October 05, 2005

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.


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While I agree with most of your views on the military involvement in the Katrina relief, it was my understanding that the military were not allowed to carry ammunitions for their guns. So, though they walked around with their usual M-16's and sidearms, nothing was loaded, which would obviously put them at a serious disadvantage against any hypothetical bands of armed criminals.

And on another note related to relaxation of military authority on US soil, there was a good deal of (good) news this morning that Bush's proposal to do exactly that is meeting a strong backlash.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on October 5, 2005 10:51 AM

Oh, and on a completely unrelated note, I thought you might find these stories interesting.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on October 5, 2005 10:55 AM

I was not aware that they were unarmed. That seems bizarre to me. Walking around with unloaded guns seems more dangerous than not having guns at all. Do you have a link to that story?

Posted by Mano Singham on October 5, 2005 11:12 AM

All good points, but hindsight is 20/20. Yes, the reports are now being discovered to be mostly erroneous, but had the events depicted actually been true, there would be less of an outcry now.

The military was concerned that ill-trained, scared, young national guard troops might make the situation worse *IF* everything being reported was actually happening (rapes, murders, shots at helicopters, etc). I can't say that I blame them.

Suppose all the reports of violence were true and that the military had done more to quell these actions - would you not then decry them for being bullies? It sounds lose-lose to me.

Posted by Barry on October 5, 2005 01:57 PM

I don't have any authoritative source for the soldiers being unarmed, but it is at least a first hand account. I read about it in a friend's blog who volunteered to set up communications equipment to help relief efforts (he spent ~6 months doing the same in Iraq earlier this year, too). According to that entry, he says it's the same Posse Comitatus law you reference that is the reason they were unarmed.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on October 5, 2005 02:25 PM

Oh, but according to the notes he put on the picture, it sounds like the soldier in question did have ammunition, but it was in his pocket. I'd not realized that before.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on October 5, 2005 02:29 PM


Thanks for the link. If you follow the link to the wikipedia article, there are links at the bottom to other articles on the Posse Comitatus law. The application of the law is a bit complicated but it seems like there are exceptions to the law to deal with times of unrest. What the miliatry cannot do seems to be certain police functions like arrest and jail people.

Posted by Mano Singham on October 5, 2005 02:44 PM


I admit that the decisions are not easy to make. I am not suggesting that they should have gone in with guns blazing, which would definitely have been an over-reaction. In fact, I am in general opposed to the use of military force in civilian situations.

What I am saying is that it seems clear that the decisions were being made on the basis of the safety of the troops and not on the safety of the people that the troops are supposed to protect.

Posted by Mano Singham on October 5, 2005 02:52 PM

I do remember hearing, during the days immediately following the hurricane, that authorities 'needed to stop the looters' before food would be brought in... and even then, even thinking that the accounts of total lawlessness were true, I thought, "what an assinine plan! Why do they think there are looters at all?"

In response to Barry's comment, I agree that military action could have resulted in 'another Kent State' - but the more I look at the facts, the role of race/class fear is far too prevelant to be ignored. No one went in and CHECKED to see if these stories were true. If they were true - why is it more important to protect the military from BAD PR than to protect innocent civilians who are suffering? If it had turned out that there WAS rampant violence, why do we feel this would 'excuse' the government response? Isn't their primary mission, their ultimate, only mission, to protect American citizens against all enemies, foreign or domestic? You telling me they couldn't fathom that any street thug wading through the ravished city would have the presence of mind to know that shooting government troops, even warning shots in the air, will get his sorry ass killed?

And although it's easy to say and hard to prove, I do not think a prodominantly white, suburban group would have ellicited such fear.

I was recently at a hotel in Tulsa, chatting pleasantly with a stranger in the pool, and the subject of Katrina came up and I commented on some friends of mine whose home was flooded, and who had come back to Cleveland temporarily. This stranger's first (and only) question was, "Are they white?"
"Um... yeah," I said, wondering what that had to do with the price of tea in China.
"Good thing they got out," He said - and it was clear in his tone that he felt the situation in New Orleans was somehow MORE dangerous for white people.
I know this is just one anctidote, but... my god! It's not the first time in my life I've heard people imply or state outright that a white person wouldn't be safe in such-and-such a place, as though there were some sort of ongoing race war in this countty, when if anything, it's the minorities who have much to fear stepping into our affluent neighborhoods.

Posted by Marie Vibbert on October 5, 2005 02:56 PM