Friday, August 26, 2011

Hurricane Irene: Is Mayor Bloomberg the next Ray Nagin?

With Hurricane Irene bearing down on New York City like a...well, like a hurricane, it's useful to look at the last item a storm of his magnitude went barreling down the throat of a major city.  Does anyone remember Hurricane Katrina, and how a certain Mayor Ray Nagin handled the run-up to one of the worst disasters in American history?

On Friday, August 26, 2005 Nagin advised New Orleanians to keep a close eye on the storm and prepare for evacuation. He made various statements encouraging people to leave, without officially calling for an evacuation throughout Saturday the 27th before issuing a call for voluntary evacuation that evening. He was hesitant to order a mandatory evacuation because of concerns about the city's liability for closing hotels and other businesses.Nagin continued to announce that the city attorney was reviewing the information regarding this issue and once he had reviewed the city attorney's opinion he would make a decision whether to give the order to evacuate the city. With fewer than 24 hours left before the storm's landfall, Nagin declared a mandatory evacuation, the first in the city's history, and the first for a U.S. city of this size since the American Civil War....

To little, too late, as close to 1,500 people dies, many of whom could have been saved with better planning, mroe foresight, and a bit mroe urgerncy.

With that historical disaster as recent precedent, how is New York's Mayor Mike Bloomberg handling a potential hit of a similar-sized hurricane on a city surrounded by water? This will sound familiar, and -  to Branden Loy - possibly insane:

Two days short of six years later, with a big-time hurricane hurdling toward a Sunday strike on his city, is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg making the same mistake? He has announced that he will wait until Saturday morning to decide whether to order a mandatory evacuation of the “Zone A” low-lying areas that are home to roughly 250,000 people. So, like Nagin, he’ll be ordering an evacuation on the very day before the storm’s landfall or closest approach, and with perhaps 12 hours or less before conditions begin to deteriorate. That seems pretty foolish. Heck, I thought late Friday was pretty late to get started. Saturday morning? Really?!

(click to enlarge)

And here's the danger:

I hope, though, that Bloomberg & co. have taken a few things into account. First, an order mandating that 250,000 people evacuate won’t merely put 250,000 people on the roads. A lot of people on higher ground, who don’t technically need to evacuate, will undoubtedly feel that the mayor’s evacuation order is their cue to leave as well. When the mayor tells a good chunk of the city to Get The Hell Out, that’s going to be jarring and frightening, and lots of people will freak out and leave...And the longer New York waits, the better the odds of roads being overwhelmed, leading to the nightmare scenario of folks stuck on the roads during a hurricane. (“But this is New York!” you protest. “People won’t take the roads, they’ll take mass transit!” No, they won’t.)

Second, what if Irene intensifies more than expected, and suddenly a Category 2 landfall near NYC is in play? That would greatly expand the amount of territory, and thus presumably the number of people, affected by an evacuation order, since it would require “Zone B” to get out too. You certainly wouldn’t want to wait until Saturday morning to start evacuating both zones.

Bloomberg already destroyed much of his reputation with his ineffectual response to this winter's blizzards, followed by his sneering elitist disdain for those who were unable to get to their jobs for days ("Take in Broadway play instead!", was his foppish response). Should Hurricane Irene become an epic disaster with unnecessary loss of life, Bloomberg will lose what little of his reputation he has remaining. The myth of the "intellectual technocrat" will be destroyed forever, and Washington will likely be asked to step in to micro-manage all future emergencies, most likely with Katrina-like efficiency (you thought I was kidding when I said a botched response could lead to a revolution?).

Let hope the little nanny has learned something over the past few years. Or people will pay with their lives...

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