2005-09-16 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

A Tale of Two Cities
by Stuart W. Mirsky

While no two events are ever exactly alike, it’s instructive at this point to draw some parallels between New York’s experience on September 11th, 2001 and New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. Even as Bush administration critics are in full bay, smelling the proverbial blood in the water, and the media is all aflutter with damning comparisons as it parades politicians and pundits across the tube to savage Bush’s handling of Katrina’s aftermath, it pays to remember we’ve been there before.

Back in 2001 New Yorkers were struck by a terrorist attack, which cost us nearly 3,000 lives and billions of dollars in damage. Much of Manhattan’s downtown area was laid waste as businesses and government agencies fled in the face of the toxic fumes spewing out of the raging fires that smoldered, for months afterwards, where the two Trade Center towers had once stood. Our fellow citizens streamed in the hundreds of thousands over bridges and tunnels to safety, on the day of the attack, fleeing the devastation and covered from head to toe in white ash from the rubble and debris created by the collapsing buildings around them. Others jumped in terror from the towers, to certain death below, because of the unbearable heat of the inferno raging at their backs.

New York City’s mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, didn’t go on national television or frantically dial up radio stations to cry for help and damn those in the federal government who hadn’t yet responded. New Yorkers didn’t suddenly turn to looting and shooting at one another in the streets. Of course, part of the explanation for the very different reactions of officials and residents in the two cities can be found in the nature of the events themselves. True, Katrina was more far reaching in its effects, and more drawn out in its impact, than the immediate attacks of 9/11, which were mainly focused in a relatively contained area in Manhattan’s financial district. Nor was Katrina a targeted attack by a thinking enemy (recent al Qaeda claims that Katrina is Allah’s retribution on America notwithstanding). Still, the similarities are as important as the differences. In both cases, residents were driven from their homes by massive devastation and in both cases the events caught local officials somewhat off-guard.

Although Giuliani had been forcing his agencies to prepare for potential disasters for a number of years leading up to 9/11, sometimes with the derision of his media critics clearly audible in the background, the attacks on the World Trade Center were unanticipated and overwhelming. Giuliani and his top officials were caught in a meeting away from City Hall when it happened and had to flee through building lobbies to avoid the massive disarray in the streets around them.

I held a managerial position in one of the city’s agencies in those days and was on my way into the office that morning, driving along Atlantic Avenue through Brooklyn when the traffic ahead of me unaccountably ground to a stand-still. Unable to get through, I pulled onto a side road and followed a crowd of people to a vacant lot on a low hill from which we could see the two towers of the Trade Center off in the distance, one already in flames and spewing smoke into the sky. My car radio carried the story as it was then unfolding: an unidentified plane had crashed into one of the towers and police and firefighters were responding. When the second plane hit, all of us on the hill saw it and gasped in stunned silence, the realization dawning that this was no accident.

When I tried to call my office via cell phone the airwaves were dead. That was the beginning of a complete loss of communications in the area, as cell phone relays and land line junction stations were blown out of existence. Fortunately, I also had a two-way radio with me that I used to stay in touch with our agency’s police force and transportation fleet. I grabbed it at once and called the officer on duty near our Commissioner’s office, instructing him to get to the Commissioner at once, to keep him safe and make the two-way he carried available for his use. As it happened, our Commissioner was actually with the mayor at the time, fleeing the raging fire in the towers, but the officer quickly found the First Deputy and stuck to him like glue thereafter. I also called our transportation fleet and told the director there to call in all our vehicles and keep them ready for emergency use. Then I got in my car and drove via the side streets to a site we had in downtown Brooklyn near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge and set up an emergency operation there since there was no getting into Manhattan at that point.

From that location I reached our top management in lower Manhattan and began setting up convoys to take medical supplies and personnel, under police escort, into Manhattan. For the rest of that day and well into the evening, as we sent convoy after convoy over the bridge, we watched as a wall-to-wall parade of bleeding, dazed and ash-covered human beings streamed on foot across the bridge, fleeing the World Trade Center conflagration. We had to find medical supplies where we could and raided our facilities around the city. When we couldn’t find what we needed there, we tapped into the city’s hospitals and medical supply centers. The New York Police Department took tight control of the streets and our own agency police force, small as it was, coordinated with them.

The aftermath of the World Trade Center attack lasted months and we ultimately evacuated our downtown locations to set up alternative sites elsewhere in the city. We organized daily vehicle convoys to ferry critical personnel to their jobs or to other areas where they were needed in the city, operating on a 24/7 schedule that took us through weekends and holidays and drastically curtailed available hours for sleep. Driving through the streets in those early days was an eerie experience with roadblocks and police inspections everywhere and traffic lights frequently shut down.

