Category ►►► Natural Disasters
May 8, 2006
I had to go to the doctor for my annual checkup a few days ago; and for the first time in I don't know how long, I completely forgot to bring a book. Thus thrown upon the mercy of Dr.'s magazine rack, I skipped over People, Highlights, and Oprah Winfrey's O! and reluctantly grabbed Popular Mechanics.
Not that there's anything wrong with that; I just don't read magazines, usually. I prefer books, where the author has the leisure to develop his thesis. For short articles, I prefer the web.
Yet there, in Popular Mechanics, of all unlikely places, I read a wonderful article "debunking" thirteen myths of Hurricane Katrina:
Accusations began to fly even before floodwaters receded. But facts take longer to surface. In the months since the storm, many of the first impressions conveyed by the media have turned out to be mistaken.
Let's be clearer here about the politics than PM is; they're more concerned with the truth of the accusations than they are with the truth about them (that's my job!) There were three types of egregious -- er -- untruthfulism:
- Political lies trying to pin the destruction of Hurricane Katrina on President Bush and his administration;
- Lies to deflect blame from one person to another -- no, it wasn't my fault... blame that fellow behind the tree!
- Media lies to sensationalize the story and sell newspapers.
There is clearly a lot of overlap; one lie can serve many masters. For example, saying that there was no federal response at all for days both attacks Bush and also lifts blame from Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. And perhaps PM's approach is best: simply correcting the record.
But I don't buy it. Behind every deliberate lie lurks a calculating liar, and the liars should be exposed for what they are: men (and women) without honor, whose word cannot be trusted.
These lies stand in contradistinction to the ersatz "lies" about WMD -- where "lie" is given a special redefinition to mean any statement that turns out to be mistaken, or even true but not to the degree expected, even if the chap making the statement completely believed it at the time. By contrast, the Katrina lies were deliberate, reckless, and malicious.
Some examples (some of the emphasis is PM's, some is BL's):
MYTH: "The aftermath of Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history."--Aaron Broussard, president, Jefferson Parish, La., Meet the Press, NBC, Sept. 4, 2005
REALITY: Bumbling by top disaster-management officials fueled a perception of general inaction, one that was compounded by impassioned news anchors. In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest--and fastest-rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm's landfall.
Dozens of National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters flew rescue operations that first day--some just 2 hours after Katrina hit the coast. Hoistless Army helicopters improvised rescues, carefully hovering on rooftops to pick up survivors. On the ground, "guardsmen had to chop their way through, moving trees and recreating roadways," says Jack Harrison of the National Guard. By the end of the week, 50,000 National Guard troops in the Gulf Coast region had saved 17,000 people; 4000 Coast Guard personnel saved more than 33,000.
That adds up to more than 50,000 people who would likely be dead today, were it not for the incredibly rapid reaction by federal responders and the National Guard.
This is the primary lie pushed by the Democrats: that the response of Mayor Nagin (a Democrat, however recently) and Gov. Blanco (another Democrat) was exemplary, but their efforts were thwarted by the lethargic, almost somnambulant non-response of the feds. The purpose is obvious: blame Bush for all the death and destruction and deflect attention from the complete collapse at the Louisiana state and New Orleans city levels.
Alas, it's a lie that stuck and stuck hard, fueled by people's belief that the federal government is the "first responder" to every disaster, clueless that the actual chain of responsibility begins at the local level then progresses to the state... and pushed also by the weird idea people have that the federal government has infinite resources at every location and at all times. Some drunk falls down a well, and many people immediately demand, "where's the president? why doesn't he do something?"
MYTH: "They have people ... been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."--New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Sept. 6, 2005
REALITY: Both public officials and the press passed along lurid tales of post-Katrina mayhem: shootouts in the Superdome, bodies stacked in a convention center freezer, snipers firing on rescue helicopters. And those accounts appear to have affected rescue efforts as first responders shifted resources from saving lives to protecting rescuers. In reality, although looting and other property crimes were widespread after the flooding on Monday, Aug. 29, almost none of the stories about violent crime turned out to be true....
