Controversy over whether New Orleans Mayor failed to follow hurricane plan

Sunday, September 4, 2005

Hundreds of buses sit damaged after the flood

New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin is facing criticism over the evacuation of citizens before Hurricane Katrina struck.

In the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of buses were sitting in bus yards, some less than a mile from the Superdome. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco commented, "The buses could have saved an estimated 20,000 people if they had been used for emergency evacuations which President Bush had declared two days before Katrina hit.", however the evacuation was ordered by Mayor Nagin, President Bush having no direct authority to order evacuations. Thursday, after the storm, Blanco by executive order used school buses for evacuation.

The 2000 edition of the southeast Louisiana evacuation plan on page 13, paragraph 5 states:

5. The primary means of hurricane evacuation will be personal vehicles. School and municipal buses, government-owned vehicles and vehicles provided by volunteer agencies may be used to provide transportation for individuals who lack transportation and require assistance in evacuating.

There were however alternative emergency plans, including ones held by state Homeland Security offices, and it is unclear which one was being operated to.

The Superdome had been opened shortly before the storm as a shelter of last resort for those who had not evacuated. As FEMA observed at that time: "Most residents have evacuated the city and those left behind do not have transportation or have special needs." Roughly 150,000 people were not evacuated from the city. During the Hurricane Ivan evacuation 600,000 people failed to evacute the city.

According to WWLTV, during a news conference on Sunday before the hurricane struck, Mayor Nagin claimed he "could and would commandeer any property or vehicle it deemed necessary to provide safe shelter or transport for those in need". However photos circulated appear to show unused school and privately owned busses left stranded in flood waters.

It is unclear whether Mayor Nagin knew these particular buses existed, since the Orleans Parish School Board is not under his jurisdiction and his office would not normally know the location of OPSB bus yards or be able to contact the drivers of those buses to place them into service. Normally it is the job of FEMA to coordinate between the various local jurisdictions such as the OPSB and the City of New Orleans in this case. That is, under the rules of prior hurricane responses, FEMA would ask all local jurisdictions for a list of resources under their control. Then FEMA would have taken a request from Nagin for buses, relayed it to the Orleans Parish School Board or other local jurisdictions which had buses, and at that point the OPSB would have provided the buses to Nagin. That coordination did not happen here, but it is unclear whether Nagin ever made such a request prior to the hurricane and after the hurricane they were underwater and useless.

However, if he had known about them, the declaration of a state of emergency on August 26 gave him the right under Louisiana law to commandeer them for the duration of the emergency. The failure to issue a timely evacuation order in effect made it physically impossible to evacuate the nursing homes, hospitals, and those without automobiles.

146 city buses less than a mile from the Superdome

In a radio interview on WWL-AM shortly after the hurricane, Mayor Nagin said, " I need 500 buses, man. We ain't talking about -- you know, one of the briefings we had, they were talking about getting public school bus drivers to come down here and bus people out here. I'm like, "You got to be kidding me. This is a national disaster. Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans." "