Home > Political Ranting > Damned If You Don’t, Damned If You Do

Damned If You Don’t, Damned If You Do

September 23rd, 2005

After Katrina, right-wing blogs started attacking New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin because he didn’t arrange a complete bus evacuation with only 29 hours’ warning. There still isn’t a public answer to why that didn’t happen–there might have been many reasons not to, like not enough time, not enough drivers, no way to bus people with special needs–but that didn’t stop conservatives from harshly criticizing Nagin. In part, undoubtedly, it was because Nagin made that famous radio call in which he criticized Bush for having press conferences when he should have been sending buses and other assistance. Then the photo of the flooded school buses came out, and the wingnuts jumped all over that gleefully, as if to say, “we’ve got art!

When Rita came storming in, you can bet any number of mayors in the storm’s potential path wanted to do anything to avoid being burned in effigy like Nagin was. After all, they had several days’ warning that the storm was coming in full speed, unlike with Katrina, not to mention they had the hard example of Katrina to set a fire under them to do something, anything, and fast. But that leads to other problems.

Now, the people who flamed Nagin for not busing people out almost certainly had no idea what they were talking about, the kind of logistics involved, what is necessary to do the job, and what dangers and drawbacks there might be. They didn’t much care, their goal was not to be precise or logical, it was to attack politically. But as a result, public pressure now is decidedly on city officials to bus people out who can’t get out by themselves–probably in many if not most cases doing so without having thought the idea out thoroughly. And in the process, we may have discovered another possible reason why it was ruled out in New Orleans, in addition to all the other reasons: it can kill people.

In Texas, near Dallas, a bus carrying 45 elderly people from a nursing home in Houston burst into flames. It appears that the brakes caught fire, and then the oxygen tanks of some of the passengers exploded. It is estimated that 24 people on the bus died in the incident.

Was it really necessary to resort to such means to make these people safe? In the gridlocked traffic, these people had already been on the bus overnight. Had all the safety implications been thought out, or had politicians simply been afraid of accusations of not using buses and ignored such issues? Was the busing, without proper equipment, really necessary? After all, many of the people who had decent shelter and yet perished in New Orleans did so because the rescue efforts which should have come within 48 hours took five days. It may have been wiser to have them take local shelter, and then evacuate when the hopefully-now-alert rescue operations could bring them out with less risk.

Maybe I’m wrong here. Maybe this was a freak accident and taking dozens of people with oxygen gear onto a normal bus is considered safe. But I’d be interested in knowing a definitive answer, just as I’d be interested in knowing if Nagin and the city planners had good reasons for their actions, or if they were indeed derelict and inept. But I do know one thing: if I were a family member of one of those people who died on that bus, I would stop at little to find the answer to that question. Politics should not dictate evacuation measures.

Update: a New York Times article gives a lot more detail. The bus was privately owned and operated, hired by the nursing home to move the patients, but the patients were moved at the urging of local fire officials, who told them to transfer the patients due to flooding concerns; it is still not clear whether the city or the nursing home decided to move the patients out of the city instead of finding local shelter. And while there are regulations about moving oxygen containers on aircraft and trains, there may not be any regulations at this time about doing so on buses–though I would expect that might change after this event.

Categories: Political Ranting Tags: by
Comments are closed.