When the Superdome was finally cleared, six bodies were found--not the 200 speculated. Four people had died of natural causes; one was ruled a suicide, and another a drug overdose. Of the four bodies recovered at the convention center, three had died of natural causes; the fourth had sustained stab wounds.
Popular Mechanics -- perhaps trying to be apolitical -- didn't quote the rest of Nagin's diatribe all over various news and talk shows: he went on to blame FEMA, the Army, and other federal agencies, though he also spared some bile for Gov. Blanco. Everyone, that is, but the person most responsible for such calamities, had they actually occurred: the mayor of New Orleans.
- The Grand Nagus was the man who decided to stack people in the Superdome (publicly calling it a "refuge of last resort") and the convention center, rather than forcing evacuation;
- It was the New Orleans city police who deserted, and who should have maintained order there;
- It was Nagin who left hundreds of school buses sitting on land below sea level, where they were swamped, instead of moving them to high ground as the New Orleans emergency plan requires;
- It was the mayor who refused to issue a mandatory evacuation order until August 28th;
- And Nagin was one of the prime culprits in spreading lurid rumors of murder and mayhem that, as PM grimly notes, likely delayed rescue and may have cost lives.
- (It was, however, Gov. Blanco's Louisiana State Department of Homeland Security that refused the Red Cross permission to pre-stage in New Orleans; so that's one stupidity that cannot be laid at Mayor Nagin's feet.)
I sincerely hope he is defeated for a second term by Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu in the runoff, a week from Saturday. But I haven't seen any polls, and I have no idea who's ahead.
But we don't want to follow the biased example of the antique media; let's confront an argument PM makes in Nagin's favor:
MYTH: "The failure to evacuate was the tipping point for all the other things that ... went wrong."--Michael Brown, former FEMA director, Sept. 27, 2005
REALITY: When Nagin issued his voluntary evacuation order, a contraflow plan that turned inbound interstate lanes into outbound lanes enabled 1.2 million people to leave New Orleans out of a metro population of 1.5 million. "The Corps estimated we would need 72 hours [to evacuate that many people]," says Brian Wolshon, an LSU civil engineer. "Instead, it took 38 hours." Later investigations indicated that many who stayed did so by choice. "Most people had transportation," says Col. Joe Spraggins, director of emergency management in Harrison County, Ala. "Many didn't want to leave." Tragic exceptions: hospital patients and nursing home residents.
There is no question that virtually everybody did evacuate in response to the voluntary call by the mayor. But I think Popular Mechanics is overreaching here -- and again, probably because they don't want to be perceived as partisan and biased: the reality is that the vast majority of the lies were from the Left against the Right, and therefore any fair ennumeration will appear to lean right.
The purpose of a mandatory evacuation is precisely to empower the police to evacuate the inevitable cadre of people who don't believe the danger is real. There will always be people who think they can "weather the storm," who don't believe the experts, who are too lazy to evacuate, who hope to take advantage of the evacuation to loot the abandoned stores and homes, and those who are too ill, weak, or old to evacuate themselves.
Those are exactly the people who need to be forced to leave. Not only are they are grave risk of death themselves, but they put emergency responders at risk trying to rescue them.
Of course the vast majority will leave in the face of a huge hurricane (though Katrina turned out not to be as big or powerful as at first believed; see the myth on page 4). Obviously. But so what? The mayor needed to issue a mandatory evacuation order... and he didn't for several days.
Anyway, read the article; there's lots of cool stuff in here -- including a diagrams of a levee on pages 5 and 6, which I'd never seen before. Excellent... and a lot of grist for the political mill here, for all that PM by and large chooses not to see it.
April 28, 2006
Who Blew the Big Blow - More Details Than You Can Shake a Stick At
The easiest way to present the charges of incompetence, bureaucratic entanglement, and screw-ups from the Senate Homeland Security Committee's report on Hurricane Katrina is to post a couple of charts. Each of these charts was taken from the 20-page Executive Summary of the committee's report; I have included the page number of each "attaboy" or accusation entered on these charts, for those obsessive enough to double-check me.
