Treating Katrina evacuees as the enemy

Because of the widely believed rumors of anarchy that followed the hurricane, the emphasis shifted almost overnight from rescue and assistance to control. This resulted in delays in providing relief to people who were living in appalling conditions inside the Superdome and Convention Center and desperately in need of assistance.

For example, as this Wall Street Journal report indicates, the people left behind in New Orleans in Katrina’s wake were perceived by the National Guard and other military forces as the ‘enemy’ to be conquered rather than helped and this militaristic mindset delayed the shipment of much needed food and water to the evacuees. In addition, buses that could have moved people out of the Superdome and the Convention Center were not allowed in because it was not perceived to be safe, and the buses that were already there did not move evacuees out because the drivers were scared.

One of the mysteries of the fumbling federal response to Hurricane Katrina has been why the military, which was standing by, and federal disaster agencies, which had pre-positioned supplies in the area, didn’t move in more quickly and with greater force.
Senior government officials now say that one major reason for the delay was that they believed they had to plan for a far more complicated military operation, rather than a straight-ahead relief effort.
Accounts from local officials of widespread looting and unspeakable violence – which now appear to have been significantly overstated – raised the specter at the time that soldiers might be forced to confront or even kill American citizens. The prospect of such a scenario added political and tactical complications to the job of filling the city with troops and set back relief efforts by days.

To add insult to injury, the report goes on to say that even much of the publicized ‘looting’ that did occur was not by ordinary people but by the authorities themselves.

But some of the most spectacular looting — the sacking of the Wal-Mart in the lower Garden District and the summary emptying of the Office Depot Uptown, appear to have been initiated not by organized bands of thieves but police and City Hall bureaucrats intent on securing supplies.

Nowhere is the idea that the wretched people struggling to stay alive in New Orleans were viewed as the enemy than the statements in this briefing by Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief, National Guard Bureau, who oversaw the National Guard response, about how they ‘took down’ the Convention Center almost a week after the hurricane (thanks to Tex in his blog).

GEN. BLUM: “…We waited until we had enough force in place to do an overwhelming force. Went in with police powers, 1,000 National Guard military policemen under the command and control of the adjutant general of the State of Louisiana, Major General Landreneau, yesterday shortly after noon stormed the convention center, for lack of a better term, and there was absolutely no opposition, complete cooperation, and we attribute that to an excellent plan, superbly executed with great military precision. It was rather complex. It was executed absolutely flawlessly in that there was no violent resistance, no one injured, no one shot, even though there were stabbed, even though there were weapons in the area. There were no soldiers injured and we did not have to fire a shot.

Some people asked why didn’t we go in sooner. Had we gone in with less force it may have been challenged, innocents may have been caught in a fight between the Guard military police and those who did not want to be processed or apprehended, and we would put innocents’ lives at risk. As soon as we could mass the appropriate force, which we flew in from all over the states at the rate of 1,400 a day, they were immediately moved off the tail gates of C-130 aircraft flown by the Air National Guard, moved right to the scene, briefed, rehearsed, and then they went in and took this convention center down.

It’s a great success story — a terrific success story.”

A great success story? A terrific success story? Yes, if you see the situation as a military operation against an enemy. Then indeed seizing territory without suffering any casualties is a success. But this is not Iraq, it is a city after a flood. The people are not an enemy army, they are people who have been made homeless and destitute by a natural catastrophe. As Tex points out: “The UPI, reporting on Blum’s “storming” of an American city, makes the Iraq mentality even more explicit“:

On Friday, 1,000 National Guard troops and police executed a ‘clear and hold’ mission on the New Orleans convention center. Once host to the 1988 Republican National Convention, the convention center was now unofficial host to thousands of refugees – squatters all – who were mixed in with criminals and thugs. There was no official government presence there.

Note how the people who took shelter in the Convention Center, and who had been told to go there, are being referred to as ‘squatters.’ Note also the terminology of ‘clear and hold’ which is what is used to describe operations in Iraq where the US goes into an area where they suspect insurgent activity. It is hard to believe that this language is being used on people who are the victims of a natural disaster.

What is interesting is that even during the time of reports of mayhem in the Convention Center, it appears that there were armed members of the National Guard actually in the Center but they were hiding from the evacuees. According to a Washington Post article:

That futility was symbolized by the presence in the convention center for three of the most chaotic days of at least 250 armed troops from the Louisiana National Guard. They were camped out in a huge exhibition hall separated from the crowd by a wall, and used their trucks as a barricade when they were afraid the crowd would break in.

The troops were never deployed to restore order and eventually withdrew, despite the pleas of the convention center’s management. Louisiana Guard commanders said their units’ mission was not to secure the facility, and soldiers on the scene feared inciting further bloodshed if they had intervened. “We didn’t want another Kent State,” said Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of the active-duty military forces responding to Katrina. “They weren’t trained for crowd control.”

I find this hard to comprehend. Even if everyone believed the false reports that the people in New Orleans were being terrorized by armed gangs, how could it be that the decision was made to let all the other unarmed and defenseless people (which included children, the elderly, and the invalid) who were reportedly being assaulted, raped and murdered, fend for themselves? How can it be more important to protect troops than displaced and helpless civilians?

After all, at most the people causing trouble had to be common criminals, acting independently and using low-level weaponry, and could not be a trained army with a command structure that was seeking to do battle with the military. How hard could it be for a professional army to deal with such a rag-tag group of hoodlums? Although I have no military experience, I find it hard to believe that 250 trained troops in a single building would not be sufficient to maintain and keep order against criminals.

I remember reading one report about an army base commander grounding all the helicopters that had been sent to rescue people from rooftops because of a report that someone had shot at a helicopter. (There is doubt now even about this shooting. See this Knight-Ridder report that documents the many rumors.) Even if the shooting incident had occurred, I remember being startled by the decision to ground the entire fleet. After all, these are not hospital medical helicopters or TV news helicopter crews who do not experience hostile fire in the course of their normal work. These are military helicopters. Surely they of all people should be able to deal with occasional and random fire from street toughs?

There is a delicate line that has to be drawn about the use of the military in times of unrest. There are good reasons for restricting the ability of the armed services to be given police powers, even during times of seeming lawlessness. These restrictions are covered by the Posse Comitatus law of 1878 and one should be cautious about the attempts by some in the current administration to loosen the provisions of this act. The Katrina disaster should not be used as an excuse to increase the militarization of society in the way that the events of September 11 were used to encroach on the civil liberties of people by way of the USA PATRIOT act. (See Alan Bock’s thoughtful analysis on the Posse Comitatus law.)

The focus should be on the fact that it was not the restrictions of the current law that led to the post-Katrina mess but the erroneous perception of the situation on the ground.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *