Seeing the Round Corners

HEADS UP, the new day for Seeing the Round Corners “GOING LIVE” is Tuesday each week.

July 20, 2021

The horrors of flooding in Eastern Europe brought to mind a column in 2016 when  Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped out the City of New Orleans.

March 28, 2016

As the Flint, Michigan water crisis continues and the finger pointing has broadened, has the problem being dealt with been acknowledged or even recognized? In this presidential election year, if there is a time for something like the Flint water crisis to provide a distraction of the gravity of the situation, it is this one!

Ten years have passed since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the most catastrophic hurricane in the history for the City. That hurricane demonstrated to all the world just how inept and incompetent city and state government had been since the founding of New Orleans.

As the first century of the City's existence and succeeding decades passed, no effort was made to replace aging pumping systems or strengthen and deepen levies protecting the city well known for being below sea level.

Emergency preparedness in New Orleans was on grand display when it was discovered City officials had not notified federal emergency responders about more than 6,000 people stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center without water or food. The Convention Center is located a short 12 blocks from city hall on the banks of the Mississippi River, where people without transportation to evacuate the city sought shelter when ordered to leave their homes.

The former mayor of New Orleans is cooling his heals in prison convicted for corruption in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Mayor's response when questioned about why the City was picking up the tab for city officials and others partying in Las Vegas – they needed a break from the stress and aftermath of the hurricane.

The Flint, Michigan water crisis is yet a further demonstration of city officials and this time, the federal agency that helped them – the Environmental Protection Agency – perpetuate what can only be described as a fraud on the people of Flint. Lead inflicts irreparable harm on growing children as most of the world knows, but city officials in Flint chose to cut costs by switching the city's source of water from Detroit to the Flint River, or replace old pipes.

The President and CEO of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, Elizabeth K. Kellar, provided a thought-provoking analysis on the Lessons of Flint, that elected officials should be subjected to. (Perhaps a better idea is at the time of announcement to run for office.)

Kellar's analysis was premised on this question:  “How is it that so many people at so many levels of government did not do nearly enough to protect the public, especially the children?” Her observations:

  • Rather than making sure that a change in the Michigan city's water supply would do no harm, government leaders focused only on cutting costs;
  • Too often, ongoing fiscal pressures can drive public officials to focus on short-term savings rather than long-term priorities;
  • Cost of fixing Flint's troubled water system will be far greater than the savings that were imagined from switching the city's water source from Detroit's system to the Flint River; and
  • The human cost to the children affected by high levels of lead in their drinking water will not be known for decades.

City and state government are not deserving of all the blame in the Flint water crisis. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had a huge role in Flint. A report made to the EPA by a Flint resident resulted in expression of concern by one EPA expert that “lead levels throughout the city might have been under reported because of the state's testing method.” Subsequent EPA correspondence just five months later advised Flint's mayor that “it would be premature to draw any conclusions.”

Kellar writes, “Clearly there was a sense of urgency about the emerging public health emergency, probably because the culture in these organizations was dominated by financial or political considerations.” In state receivership, Flint was already in dire financial shape with state focus on getting the city's finances under control.

Kellar offered these suggestions on what government can do about such a culture as existed in Flint:

  • Government leaders should develop a culture that makes better decisions;
  • Encourage employees to speak up when they see something wrong; and
  • Realize the secret of good government is to make every employee and every resident feel they are part of it.

Kellar stated the most important qualification for people working in city, county and state government is to have a passion to serve the public interest.

This writer would like to add to that:

  • Elected officials should be able to demonstrate a keenly perceptive ability and the wisdom to think (and see) beyond their own tenure in office;
  • Elected officials should be able to put personal agenda aside while in office, rather than use the time to focus on a base to climb to higher office; and
  • Readers should ask candidates running for office their positions on how they plan to handle replacement of America's aging infrastructure – not only the water systems but roads.

And now, from the writer's archives, September 2005, a Letter to the Editor on PUBLIC OFFICIALS – ARE THEY RELIABLE . . .

It seems each passing year, America as we know it grows more uncertain. Only a matter of hours were required for a hurricane to nearly wipe out New Orleans, a city that had survived for a couple of centuries – had survived numerous other hurricanes, plagues, wars, even General Andrew Jackson.