The first chart, labeled "Cheers," comprises the few things about the response that the report praised.
Note an interesting fact that went unreported by the Associated Press's wretched hit piece on the president... in fact, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was praised far more than were the responses of either the City of New Orleans or the states of Louisiana or Mississippi:
|New Orleans||Louisiana and Mississippi||Fed. Agencies||White House|
|Secondary responsibility when city requests
|Teriary responsibility when state requests
|Declared emergency two days before landfall (p. 5)|
|Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries did great job (p. 8)||FEMA: videoconference to warn of risk; DHS warned of levee overtopping or breaching (p. 5)||President Bush personally called Gov. Blanco
to urge mandatory evacuation
|FEMA pre-positioned "unprecedented amount of relief supplies" before landfall (p. 7)|
|National Guard and DoD mobilized before landfall
|Largest National Guard deployment in U.S.
history --50,000 troops from 49 states
|DoD streamlined process for moving National Guard and active duty troops to area (p. 11-12)|
Not surprisingly, the second chart is labeled "Jeers," and it consists of all of the specific charges leveled at any level of government -- city, state, or federal. Omitted from this chart are both vague claims (that "leadership" was lacking, for example) and also any specific accusation that was applied equally to all levels of government -- for example, lack of funding for emergency-preparedness departments.
Notice first that the Jeers table is much longer than the Cheers table; the report was very negative. But second, far from "ripp[ing] the White House" or the "Bush administration," in fact the feds came in for slightly less roughing-up than did either the city or state authorities... and the Bush White House in fact was the only entity that received more praise than condemnation.
The boldface entries are those whose genesis is long-term, not specifically related to the individuals in office at the time of the disaster:
|New Orleans||Louisiana and Mississippi||Fed. Agencies||White House|
|Mayor Nagin failed to request help from state
|Gov. Blanco made no specific request for fed.
help in evacuation
|FEMA "at no time in its history" able to handle storm of this size (p. 6)||Directed fed response from Crawford until
two days after landfall
|Unprepared to help people evacuate
|"Senior state official" said no
|Michael Brown failed to properly direct pre-postitioned supplies (p. 7)|
|Allowed hundreds of buses to be submerged
|State transportation secretary ignored emergency plan (p. 6)||DHS head Chertoff failed to personally supervise before landfall (p. 7)|
|Failed to arrange for drivers of buses that were available (p. 8)||Widespread communications failures in Louisiana and Mississippi (p. 9)||FEMA failed to provide boats for S&R teams (p. 9)|
|Allowed police stations, vehicles, emergeny equipment, and ammunition to be destroyed (p. 8)||Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development failed to follow state emergency plan (p. 10)||Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC)
failed to adequeately inform president and secretaries
|Fire department owned no boats; police only owned five (p. 9)||Gov. Blanco unable to commandeer school buses
|Poor communication between DHS, DoD, and HSOC (p. 9-10)|
|Mayor Nagin opened Morial Convention Center
as a "second refuge of last resort," but failed to stock it with
food or water
|Federal and state electronics equipment
|500 buses sent by FEMA arrived late
|Nagin did not communicate to state or federal
agencies about Morial Convention Center
|Louisiana and Mississippi had trouble getting
supplies "the last mile"
|FEMA lacked supply-tracking database
|Top city officials inflamed public perception
of lawlessness by "erroneous statements"
|In Louisiana, National Guard could not carry supplies to those in need (p. 10)||Federal and state electronics equipment
|Police presence on the streets inadequate
|Lack of portable toilets in Louisiana
|Federal law-enforcement assistance slow to arrive (p. 13)|
|Office of Emergency Preparedness inadequate
|Louisiana unable to process offers of help
from other states
|Rank and file cops unfamiliar with emergency-operations manuals (p. 13)|
Particularly noteworthy is the comparison of the "net evaluation" of each of the three branches of government; I define this as the number of accusations of failure combined with the number of accolades for success for a net failure or success score. Here are the figures:
- City of New Orleans: 12 failures + 1 success = 11 net failures;
- States of Louisiana and Mississippi: 11 failures + 2 successes = 9 net failures;
- Federal agencies: 10 failures + 6 successes = 4 net failures;
- White House: 1 failure + 2 successes = 1 net success.
