Monday, September 05, 2005


Everyone's been asking, over the past few days, why it took the federal aid so long to get to New Orleans. The following response by Joe Ellis (originally written for a discussion in rec.arts.sf.fandom) explains in clear terms just how difficult it really is to do.

It's clear that a lot of people criticizing the speed of the response have no concept of the logistics involved in a relief effort of this size.

First: The complaints about "Why weren't the supplies pre-positioned?"

Predicting the path of a hurricane isn't an exact science. Landfall could have been anywhere over a thousand miles of coast. Where do you store them? Look at the criteria you need:

1) Must be far enough inland to be out of reach of the main strength of the storm. This means a minimum of 100 miles, preferably twice that for depots to be really safe.

2) Must be secure long-term storage. This pretty much limits it to military bases... and there really aren't a lot of them that meet #1 but are still close enough to provide timely relief.

3) Must be on the freeway net, and with both rail and air access. Roads are OK for moving limited numbers of supplies, but are subject to flooding and other disruptions. Rails as well, but a railway can be rebuilt much faster than a highway. Air is good for fast response, but is very limited in the mass of supplies that can be lifted. For real heavy-lift capability, you need a working airfield at the other end as well. Helos are fine for distribution, but have a limited operational radius and lift capability. You need them close enough to make a lot of short hops to employ them effectively. They can't operate effectively from as far away as your depots, so clearing landing fields in the disaster area needs to be a priority.

The facility must be large enough to store both supplies and vehicles.

These criteria are very limiting - there aren't a lot of places that meet all these needs.

Now - people. How do you staff all this? Military personnel are the obvious choice... but they have other missions, too, and training missions to perform as well. This means the vehicles can't be stored loaded, and even when not deployed overseas they have to have transition time to change missions.

OK... so your storm is coming, and the alert goes out, you put your men and supplies on the trucks and roll... but wait a minute. Where do you roll? What do you need? You can't tell until after the storm hits and you begin to get damage assessments! So, you gather the people, prepare the vehicles, fuel everything... and wait until you know what you need to take and where. This means waiting for the storm to clear, and for people to get into the area and assess the needs - and what existing infrastructure is available to support the efforts. This generally takes 24 hours or more to get an accurate assessment after the weather clears... and don't forget that while the weather is getting good over the disaster area, your nearest depots are probably getting pounded, and may well have their own problems.

Now... with this storm, you've got almost all major bridges into the area down, rail lines broken, the river channel has undoubtedly shifted in spots, the roads are flooded, and there's no place to land aircraft on the debris-covered runways. So - trucks aren't going to cut it for this mission - unload them and reload on heavier transport vehicles. Let's remember, too, that once these vehicles get rolling and into the area, odds are they're going to be cutting and bulldozing their way in. It's not going to be a 60 MPH highway run - when they get into the disaster area they'll be doing well if they can average 20 MPH.

Now, let's assume for a moment that they did pre-position supplies in NO... where would they be now? Probably floating out into the gulf or under 20 feet of water... because the industrial and warehouse areas of NO were the hardest hit, being on the waterfront. Now you're looking at even more time necessary to bring in relief supplies.

That said, while the federal response is now getting going, I have to wonder why there weren't, for example, air drops of food and water.
Air drops aren't particularly precise, and take a lot of linear space. How do you drop them in sufficient numbers without dropping them on someone? The places that could be used as air drop targets are full of people. Also, airdrops are done at very, very low altitude from fixed wing aircraft - usually C-130s or larger planes. It's damn dangerous to fly a plane that big at low altitude through a city, especially a city where you can't depend on light poles and antennas being where they're supposed to be.

You have two options with airdrops:

1) a parachute drop from altitude, which gets the planes up above the terrain, but can spread your drop over a quarter mile of width or more (depending on winds, altitude, and airspeed) and possibly a mile or more of length (depending on how much you have to drop).

2) a free-fall drop from as little as 10 feet altitude, just rolling it out the back. This allows much greater accuracy in the drop, but because the stuff is still moving horizontally at over 100 MPH when it hits the ground it requires a long, straight approach and climbout, and a smooth cleared area for landing the load to prevent tumbling.

Neither one of these approaches are/were suitable for getting equipment and/or supplies to the people in the Superdome or the Convention Center. If you look at the satellite photos, it's clear there were no straight approaches and/or suitable drop zones for either kind of drop. The parking lot at the Superdome, while it might have been large enough, is choked with cars and trash, and under water. There's also the small matter of the light poles...

I do think that there should have been a greater sense of urgency, and that this does indeed reveal a certain inefficiency in DHS.
It's impossible for an organization like FEMA to respond any faster, or for any other mythical organization you might care to invent to do much better. It takes time to respond to events like this. Yes, it's painful to watch, but it's reality. There is no way to mount a response to an event like this without taking several days to prepare and transport.

Now that things have started moving, one of the biggest problems is going to be traffic control of inbound relief materials and outbound empties, and getting fuel to the transport vehicles.

I only disagree with the partisan bickering because I don't really expect much more from government agencies.
The "partisan bickering" I've seen here and other places is far worse than that, it's some of the foulest, opportunistic, deliberately misleading and flat out lying I've ever seen, and completely ignores the physical realities of what it takes to move people and supplies into an area that has had most of its infrastructure destroyed... It's also focused on one small area of NO when there are over 90,000 square miles of devastation. The damage done by failed levees pales into insignificance when compared to areas to the east that were completely wiped off the earth. It's not a matter of blaming anyone for the failures of systems that, according to some stories, could never have been improved to the point of being able to withstand this storm, rather its an unreasoning rabid-to-the-point-of-psychopathic-obsession hatred of anything to do with the administration that is making people spew such destructive and counter-productive venom (and repeat it without critical analysis of the actual facts) with no regard to the actual circumstances. There's no magic in the world, folks, that will allow you to wave a wand and move supplies for hundreds of thousands of people into an area in two days over submerged roads, into devastated port facilities, and over broken rails. It just can't happen. I don't care if FDR himself came back to lead the effort - there are finite limits to how fast things can be done, and 3-4 days before relief gets into an area is the fastest anyone can expect. This is nothing new or unusual. There's a reason that you're told to have 5 days of food, water, and medicine in your home disaster kit.

The FEMA response has been on this schedule. Given the complete lack of a communications infrastructure, if anyone thinks they can do better you're certainly welcome to strap your ass into your car and drive down there to help out. Frankly, I'm sick of the whining from people who aren't on scene, have no idea of either the situation or the realities of logistics, and have nothing better to do than snipe at those who are trying to do the best they can with the information they can get out of the area.

People are dying out there... and more of them are going to die. It's cruel and cold, but that's the truth of it. That's why it's called a disaster. The task now is to get people out, first and foremost, and to hold the number of post-storm and flood fatalities down.


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