The governor sent in State Troopers and National Guardsmen to support us fairly quickly and by the end of the first week, the president of the United States had, himself, flown in and rallied our people. Over the weeks and months that followed, the various city and state agencies involved found their footing and the federal agency responsible for emergency coordination, FEMA, came in and set up shop. They were slow to respond in force at first but we were glad to have them when they finally came and their presence grew more substantial each day.

Well before 9/11 and its aftermath was even a gleam in Osama bin Laden’s eye, New York City had been preparing for disaster. Under Giuliani’s administration, senior agency managers had been called on to attend and participate in various emergency scenarios and drills, obliged to develop

internal  emergency response plans which would then be coordinated with the plans of other city agencies. We developed hurricane evacuation plans and identified and planned for emergency shelters to accommodate those who might be forced to flee in a city of seven million.

Giuliani also set up an overarching emergency management agency to monitor, coordinate and control responses between the agencies. Senior managers were obliged to put in time at the emergency command center to familiarize themselves with the procedures and operations there. Many of us saw this as an imposition. There were always too many things to do back in the office and some of us only went grudgingly, thinking it all an exercise in overkill. But when 9/11 happened we learned otherwise.

No two emergency situations are ever alike and there’s no telling how we would have responded to a Katrina-sized storm. But one thing is clear enough and that’s that, as a city, we were ready to respond and, when called upon, we did so. The federal government came in after a few days but the initial response, in all its permutations, was a local effort. And we handled it.

Our mayor didn’t rush to do interviews accusing other arms of government of not doing their part to bail us out. He took control and led us, becoming a full partner with the state and federal branches of government when these made their appearance.

In New Orleans there was apparently a plan to utilize “School and municipal buses, government-owned vehicles and vehicles provided by volunteer agencies . . . to provide transportation for individuals who lack transportation and require assistance in evacuating . . .” in the event of a major hurricane (page 13, paragraph 5 of the January 2001 Louisiana State Disaster Plan). But even though FEMA director Michael Brown of the Bush administration went on television on the Saturday before Katrina hit to warn Gulf Coast residents, particularly those living in New Orleans, to take the storm threat seriously and fully evacuate, this never got done.

Thousands of poor New Orleans residents, unable or unwilling to flee under their own steam, took refuge in the city’s Super Dome where no food, water, medical supplies or medical support staff had been deployed to accommodate them. No augmentation of the inadequate sanitary facilities there was apparently provided either. Or security for the thousands of people who were shoved into the holding area. In the streets of the soon to be flood ravaged city, looters and snipers scattered the city’s demoralized police and firefighters. Would be rescuers were actually shot at as they sought to aid those left behind and trapped by the rising waters.

In the aftermath of all this, the incredible response of officials in the Big Easy, and in other parts of Louisiana, has been to point the finger of blame at the federal government for not having done enough. This cry has been taken up by the myriad of Bush critics, both here and abroad, who seem to have been waiting all their lives for just this moment. Overseas critics, who have never been slow to take the U.S. to task in the past, have rushed to cry shame and racism, too, while many here at home are doing the same.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat, is on record as damning the Bush administration’s allegedly slow response and Jefferson Parish official Aaron Broussard has blamed the administration for the loss of human life on national television, alleging an almost willful refusal by the administration’s emergency response bureaucrats to act. A well known rap artist, Kanye West, recently accused the Bush administration, on national television, of turning a blind eye to the plight of New Orleans’ poorest residents because of the color of their skin.

New York Times columnist and long time angry Bush critic Frank Rich sees this as the anti-9/11, the long awaited proof of Bush administration failures across the board. In this he is echoed by other commentators and pundits who share his antipathy for the current White House occupant. Katrina has replaced Cindy Sheehan as their rallying cry, their long-awaited, long sought “proof” of administration perfidy. They’ve been building up to this point all summer with the Cindy Sheehan spectacle in Crawford and now, with Katrina, the levees of anti-Bush sentiment have finally been breached. The roar of political discontent with the present administration, on the left and in the mainstream media (which carries so much of their political water), has finally burst its containment banks.

The only problem is that, to share in this general outrage, you have to believe that local and state authorities in New Orleans and Louisiana had no responsibility to act in their own interests or to protect the citizenry they were elected to serve, that their job was merely to stand by as passive observers of a storm which the federal government, alone, was expected to handle for them. You have to forget that a very different standard has already been set elsewhere in the country and that sometimes people work best in a cooperative way when they also know how, and are willing, to fend for themselves.


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