Compare this record from the actual Executive Summary itself with the claim by AP that --
A Senate inquiry into the government's Hurricane Katrina failures ripped the Bush administration anew Thursday and urged the scrapping of the nation's disaster response agency. But with a new hurricane season just weeks away, senators conceded that few if any of their proposals could become reality in time.
The bipartisan investigation into one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history singled out President Bush and the White House as appearing indifferent to the devastation until two days after the storm hit.
By "appearing indifferent," it's clear that what AP really means is that Bush was directing the federal response from his Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, TX, rather than from the White House itself. To the Associated Press, this is "indifference."
Need we say more?
This is perhaps the most egregiously biased and slanted Katrina story since the first days after the storm itself, when the antique media blithely repeated ludicrous and lurid rumors of rapes, murders, and cannibalism -- and laid it all at the doorstep of the White House.
Media "madness" is indeed the proper phrase for it.
April 27, 2006
Who Blew the Big Blow?
Associated Press has a piece about the Senate Homeland-Security Committee's report on Hurricane Katrina, assigning blame and (to some extent) suggesting changes for the better. The thrust of Lara Jakes Jordan's story is accurately summarized by the headline and first two paragraphs:
Katrina Report Rips the White House Anew
WASHINGTON (AP) - A Senate inquiry into the government's Hurricane Katrina failures ripped the Bush administration anew Thursday and urged the scrapping of the nation's disaster response agency. But with a new hurricane season just weeks away, senators conceded that few if any of their proposals could become reality in time.
The bipartisan investigation into one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history singled out President Bush and the White House as appearing indifferent to the devastation until two days after the storm hit.
The AP story is hard-hitting, incisive, and merciless in reporting how the Senate report castigates the White House. But it is one other thing: the story is a complete fabrication.
Jordan's audacity is breathtaking. I will have more to say about this in the next post, after I finish reading the executive summary. But from the first half (all I've read so far), the report actually lodges far more serious accusations against the State of Louisiana and Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and against the City of New Orleans than against any federal agency, though you would never know it from the AP story.
Even in the case of the feds, about half the most serious problems in the federal response are long-term (multi-president) failings that certainly do not constitute "singl[ing] out President Bush and the White House." (For example, not building better levees in New Orleans.) Jordan does her best imitation of Mary Mapes in this piece.
In fact, the worst accusation made against Bush in the report so far is that for the first two days after landfall, he directed the federal response from his Crawford ranch, rather than from Washington D.C.
It just occurred to me that whenever a senator or representative leaves D.C., he is either on vacation, on a junket, or campaigning. Co-chairs of the report Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) may literally not understand that when Bush goes to the Prairie Chapel Ranch, he is in communication and control just as much as he is at la Casa Blanca. He's not on holiday; he's working at the branch office.
More, and more specifics, anon. This is in the way of an "incoming" for y'all not to believe everything you read in the papers!
April 14, 2006
The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, Richard L. Skinner, has released a long-awaited report on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina; and while the report found a number of areas where FEMA needs improvement, it also completely undermines the major Democratic attacks against the Bush administration.
In general, the report brings much well-deserved praise for the speed and effectiveness of the federal response to the most devastating American hurricane since Galveston was hit by a killer storm in 1900 --
During the response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA provided record levels of support to victims and emergency responders. Life saving and life sustaining commodities and equipment were delivered to the affected areas; personnel increased significantly in a short period of time to support response efforts and provide assistance to victims; and assistance was provided quickly in record amounts, sometime through innovative means....
-- even while it highlights the need for significant changes, most of which were already being implemented before the DHS Inspector General released this report:
However, a lack of asset visibility in the resource ordering process, inexperienced and untrained personnel, unreliable communications, and insufficient internal management controls demonstrate a continued need for improvement in how FEMA supports its response activities and delivery of assistance.
