Five Minutes With
Live Chat: Katrina
A massive hurricane strikes New Orleans. The levees fail. The city floods. Thousands of mostly black and poor residents are stranded in the city, and the government fails to come to their aid.
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter John McQuaid predicted it all in 2002 in an eerily prescient series for the Times-Picayune called “Washing Away.” On Thursday, September 15, McQuaid joined Campus Progress in an online live chat to answer questions and offer his insight as someone who has followed the scientific, economic, and political aspects of protecting the Gulf Coast region for years.
Joining McQuaid was Rep. John Conyers, Jr. of Michigan. Mr. Conyers is the second most senior member in the House of Representatives and one of the 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Rep. Conyers was among the first in Congress to request an inquiry into the response to Katrina, and introduced the Katrina Bankruptcy Relief Bill which would prevent those affected by the hurricane from additional economic hardship.
Nico Pitney [Moderator] : One of the major post-Katrina discussions has dealt with the role of state and local governments vs. the federal government. Who deserves what portion of the blame?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): There is a little blame to go around everywhere. It was the city’s responsibility to evacuate, and it had no plan for people without transportation. In the aftermath, there was confusion at all levels. Most emergency management experts say that ideally, FEMA/DHS are supposed to coordinate the response, and they clearly failed there.
Fin (Sarah Lawrence College, New York City): CNN is announcing that significant areas of New Orleans are being reopened. My question is, have the necessary environmental tests been done to show that, given the “toxic soup” that New Orleans is sitting in, the City is safe to inhabit?
Representative Conyers: Hello
Nico Pitney: Welcome Rep. Conyers!
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): Hi Rep. Conyers. Welcome.
The parts they are planning to reopen were not flooded, at least not significantly. In other parts, the EPA and health officials on the ground say the toxic soup is less toxic than they expected, except in one place where an oil tank leaked. But there are some areas that are potential trouble spots that have yet to be checked.
Ohioan: Thanks, Cong. Conyers for releasing the CRS report on Louisiana’s response to Katrina. What’s your take on the report and its conclusions?
Representative Conyers: If there had been tests done, I believe we would have heard about it; my suspicion is that there haven’t been tests. With this reopening, my belief is that one comes back to New Orleans at their own risk – a dangerous proposition, since many health authorities have warned us that those flooding waters carry many diseases and is contaminated by all manner of unhealthy sediment.
Ken Walton (Coe College, Marshalltown, IA): How do we make sure the reconstruction money is actually used for reconstruction and is not a windfall for Bush cronies?
Representative Conyers: Well, that’s one of the things we’re trying to make sure doesn’t happen. We already suspect that Halliburton and other large firms are preventing small businessmen in the affected areas from participating. So, one of the things in a meeting that I attended yesterday about this subject was that we have to make sure there is a complete accounting and transparency in terms of who gets the money for what purposes and that what we wanted the money spent on was actually done.
Representative Conyers: On that note, Representative Conyers is going to a vote and will return at roughly 5:15 to answer more questions.
Larry Handlin (Archpundit.com, St. Louis): Mr. McQuaid, your Washing Away series was amazing in it’s foresight. The section on evacuation discussed the problems with moving a large number of individuals without personal transportation out.
You and your co-author wrote on the challenges including trying to get bus drivers to stick around (the Florida Keyes being an example of where that didn’t work), but was there anything local officials could have done to better prepare for moving people out? It seems from what I’ve seen other cities are at best marginally better and many worse off.
Also, given federal emergency planners were a part of the planning process-why does FEMA seem so surprised at how this played out?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): They basically abandoned the bus plan. Almost any type of organized attempt would have been better than nothing. I am sure other cities are looking at this and saying OMG, we better get cracking.
FEMA officials were aware of this scenario, but didn’t pay much attention to it. They had begun developing a plan to deal with it but it had not progressed very far in four years.
Leatrice: John McQuaid, were you there when the Times-Picayune was evacuated? If so, describe the scene, please.
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): No, I was safe and dry in Washington, DC. But ironically, this was the most successful evacuation in NO history. They got around 80 percent of the entire metro area to depart – the previous record was about 60 percent. And for those that did leave, it went pretty smoothly relative to past attempts.
Fin (Sarah Lawrence College, New York City): Have any of the reporters from the Times-Picayune witnessed the army’s attempts to keep reporters from photographing (or in some cases even seeing) the dead in New Orleans?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): Afraid I don’t know. I haven’t heard this. Though some have been roughed up by cops.
John Bacon (Appalachian State, Morehead City, NC): Mr. McQuaid, are you satisfied with the mainstream media’s response to this incident? Depending on who you ask, opinions range from “not critical enough” to “sensationalist and biased”—typically along party lines. How do you see it?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): In general I think they have done a good job. It is an extraordinary event that is hard to get your arms around even if you have a huge news staff. It is impossible to sensationalize something that is already sensational. And I think you’ve seen a lot of passions flaring – kind of nice when the media often walks on eggshells.
