an area already infested with mosquitoes, roaches, flies, and rodents. Throw in dead bodies and unsatisfactory hygiene capabilities, overflowing sewage, etc. and you've got a recipe for an absolute disaster. And then, there are looters, drug addicts who can't get their fix, and opportunists.Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. We are already instituting our own rules and guidelines for hygiene, personal behavior, etc. Effective use of time NOW is critical. Problems need to be dealt with before they exist, because they will exist and you don't want to have critical situations occur when you're dealing with something else.

If you accompany his blog, you will see that up to that point they had believed that New Orleans had been spared, and that the worse was over. When they awoke to the news that the levees had been breached, they knew immediately that the perspective was grave. Although no water had yet appeared downtown, it was common knowledge that most of NO is below sea level, and that there was nothing to stop its inundation.

Michael is a specialist in crisis management with military experience; he also predicted the looting and potential chaos with drug addicts, criminals and desperate people seeking to take advantage of the situation.

What he didn't antecipate was the complete breakdown in authority and disappearance of any semblance of law and order within the city. He didn't predict it, but he chronicled it. By the second or third day, he was broadcasting desparate pleas for the deployment of Active Duty Armed Forces. He spoke with police officers who all told the same story: the hierarchy of command was gone, and all communications were out. The members of the police force were victims themselves of the disaster; almost all of them had lost everything and many were more worried about finding and helping their own family members. Michael reported that even police officers had been seen looting.

One of the things that most amazed me as I watched events unfold in New Orleans, was the surprise and shock expressed by so many people at how rapidly the city turned violent. As looters ransacked the city, and armed gangs roamed the streets unchallenged, officials seemed totally caught off guard by the violence and even the media seemed to portray New Orleans as a city of outlaws, who were shooting at their would-be rescuers.

As the power structure collapsed and shots were heard in the streets, Michael Barnett and the team at Camp Crystal (which he denominated their 10th floor office space, after his girlfriend!) knew that things were going to get really, really bad, and that they were basically on their own.

How many petty crimes were committted in New Orleans per day before Katrina? How many felonys? murders? Rapes? How many homeless lived there? So why do people find it surprising that, once local local authority completely broke down, the thugs, degenerates, gangsters, drug addicts, rapists, murderers and other lowlife that usually populate the underworld, would quickly rise to the surface to fill the power void?

It's tempting to blame the people of New Orleans for allowing their city to fall into the stone age. But, what large city anywhere in the world wouldn't degenerate into chaos if the food and water supply were removed, the police force disappeared and no other authority moved in to replace it? And yet, to read the media reports and many commentators, you get the impression that the thousands of refugees trapped in the superdome were so outraged and desperate that they attacked their own rescuers! In reality, they were the victims of the unscrupulous animals which had been given a free pass to do their worst in a city whose civilization had utterly collapsed.

Thomas Hobbes was a 17th century English philosopher who, somewhat undeservedly, has a reputation for having had a pessimistic outlook on human nature. In his seminal work "The Leviathan", he described the life of mankind without central authority as being a constant state of war, where every man is enemy to every man. Among other things, what Hobbes said was that the very reason man unites with others to form a commonwealth, or state, is to protect himself from his very neighbors.

Hobbes wouldn't have been surprised to see what happened last week in New Orleans, Louisiana.

As could be predicted, politicians are revving up their engines and preparing for the political fallout that will be inevitable in the aftermath of such a cataclismic event. Democrats will seek to take advantage of what was clearly a fiasco of mismanagement by the federal agency responsible for disaster assistence (FEMA). Republicans are mobilizing to turn the blame around, since local officials were clearly unprepared for the disaster. President Bush is being blamed for everything from being too slow in reacting to the crisis, to having practically even CAUSED the hurricane by not paying enough attention to the greenhouse effect! Like it or not, the blame game is underway: Blacks will call it racism; liberals the consequences of poverty and inadequate social policy; conservatives, corruption and incompetence at local government levels, and over-reliance on federal resources. Both sides will accuse the other for once again dividing the country along partisan lines exactly when what's most needed is unity.

Today they are reporting 30 bodies found in a nursing home that was under water. For a city that was under a mandatory evacuation order, how can you not have had a plan for evacuating or protecting the nursing homes? hospitals? prisons? Local officials will have a lot of answering to do; but federal officials were too slow to perceive the onset of catastrophe and react to it, once the signs of the local breakdown were clear for all to see. Five days to deploy troops and provide aid to the region may have been a reasonable response time a few decades ago; but in today's world of instant mass communication and advanced technology, where five days is almost enough to invade and overthrow a foreign government, it's just not acceptable.

When the water dries out and the dust settles, I suspect that there will be enough blame to go around; and nobody that deserves blame will be spared. But for right now, the message I get from almost every blogger, every citizen "on the ground" ... every "refugee" who has lost everything and is hoping to get back on their feet, regardless of political affiliation, is that now is not the time for squabbling: what's needed now is cooperation and effective action both to respond to the overwhelming problems faced by the region, as well as to prepare more adequately for similar situations in the future. Hard questions must be asked: President Bush is now seeking over $50 billion dollars for recovery of the Gulf region. How much would it have cost to have prepared the levees for a category 5 hurricane? But the disaster in New Orleand wasn't the fruit of one administration's neglect; it's time for Americans to take a hard look at the other potential disasters, of all types, that may be looming on the horizon. On September 11, 2001, America learned the hard way the price of neglecting the threat of terrorism. In September of 2005, we learned yet another painful lesson. How many other lessons must we learn the hard way before we take off our blinders and start trying to see the big picture?


At September 08, 2005 6:42 PM, rick said...

I like your thoughts on this Jim. You make some intersting points and observations. I have to admit though at the end I am left wondering: what is the big picture? Am i just one of the ones who has lost sight of it or is it missing on all of us?

Here is an essay on topic of a more confontational nature but i think he has some great points too:

apologies in advance for his over enthusiastic use of expletives.

At September 08, 2005 7:34 PM, rick said...

i guess i could have made it a link:

At September 12, 2005 9:05 PM, Mark said...

This post must have worn you out. It sure wore me out. Seriously, though, I like it and it brought up some great points. When I see the younger guys at work (i.e., fresh out of college), I worry that nobody that age thinks about things like this. I did when I was that age. Did you? Just curious.

At September 13, 2005 11:35 AM, Jim said...

Yeah, Mark. But today's post, although smaller, wore me out even more. Damn! I'm too old to be thinking about stuff like this!

Actually, I've kind of mellowed out since I was in college! I was a bit more radical.


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