Curiously, very little of what the IG's report finds wrong with the FEMA response matches the unsourced and bizarre charges hurled against the Bush administration by the Democrats. It's as if they come from two different universes.
The most serious accusations leveled by Democrats against the administration's "dangerously incompetent" response to Katrina were:
- That they "were warned" that the levees were going to break;
- That they were too slow to react before Katrina made landfall;
- That they were "shell shocked," and did not react after the hurricane hit;
- That they tried to "blame the victim" (the state of Louisiana) for FEMA's own failures.
By and large, the suggestions made in the report are good and should be implemented ASAP. But most were already in process before the report was published -- and some of the suggested changes were actually underway even before Hurricane Katrina hit.
And on these key charges lodged by Democrats, where the report speaks at all, it tends to exonerate President Bush and FEMA Director Michael "Brownie" Brown.
First, let's get one charge out of the way:
FEMA "was warned" that the levees would break
The Inspector General's report does not address this particular issue. However, Big Lizards has already debunked this false claim earlier: Into the Breach, Dear Friends!, and AP Doubles Down on Katrina Falsehood.
Now, on to the business at hand....
Too slow to react before Katrina hit
Two days and one day before the hurricane made landfall, President Bush declared emergencies in all three states, allowing FEMA to pre-position resources:
[F]ederal emergency declarations were issued for Louisiana on August 27, 2005, and for Mississippi and Alabama on August 28, 2005, authorizing FEMA to begin pre-positioning commodities and emergency management personnel.
And in fact, FEMA did just that, pre-positioning not only water, food, medicine, blankets, and other commodities but also four Urban Search and Rescue teams, emergency-ops vehicles, emergency communications and other support personnel.
In addition, many National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) teams, including Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, and Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams were activated and pre-staged in the region for deployment as soon as conditions permitted.
Pre-staging areas were set up at NAS Meridian in Mississippi, Maxwell AFB and Craig Field in Alabama, and Camp Beauregard, Barksdale AFB, and the New Orleans Superdome in Louisiana... plus more staging areas in nearby states (Georgia, Florida, and Texas).
FEMA had an extraordinarily active response prior to the hurricane making landfall, regardless of what Democrats later tried to claim.
Too slow to respond after Katrina hit
The report identifies a staggering number of rescue operations conducted by FEMA and other federal personnel under the direction of the DHS, many of which went unreported (or underreported) at the time and have been forgotten in the aftermath of recrimination and finger-pointing:
Rapid Needs Assessment teams were sent into afflicted areas as soon as the winds died down; rescue operations began immediately by national Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) teams, Coast Guard, and active-duty military; these rescue missions saved over 50,000 victims of Hurricane Katrina. Without them, tens of thousands would have died, rather than 1,326.
The USCG performed more than 30,000 rescues in the first week alone -- "more rescues than it performed in all of 2004."
Medical Needs Assessment Teams from FEMA Regions IV and VI were deployed to assess medical needs in the affected area. Over 50 Disaster Medical Assistance Teams were deployed.... Three National Medical Response Teams, five Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, and three International Medical Surgical Response Teams were activated also.
There certainly were some problems, areas where FEMA needs significant work. But for the most part, these are areas that nobody has been talking about; they were never among the most serious charges made against FEMA Director Michael "Brownie" Brown or President Bush by overanxious Democrats.
For example, the report notes that FEMA lacked an "asset visibility program," by which they appear to mean a database that would allow federal, state, and local responders to know what commodities and personnel were available or on the way. This would certainly be a huge help for future disasters... but I don't recall Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) or Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco complaining about the lack of a database.
What about those levees? The biggest lapse in FEMA's response was indeed with regard to the levees; but it came in the form of a communications breakdown between the field offices and headquarters:
DHS’ Secretary and key FEMA officials said that they did not learn of the first breach of the New Orleans levees until almost 24 hours after it occurred. FEMA staff learned of the breach the morning of August 29, 2005, at the FEMA Operations Center and, separately, through Public Affairs staff that afternoon. The HSOC also received the report through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, the information was not included in the DHS Situation Report until the morning of August 30, 2005, and in the FEMA National Situation Update and National Situation Report until August 31, 2005.