It is annoying that they sometimes get basic geography/pronunciations wrong, though.
Larry Handlin (Archpundit.com, St. Louis): The message boards at NOLA.com were heartbreaking during the first week of the crisis. I know the St. Rita’s disaster made the message board before I saw it anywhere else. How much did you all rely on the message boards to track the story?
One thing that wasn’t clear from the reporting, were the deaths there all during the immediate flooding? Did more pass while waiting for help at the Chalamette Slip?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): The message boards provided valuable leads for our people to pinpoint trouble spots – and for people to try to locate loved ones.
Many people died in the flooding, which in Chalmette rose very very quickly. But some died in the days after because there was so little transit in and out of the area – especially the Chalmette area. Not sure what the toll was at the Chalmette slip.
Mike (University of Oklahoma): Mr. McQuaid – Do you think that in reconstruction that the social and/or racial disparity in NO will be worse or better? I hear stories of the more well-off folks that were displaced saying that they are not going back which I would think could lead to more disparity if not controlled. In addition, do you think that the powers that be will REALLY take this into consideration when re-planning parts of the city?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): Typically what happens in situations like this (not that there are many of them)) is that rebuilt areas are gentrified. Money flows to the high end first. Only later do you get apartments, then low-income housing, public housing – if you get it at all. This happened in Kobe after the 1995 quake, and in SF after the 89 quake. So NO will probably be smaller, somewhat richer and whiter.
So there is a genuine concern how to address the lower-income population, and it’s not clear yet who’s thinking about this.
Daniella (UVa): Hi. In your opinion, how much blame does Mayor Nagin deserve for the horrible conditions those first few days? Blame is coming from all directions, but it seems clear that the White House is trying to point many fingers at Nagin.
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): Nagin could have done more to have an evacuation plan. That said, there are limits to how many people who didn’t want to leave could have been forcibly removed in the space of a day or two. So even if they had a good evac. plan, there still would have been people left behind, trapped, etc.
There was also no real plan on what would happen at the Superdome after this kind of disaster, so not much attention paid to providing food, water, medical care that the city/state should have focused on.
So I think he bears some responsibility. That said, the sheer scale of the post-disaster problems required a coordinated federal response, which is the only thing that could have gotten people out quick. That didn’t happen.
Steve Alters (UCSB): I’ve heard that the follow-up report to the “Hurricane Pam” simulation was never funded. Why? And why did they choose to only simulate a Category 3 hurricane, and not something higher?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): It was one of those federal projects that was “ongoing,” as they say. Sometimes it got funding, sometimes the funding was cut. It never got completely shut down, but it wasn’t exactly moving forward either.
The idea of the Cat 3 hurricane was that it was more plausible than that rare bird, the Cat 5. A slow-moving Cat 3 hurricane can flood the bowl, so is almost as dangerous. Less windy.
Cayobo (Key West): Sir, there are conflicting reports about how many school busses the Mayor of N.O. had access to, some say 2000 some say 450… what is the correct number?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): Don’t know, sorry. It would depend on whether buses from neighboring communities were made available, but I suspect they did not organize it to that degree.
Megan Woolworth (Cal State Stanislaus): I’ve heard claims that the levee that actually broke was not the one the Army Corps had requested funding for, so claims that the underfunding “caused” the damage are inaccurate. Response?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): The Corps has had trouble fully funding its continuing project to keep the levees up to design spec. But I don’t think you can tie this directly to the breaches.
Several levees broke – most of those in the trouble spots were complete or built up to the correct height. It is still a mystery why they broke – some kind of structural failure might have happened in which they did not perform as they were supposed to. But it’s still not clear.
Cayobo (Key West): Stories are surfacing stating police prevented survivors from evacuating to more afluent neighborhoods because they didn’t want it to “become another New Orleans”... is there any truth to that, and will they be held accountable?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): I have heard the accounts that police from the West Bank (across the river) stopped people from crossing, and not heard conclusive denials from authorities.
Not sure whether any authorities are looking into this right now; they probably feel they have more important priorities.
DavidKC: Mr McQuaid, you say there was “a little blame” to go around to everyone. But from what I can see from all the different acounts I’ve read, there is quite a bit of blame that can be justifiably directed at FEMA, DHS and ultimately Pres. Bush. The first 4-5 days after the hurricane struck seem to be a lesson in what not to do to respond to a disaster. Do you think the nation will ever learn all the lessons it can from the disastrous response to the disaster, so that this will never happen again?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): That’s the question, isn’t it. It’s shocking how disorganized everything was from the top level down to the ground (or water) level. Federal officials from Chertoff on down seemed unclear on what was going on and what they were supposed to be doing.
I don’t think you’ll ever have a perfect disaster response, because each disaster creates unexpected problems. But I think that as in war, the govt. is usually preparing for the last disaster rather than the next one, and in this case it’s not even clear they were doing that.
So I think there will be a lot of recriminations, and studying, and reorganizations. How much difference will it make? Depends on the initiative at the top, and it’s not clear exactly what lesson the White House is taking from this yet.
