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Location: Montgomery Area, Alabama, United States

Former BUFF driver; self-styled military historian; paid (a lot) to write about beating plowshares into swords; NOT Foamy the Squirrel, contrary to all appearances. Wesleyan Jihadi Name: Sibling Railgun of Reasoned Discourse

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Katrina: What the Media Missed

From investigative reporter Lou Dolinar at Real Clear Politics comes the fascinating and surprising story of what really went on during the first days of the Katrina crisis last year. The National Guard and Coast Guard were on the scene from the first and had things as well in hand as was possible given the circumstances. The truth about immediate efforts in the wake of Katrina is much more positive than we have been led to believe:

Remember the dozens, maybe hundreds, of rapes, murders, stabbings and deaths resulting from official neglect at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina? The ones that never happened, as even the national media later admitted?

Sure, we all remember the original reporting, if not the back-pedaling.

Here's another one: Do you remember the dramatic TV footage of National Guard helicopters landing at the Superdome as soon as Katrina passed, dropping off tens of thousands saved from certain death? The corpsmen running with stretchers, in an echo of M*A*S*H, carrying the survivors to ambulances and the medical center? About how the operation, which also included the Coast Guard, regular military units, and local first responders, continued for more than a week?

Me neither. Except that it did happen, and got at best an occasional, parenthetical mention in the national media. The National Guard had its headquarters for Katrina, not just a few peacekeeping troops, in what the media portrayed as the pit of Hell. Hell was one of the safest places to be in New Orleans, smelly as it was. The situation was always under control, not surprisingly because the people in control were always there.

From the Dome, the Louisiana Guard's main command ran at least 2,500 troops who rode out the storm inside the city, a dozen emergency shelters, 200-plus boats, dozens of high-water vehicles, 150 helicopters, and a triage and medical center that handled up to 5,000 patients (and delivered 7 babies). The Guard command headquarters also coordinated efforts of the police, firefighters and scores of volunteers after the storm knocked out local radio, as well as other regular military and other state Guard units.

Jack Harrison, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia, cited "10,244 sorties flown, 88,181 passengers moved, 18,834 cargo tons hauled, 17,411 saves" by air. Unlike the politicians, they had a working chain of command that commandeered more relief aid from other Guard units outside the state. From day one.


"The Coast Guard, the National Guard, the military in general performed heroically," said Sen. Robert Barham, R-Oak Ridge, who monitored the Superdome operation from Baton Rouge as head of the Louisiana State Senate's Homeland Security Committee. His opposite number in the Louisiana House, Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said, "They (the Guard) did a yeoman's job." Both said they were getting very different pictures from TV than they got from the Guardsmen at the Dome, and the state fish and wildlife department, another key player in the rescue operation.

"TV of the Superdome was perplexing to most folks," Thompson said. "You had them playing the tapes of the same incidents over and over, it tends to bias your thinking some, you tend to think it's worse than it really is." Official estimates at this point suggest the Guard, working from the Dome, saved 17,000 by air and uncounted thousands more by boat.

Let's try that again: The cavalry wasn't late. It didn't arrive on Thursday smoking a cigar and cussing. It was there all along.


I initially heard about the Dome headquarters from Maj. John T. Dressler, who serves with the National Guard Bureau in Washington D.C, an organization that coordinates efforts of State Guard units which serve under their respective governors. Dressler was present in the command tent there and pulled together after-action reports for the Guard as a whole from its fifty-plus individual state commands. His account was so far at variance with the picture the media portrayed that I suspected a hoax, as did my RCP editor. As it turns out, various Guard documents, personal memories, and sworn testimony support his story, which in Louisiana is no great secret. It's just the rest of the country that's been kept in the dark.


In all this time, Dressler said, "We didn't see a single camera crew or reporter on the scene. Maybe someone was there with a cell phone or a digital camera but I didn't see anyone." This was in the headquarters area. Maj. Ed Bush, meanwhile, did start seeing reporters on Tuesday and Wednesday, but inside the Dome, most were interested in confirming the stacks of bodies in the freezers, interviews with rape victims, he said, and other mayhem that never happened. He pitched the rescue angle and no one was interested. A few reporters and film crews did hitch rides on helicopters, came back, and produced stories of people stuck on rooftops, not stories about rescues, he said.


Neither Maj. Bush nor Dressler saw TV until the end of the week. They were aghast. Apart from sporadic mentions, the most significant note taken of this gigantic operation was widespread reporting of the rumor that a sniper had fired on a helicopter. What were termed evacuations in some cases, rescue operations in others, were said to have been halted as a result. "I never knew how badly we were being killed in the media," Maj. Ed Bush says. In reality, the only shots fired at the Guard were purely metaphorical and originated with the media. Rescues continued 24/7 at a furious pace.

In the end, the media timeline was exactly backwards. The bulk of all rescues took place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and began tapering off on Thursday, officials say. Their account is buttressed by a Washington Post poll of survivors, which indicates that 75 percent of the survivors who had been trapped and rescued were picked by Thursday, and virtually all were picked up by the end of the week.

In other words, by the time the clichéd "long-awaited help" arrived, in the form of a visually-stimulating cigar being chomped by a cussing Lt. General Russel L. Honore, the worst was over. The majority of trapped survivors were out of the direst straits and awaiting evacuation.


They were, in other words, on the scene, and they knew exactly the grotesqueries in the Dome and in the rest of the city. The priorities were search, rescue and lifesaving, not the comfort level of survivors they rescued who they knew would survive somehow if they sorted out the sick from the healthy. It looked brutal on TV, but it was effective, giving a whole new meaning to that venerable military cliché "quick and dirty."

Someone should have told them that's not how real Americans are supposed to act when they could be on national television. But they weren't watching TV, so they didn't even have a political or PR motive to appear to be doing something. They were too busy.


--Why wasn't the Superdome evacuated sooner? National Guard officials on the scene saw no need for it until Thursday, and they were right. First, all resources at their disposal were, quite correctly, focused on search and rescue and lifesaving, rather than on re-supply and the comfort level of those saved. Had they deployed helicopters for marginal tasks, people still stuck on rooftops or languishing in powerless hospitals would have died. When rescues began to taper off on Thursday, they began to shift resources to evacuation. In other words, they had a plan: rescue, triage, hydrate, evacuate. Not exactly rocket science, but if you leave out the rescue and triage part, as the national media did, the rest makes no sense. The Guard spent the week after Katrina in an exquisite balancing act between the needs of healthy survivors in the Dome, the care of the sick and injured in the Arena, and hauling in the tens of thousands who faced death on rooftops and in attics. Then they could worry about getting the hell out of town.

Read the whole thing.

Much of the scandal that arose around the federal response was mendaciously fanned by a mainstream media establishment that is implaccably hostile to the current Administration and would do anything -- even malign and ignore the heroic efforts of the state and federal personnel who were working around the clock in the immediate aftermath of the storm -- to discredit it.


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