Regardless of when the breaches formally found their way into FEMA reports, it's clear that "boots on the ground" were well aware of the flooding and were dealing with the situation almost as soon as it happened.
Hurricane Katrina made its first landfall in Florida on August 26th at 6:30 pm; it was only a Cat-1 hurricane at that time, and there was little damage. Then it careened back out to sea and picked up strength.
It made its second landfall (the big one) on August 29th at 7:10 am in southeast Louisiana, this time as a Cat-4. Two hours later, the levees were breached. But as soon as the winds died down -- which was right around the time the levees broke -- federal emergency search and rescue, evacuation, and medical teams were already on the ground.
While federal and state coordination in Louisiana was bad (and the New Orleans emergency response was abysmal), Democrats just cannot argue that the federal response was slow. The feds were already on the ground, pre-positioned, and they began rescue operations as soon as it was physically possible to do so... as this report makes brutally clear.
The failures that did occur were higher-order problems that would only become apparent in the aftermath of a catastrophe the size of Katrina.
That they tried to shift responsibility to the states
In fact, FEMA's response in Mississippi and Alabama was markedly better than in Louisiana, and the report indicates (delicately) that this is mostly due to the competent response in the first two -- in contrast with the marked failure of Louisiana's state and local responders to coordinate with FEMA. What we have here is failure to communicate:
Incident command system (ICS) structures and unified command were implemented with varying levels of success in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana during the response to Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi immediately implemented a comprehensive ICS structure and integrated federal, state, and local personnel at all levels in a unified command. Alabama implemented an ICS structure, but at a smaller scale because Hurricane Katrina did not cause the level of damage in Alabama that it did in Mississippi and Louisiana. Louisiana experienced difficulty with fully implementing an ICS structure and establishing a unified command with federal, state, and local officials.
In particular, the Superdome fiasco is emblematic of the state and local failure in Louisiana:
Prior to landfall, FEMA pre-staged five trucks of water and two trucks of MREs at the Superdome. In addition, we were told, a few trucks of commodities were delivered to the Superdome after landfall. However, the unexpected large number of evacuees arriving at the Superdome and other locations within the city was not anticipated nor adequately planned for by state and local authorities. The limited commodities quickly became depleted, people with special needs were not addressed, various stages of civil unrest ensued, and FEMA responders pulled out of the Superdome until order and security could be restored.
Contrast this with the responses in Mississippi and Alabama, the other two states hit hard by the hurricane. Mississippi, under Gov. Haley Barbour (former chairman of the Republican National Committee), did the best:
FEMA’s FCO [Federal Coordinating Officer] and Mississippi’s State Coordinating Officer immediately established a unified command with a comprehensive ICS [Incident Command System] structure. Prior to landfall, FEMA’s Emergency Response Team-Advanced arrived at the state’s EOC [Emergency Operations Center] and began coordinating commodities and personnel for the response. FEMA and state officials told us that after landfall, federal, state, and local counterparts integrated and worked side-by-side to manage the response....
The ICS structure established in Mississippi [by the state] included geographic branches and divisions, and authority was delegated to personnel at the division level. In addition to establishing a unified command with federal, state, and local response personnel, the structure allowed FEMA, state, and local emergency management officials to manage Hurricane Katrina response efforts even though existing resources were overwhelmed according to FEMA and state officials.
Alabama did well too; under Republican Gov. Bob Riley, the state was prepared and flexible in its response to Hurricane Katrina:
FEMA and Alabama Emergency Management Agency personnel worked from the beginning to establish joint objectives and priorities. Joint incident action plans were developed also. Alabama’s FCO recognized that Department of Defense assistance would not be required and, two days after landfall, released the Defense Coordinating Element so it could move to Mississippi for future support operations.