Kay Shakir (UCLA): Have you been to the devastated areas since Katrina hit? What was the experience like, if so? If not (with all due respect) why?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): I haven’t been down there yet. I’d like to go, but the TP has a full staff down there covering this, and have needed people out of the area who have good communications, access to officials, etc.
Varaj (Penn): I believe you’re the Washington Bureau chief for the Times-Picayune—what difference does that make to your coverage, vs. someone actually in NOLA. Also, where do you see the story going from here? What are you working on?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): Yes, I am one of three Washington bureau reporters. Down there, you are reporting many little slices of the larger reality – and it is such a large reality it’s hard to take a step back. Up here, we are obviously at a disadvantage – we are not getting wet and mucky, which helps convey the reality. But we do have better access to many kinds of information and can get a better sense of the big picture. It is heartbreaking, having lived in NO, to see all the devastation.
I am focusing on the levee failures and some of the emergency response issues, trying to pinpoint exactly what went wrong when.
Byron Parks (Los Angeles): What’s the most interesting thing that a Bush Administration official has said to you post-Katrina?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): The most surprising thing said (though not to me personally) was when Chertoff said he did not become aware of the flooding of central New Orleans until Tuesday morning. That flooding began early Monday. Once a levee breaks significantly, it’s game over. Anyone reading the TP blog would have known the city was flooding.
Maggie P. (Colgate College): What kind of reaction did your “Washing Away” series have when it first came out? Obviously, all you hear now is that people “knew this was coming for years!” But is that true? Did the avg New Orleanian know that?
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): OK – the series got some reaction when it came out, but it was focused more on coastal erosion. The state was pushing for big bucks to begin a long-term coastal restoration plan. There was not much reaction to the “big one” catastrophic scenario other than a lot of people saying Holy S—-! Which was good from a community awareness perspective, less so from a policy perspective.
Representative Conyers: Hello again.
Hannah Banks (Boston, MA): I have heard that the Davis-Bacon Act has been suspended for Katrina construction. Now there are hints that the same measures may apply to service employees as well. In the face of the poverty made clear to the nation, what can be done to combat this situation?
Representative Conyers: One thing that could happen is that when the President addresses the nation tonight, he makes clear to the federal government that he does not want Davis-Bacon suspended under any circumstances. I have heard of no rationale for reducing the provisions that protect workers.
John McQuaid (Times-Picayune): I’ve got to go – thanks to all for an engaging discussion!
Nico Pitney: Thanks so much, John (McQuaid)!
Ohioan: Thanks, Cong. Conyers for releasing the CRS report on Louisiana’s response to Katrina. What’s your take on the report and its conclusions?
Representative Conyers: According to my response from CRS, the federal government was clearly negligent in many respects. The CRS letter to me is available on my website. www.house.gov/conyers
Rachel Setzer (Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle WA): Representative Conyers, why was the propsed legislation to exempt Katrina survivors from the new bankruptcy rules completely shut down?
Representative Conyers: Because the Republican leadership in the House did not feel that those whose jobs and income have been eliminated by Katrina should be given any special exemptions under the bankruptcy law, which becomes more onerous to working people applying for the protection of the bankruptcy laws come October 17, 2005.
Baton Rouge: Nobody complains about how many buses the Republican mayor of Biloxi used to evacuate, which is none, and around 200 died. Is there criticism we’re not seeing of the Mississippi mayor and Governor?
Representative Conyers: There’s so much writing about Katrina the last few weeks in the media that it’s hard for anyone to see all of the articles and stories about it. I did not know of this, and I am disappointed that such a thing as this would occur in Mississippi. Katrina has allowed some people to demonstrate their concern and generosity, but unfortunately it has given other people, many in the government, an opportunity to show their callousness to those who are confronted with the very frightening aspects of Hurricane Katrina.
Daniella (UVa): What do you think Bush needs to say tonight to help his sagging numbers? Or is it a lost cause when it comes to Katrina?
Representative Conyers: That’s a good question. With regard to Katrina, the President ought to ask the Congress to join with him in supporting an independent commission to examine what went wrong in terms of the government’s responsibility with reference to federal and local governments’ abilities to help the many people that were affected by Katrina. He ought to personally make certain that all of the billions of dollars that are going to clean up and bring the affected areas back to some semblance of normalcy are totally accounted for, that there is transparency, and that the small businesses in these areas are allowed to participate in the rebuilding process. If he talks about Iraq, he should assure the American people that he has or is working on an exit strategy and that he does not intend to build permanent military installations in Iraq.
Representative Conyers: Thank you for a wonderful discussion, but I have to leave now.
Nico Pitney: Thank you so much to everyone who participated, and to Rep. Conyers and John McQuaid!
August J. Pollak (Campus Progress): Okay, that’ll wrap it up, folks. Thanks everyone, especially our guests and our superb moderator Nico, and keep checking CampusProgress.org!
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