No doubt, the horrendous damage would not have been so catastrophic had the levee not broken, an event that most likely could have been prevented by better maintenance and raising the height. Most certainly, the catastrophe could have been lessened had the city, parish (county), state and federal officials in charge acted on studies and warnings from several years ago.

Is it intelligent to locate emergency generators in the basement of hospitals and government buildings in a city situated below sea level? Is it intelligent to have pumping stations meant to pump flood waters out of the city not protected from flood waters?? 

City officials have always known how vulnerable such emergency equipment was to hurricanes, yet sat on their hands and did virtually nothing, but did spend millions of dollars to build a convention center -- a convention center which turned into an atrocity for victims with no place else to escape to. The mayor was so inept as to not even advise federal officials until days after the hurricane that there were thousands of people stranded in the New Orleans Convention Center without food and water. Most of those people were poor, without their own transportation to evacuate when the order was given. Aerial photographs on national television showed hundreds of school buses half submerged in flood waters. A large portion of the population in the City of New Orleans relies on public transportation.  Where were all those city buses when the evacuation order was given? No answer has ever been provided by city officials.

Federal officials showed equal incompetence in getting basic necessities into the area.  Once more political connections were responsible for the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) having his job – not because of what he knew, his qualifications and his experience, but solely on WHO he knew. (In last year’s campaign “season” here in Gilpin County, one candidate’s campaign manager was heard to say, “In this County, it’s not WHAT you know, but WHO you know.”

Should this country’s system really work like that? Should lives be lost because of “who” someone knows, not “what” they know? If you were one of those people without food and water in 90-degree heat, waiting for help in the midst of criminals who were robbing and raping, the answer to that question goes without saying.

FEMA officials disclosed early on they were never informed about evacuees in the New Orleans Convention Center.

No emergency communications system existed in the City of New Orleans  -- not even the police had one.  Parish officials had no way of communicating with hospitals and nursing homes, facilities such as those were left on their own.   

St. Bernard Parish is southeast of New Orleans and is actually a suburb of the City.  In a St. Bernard nursing home, the owners abandoned residents leaving more than 30 elderly patients to drown.  Parish officials made no effort to help evacuate those patients,
claiming they didn’t know about them. 

The sad fact is, parish officials had no emergency plan in place to tell them where the elderly nursing home patients were in case of such a disaster nor a designated place to evacuate them to. Not only the nursing home owners, but also parish (county) officials should be held responsible for those deaths!!

St. Bernard Parish suffered some of the heaviest damage from flood waters when the 17th Street levee broke – the initial surge was a 12-foot wall of water. In a telephone interview from Lake Charles, Louisiana, St. Bernard Parish resident Mike Burtchaell described that horror.  He said they had no flooding from the hurricane, but then lost everything in the flood waters when the levee broke. He and his wife were rescued by a passing boat and taken to a bridge above the water level. For hours, he helped the boat owner rescue everyone they could locate, even “borrowing” another boat when an object knocked a hole in the first boat. They were then taken by helicopter to a bridge on Interstate 10 Highway where they waited further rescue for almost two days without food and water. 

Anticipatory government focuses on prevention and the future. Foresight in New Orleans could have saved hundred of lives and equally important, lessened the catastrophic results of a category 5 hurricane which weather experts had warned about for years was not an “if” possibly, but “when.”

Yet, public officials were ill-prepared. No amount of warning could get their attention. They stood on national television and looked like they didn’t know what hit them. In too many situations today, public officials believe their job is to deal with a crisis – the thought never enters their minds to try and prevent it.  It costs far more to pay for dealing with a crisis than it does to prevent it. It costs far more to “manage” pollution as the EPA does than prevent it. Pollution could be decreased and in many cases, eliminated by placing a tax on companies who use toxic materials.

The lives and livelihood of the citizens of New Orleans were at stake and their public officials failed them. Planning, not just a “plan” could have saved lives, homes and businesses, but public officials lacked even the common sense and foresight to do proper planning after being warned of the dire consequences of a direct hit by a category 5 hurricane.

What has this world come to when public officials and private individuals allow elderly nursing home patients to drown because no one had records of such facilities, emergency communications or a way to evacuate them!!

The reader's comments or questions are always welcome. E-mail me at