Given the extreme difference in the state responses of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, it is perfectly fair to note that Louisiana, under Gov. Blanco and New Orleans under Mayor Ray Nagin were particularly inept, sluggish, and confused. While not every problem was Louisiana's fault -- there were federal problems, and many of the travails of that state were beyond the control of any mortal -- Louisiana state and New Orleans local governments must shoulder the lion's share of the blame... not the feds, who have never been the primary actors in natural disasters.
What's it all mean?
In the end, the report found many areas where FEMA in particular and the entire federal disaster response in general needed improvement; but they agreed with Big Lizards and most of the rest of the right-side of the blogosphere that the particular charges by Democrats that the Bush response was "dangerously incompetent" were just flatly wrong.
They of course expressed no opinion on the motives of Democrats in bearing such false witness... but I think rampant BDS and the Permanent Democratic Campaign Mode are the most likely suspects.
November 25, 2005
What's Flu With You?
Recently we have been hearing about this mysterious Bird Flu from Southeast Asia. Some prophets of doom say it has already spread to epidemic proportions in China, and that it will soon spread across the globe. Dire predictions warn of a worse pandemic than the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
But science reporter Michael Fumento challenges the conventional wisdom. “As of November 9, 125 cases and 64 deaths have been reported from avian flu since late 2003," Fumento writes; "all in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia." So far, at least, the Avian Flu is a bust in the pandemic sweepstakes.
Scientists have determined that, like the 1918 flu, the virus in the current Bird Flu does jump from birds to humans. But what has not yet been seen is a single case where the new H5N1 influenza virus was transmitted from human to human... which was what made the World War I Spanish Flu so deadly. H5N1 (H5, for short) is very different from the Spanish Flu.
Sir John Skehel, a lead researcher of the National Institute for Medical Research team, which studied the 1918 strain in great detail, told BBC News Online:
"[O]ur research will not have an immediate impact on the situation currently unfolding in the Far East with the chicken flu known as H5, since, from our previous work, we know that the 1918 and the H5 Hemagglutinins are quite different."
I believe that the reason all reported cases of H5 in humans come from rural Asian communities is that in those places, birds ranchers practically live with the birds. Bloody, dripping birds are routinely sold in the street without any kind of refrigeration or sanitation. I remember a number of years ago, many Japanese restaurants had dead ducks, feathers and all, dangling from hooks on the outside walls. But in developed countries like the United States, we raise, slaughter, and store poultry quite differently (freezers are a wonderful invention); these sanitary procedures help prevent bird-to-human infection. So from what I've read, I believe that unless the virus mutates to transmit human-to-human, H5 will not cause a pandemic in the developed world.
That is not to say that H5 won't suddenly mutate, as the Spanish Flu did. So, what is wrong with warning the population? Shouldn't we err on the side of caution? There is plenty wrong, Fumento says.
What we can say with confidence is that there is never such a thing as helpful hysteria. And the line between informing the public and starting a panic is being crossed every day now by politicians, public health officials, and journalists.
Headlines like "Flu Pandemic Could Kill 150 Million, U.N. Warns" (Reuters) certainly haven't helped. Never mind that the figure was tossed off by a single official who provided a range of "5 million to 150 million." (Translation: "We haven't the foggiest.") Similarly, the media have generally morphed the federal government's estimate of 200,000 to 1.9 million deaths to simply "1.9 million deaths." Also not helping is the media propensity to seek out the most alarmist "experts." [Emphasis added here and below]
But, how likely is it that a mutated virus will start to infect the human population? Fumento again:
There are no pat formulas, such as the chances of shooting snake eyes or drawing a royal flush. Nor is it just a matter of time. Indeed, one of the arguments against a human outbreak of H5N1 is that sick birds have been mixing with humans for years now without producing a pandemic.
It's practically a state secret that the discovery of H5N1 in poultry dates back not to 1997 but rather to 1959, when it was identified in Scottish chickens. Perhaps haggis had a protective effect on the farmers, but there was a terrible outbreak of the related H5N2 among both chickens and turkeys in Pennsylvania in 1983-85 (17 million birds were destroyed) that appears to have originated as H5N1 in seagulls. So H5N1 has been flying around the globe for over four decades and hasn't done a number on us yet. That doesn't mean it won't ever; but there's absolutely no reason to think it will pick this year or next.
