September 03, 2005

Catastrophic System Failure 

As even tea leaves readers could have predicted, the blame game for the Katrina disaster is in full swing. The left is accusing Bush of everything, from the formation of Katrina itself to the failure of the levees to the looting etc - and even more vile statements.

The right is showing much more restraint, for what I could see, but also folks on that side are blaming the Mayor, the Governor, the socialists, the environmentalists and maybe even Clinton, which has become a handy scapegoat. I happent to think that the Right is closer to the mark, but both sides are fundamentally wrong when they say that the disaster is the direct responsibility of someone - at least in certain parts, as I will explain later.

What people should do before casting blame is to revise one of the fundamental rules of engineering:

All systems will eventually fail

Yes, the Mars rovers are still going well after their design specifications, and some Roman bridges are still standing and open to traffic. But in the end, they will fail too. Many parts in aircrafts are replaced when they reach the end of their safe service life, even if they show no sign of wear: this is beacuse statistical and laboratory studies determined that past a certain service time the probability of failure becomes untolerably high.

No sane engineer would ever try to design a system that never fails because it's impossible (and DenBeste explains why - in an essay that says many more interesting things). The best thing that engineers can do is to design something that will not fail catastrophically, at least in the appropriate conditions.

To speak frankly, New Orleans was built in a shitty place to begin with: a small patch of dry ground in the midst of a marsh, in a geologically unstable delta zone. No river delta is stable anyway; we have similar problems (but no hurricanes at least) in the Po delta and Venice in Italy. Most of New Orleans is below sea level and the delta ground is sinking.

The city is protected from sea storms and Mississipi floods by a system of levees (dykes), and here lies the rub: these defences were never designed for a Cat 5 monster as Katrina. The levees were designed for a Cat 3 hurricane; their upgrade was discussed for a long time (political bickering) but never reached the executive stage. And the fund cuts performed by Bush and other administrations have not changed the situation. Only a huge dose of good luck (a miracle, someone would say) could have saved the city.

There was nothing men could do to avoid, stop or divert the hurricane (and people who had to bear it instead of New Orleans may have not liked that), and nothing that could have saved the levees. The city was doomed by a Cat 5, as quite a few predicted already years ago.

However, it was possible to mitigate the consequences of the storm and flood, and here it is where the local authorities failed spectacularly. The evacuation order was sent too late, and executed poorly. It is like there was no plan, and if there was one either it was terrible or it wasn't followed properly. There was no plan to deploy security forces in the city - with the orders and powers to use deadly force to nip looting and lawlessenes in the bud. The National Guard was summoned too late. As I understand, the Federals have little role in all this unless their help is requested by the State (Louisiana) so they righteously did not jump in uninvited.

The Mayor of the city (Nagin) and the Governor (Blanco) demonstrated very poor leadership: leaders do not whine and spout profanity on TV (as Nagin apparently did) or even worse play the race card when faced with a problem; instead, they rally their forces and start working hard to find a solution. And usually one, albeit far from perfect, is found. Granted that leadership is much more a talent that a skill, but I would expect some leadership to be required to become a high-profile politician.

Also, it was well known that New Orleans has a staggering high crime rate; is it so outlandish to imagine that criminals would use this disaster to go on a rampage - as they always did in history?

Now the National Guard and even the Marines are going in to regain control of the city, allow the proper relief effort and finally bring some order in the mess.

Update 05/09: I should clarify a point. A good 80% of New Orleans citizens were evacuated succesfully and in time using the standing evacuation plans.
As an additional resource, blogger Rick Moran has put together a Katrina Response Timeline.

Update 2: No emergency plan survives contact with reality - paraphrasing Clausewitz.


When inmates gain control things get ugly.

I have a one bedroom apartment that I will rent for four months free to any refugees. If you don’t mind being a prison guard and are not a felon there’s a job waiting for you too.

Email me at Burguete420@hotmail.com


thanx for the link on little greenfootball. :)

Di niente, m+. Mi sembra un buon articolo, e pure in inglese per il pubblico internazionale.
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