However, just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn't mean it never will. This is hardly reassuring. Can’t we do something to help prevent a repeat of 1918?
The simplest prophylactic action would be to vaccinate all domestic birds. But considering the vast numbers of the bird population and the difficulty catching them to give them shots, it's highly doubtful this could be done. A more practical program is to minimize the contacts between birds and humans.
- Developing countries should adopt the procedures used by developed countries to raise domesticated poultry.
But what about mutations? If the flu mutates into a human-to-human infection, that will spread much faster than Bird Flu spreads today; most people have no contact with potentially infected birds... but everybody has contact with other humans.
In fact there is something we can do to minimize the possibility of mutation. There are two ways that the virus can mutate. The first is simply by random chance; but this is unlikely to produce a particular mutation -- human-to-human contagion, in this case.
But the other route to mutation is by contact with another strain of the virus. If a human who is already infected with any other human flu that spreads by human-to-human contact also contracts the H5N1, the two viruses can merge and form a completely different, so-called hybrid flu. The hybrid can combine the symptoms of H5 with the human-to-human contagion of the other flu.
- So to avoid hybrid flu, vaccinate as many humans as possible. We can do this without getting into a panic mode.
We can also minimize the spread of flu, even if a mutation occurs and H5 actually starts to transmit between humans. It makes perfect sense to take the same precautions we already take for any other flu.
- If you contract the flu, take medication that “reduces the duration and severity of acute human influenza” and stay in bed, away from other people.
As Michael Fumento notes,
Both Tamiflu and Relenza should be taken as soon as flu symptoms become evident, preferably within two days, although at least one animal study showed Tamiflu was still helpful long after what's normally considered the "window of opportunity." It's also okay to take them if it's known that avian flu is truly on the wing.
Of course if the flu is as lethal as they say it is (some claim a 50% mortality rate), none of these measures would be enough. But is it? Fumento argues that the lethality of this flu is exaggerated:
We do know, however, that there are millions of Asian farmers in constant contact with the saliva and feces of countless birds where the virus has been prevalent. Indeed, blood samples collected from rural Chinese in 1992 indicate that millions had already been infected with H5N1, yet there was no reported outbreak of human disease. An analysis was also conducted after an H7N7 avian flu outbreak in the Netherlands two years ago. It found infections among half of persons who either had contact with the birds or were family members. Were something like that rate to hold true for Southeast Asia, H5N1's mortality rate among infected humans would turn out to be no higher than for human flu.
The 50% lethality rate assumes that the 125 known cases are the only ones that have actually occurred; 64 deaths divided by 125 cases equals 51.2% mortality. But what if there have been hundreds or even thousands of other infections -- and the victims simply got over it? How would we know that they had H5, rather than a normal flu? Typically, doctors only know a person has Avian Flu if he is admitted to a hospital or other health-care center; but that would only happen if the infection became very dire indeed (rural farmers in the Third World don't go to hospital unless they're very, very sick for a very long time). So the H5 infections we hear about are exactly those that are so severe that death is not surprising. We would never hear about the milder cases.
But we always come back to the Spanish Flu. It did kill about 50 million people. How can Fumento be so confident that will not happen again? We have more people in the world. We have better and faster transportation (which spreads the disease quicker). If H5 spreads anything like the Spanish Flu did, the result would be much worse today. Or would it?
Odds are that the Spanish Flu would not have become a pandemic if it happened today. In 1918, the world was in the midst of WWI. Millions of young people from all over the world, many from rural areas with very little immunity to urban disease, gathered into congested military bases, then were shipped to faraway countries. You can almost track the epidemic in lockstep with the movements of American and English troops. Soldiers were stuck in trenches without adequate access to medical treatment and in daily intimate contact with all the other soldiers... a laboratory-perfect prescription for spreading disease. But none of these conditions exists now.
Avian Flu or any other kind of flu should not be treated lightly. But we have means to deal with this disease. Running around like “infected” chickens with their heads cut off is not one of them.
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