Disaster

There’s obviously a lot more going on in the world than I’ve been blogging about. I pick topics not based on whether they’re important, but on whether I have something to say. I don’t know much about the Middle East, so what could I say about the struggle for freedom there? What could I say about the Christchurch earthquake?

I hope all those people come out of this okay.

I really have nothing to say.

I blog about justice and economics and freedom and government perfidy, but the disaster in Haiti right now has little to do with any of those things.

I could probably find a way to link the disaster or the relief effort to one or more of my favorite topics, and soon I probably will. But for now…

For now I think we just let the governments and aid organizations do their thing.

The anonymous multi-author blog Popehat has a lot of good stuff, but earlier this week, blogger “Patrick” posted some irresponsible alarmist claptrap that I cannot in good conscience allow to remain unanswered. I’m talking, of course, about his long-winded and poorly-reasoned discourse on the so-called “zombie apocalypse.”

Patrick tries to frame the debate as a question of whether we should be more frightened of slow-moving or fast-moving zombies, apparently hoping we will blindly accept the preposterous premise that zombies are an existential threat to humanity.

The best depiction of such things in action comes from the films of George Romero, specifically Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead (avoid the shoddy and inferior “remake”), and Day of the Dead, cautionary fables based in actual fact, concerning the remote but ever-present possibility of worldwide holocaust at the hands of the hungry dead.

I’m not a zombie denialist, and I certainly have no sympathy for the zombie coddlers who advocate we follow a live-and-let-rot policy. Nevertheless, zombie outbreaks are purely a local problem. Talk of a “worldwide holocaust” is at best misinformed and at worst a deliberate manipulation for political or financial gain.

There are six main reasons there won’t be a zombie apocalypse.

The first reason is the simplest to understand, and it provides the title of this blog post. Zombies will not overcome humanity because we can shoot them in the head. Or chop their heads off, or blow them up, or crush them under the wheels of a truck…anything, really, that stops the brainstem from controlling the body.

This always works. In every account of a zombie outbreak, regardless of whether the zombies are fast or slow, regardless of whether they are caused by an infection which makes people violently insane or whether they are truly the risen dead, shooting them in the head always, always ends the threat.

And the really great thing about shooting zombies in the head is that everybody knows about it. In every new zombie movie, the hapless victims may gape in slack-jawed fear at the zombies’ resistance to damage, but the audience is yelling “Shoot them in the head!” at the screen.

(Documents recently declassified by the Obama administration reveal that the “two to the chest, one to the head” police gunfight tactic introduced in the 1980’s was not driven by fear of assailants wearing body armor as claimed in the training manuals, but was in fact part of a DOD civil defense initiative intended to covertly prepare first responders for zombie outbreaks.)

The second reason there won’t be a zombie apocalypse is the inverse of the first. When you think about it, it shouldn’t be so surprising that a bullet to the head works on zombies, because a bullet to the head works on a lot of problems, including people. We’re as vulnerable to a headshot as the zombies are. But here’s the important part: Zombies don’t shoot people in the head.

That’s because zombies are not tool users. They show almost no sign of being able to use weapons, and in the few reported cases of weapon use, they were largely ineffective. Some dim memory of humanity may allow a zombie to fire a gun, but there is no evidence that they have the forethought, wisdom, or manual dexterity to load a gun.

The third reason there won’t be a zombie apocalypse is revealed in the walking v.s. running debate: Some zombies may follow you in a slow walk, and some zombies may charge you in a dead run, but no zombie is ever going drive a car to catch you. The most advanced motorized conveyance ever used by zombies is a shopping mall escalator.

So when the living dead come after us, we can just hop in our cars and drive away, while the army drives a few battalions of troops into the heart of the zombie infestation to shoot them in the head.

Whenever I lecture on the importance of not overstating the zombie problem, the most common objection is that since our dead will turn into zombies, the more of us they kill, the larger their army grows. They will get stronger as we get weaker, until they outnumber us.

The truth—and the fourth reason there won’t be a zombie apocalypse—is that we vastly outnumber them, and we always will.

Sure, when someone dies during an ongoing zombie incident, there’s a possibility that their body will rise up to become another zombie, but the idea that people killed by zombies will turn into zombies is a fiction that irresponsible film makers have foisted on the public. It makes for great drama when someone receives a mortal wound from a zombie, but limps back to his brothers in arms, only to die and rise as a zombie against them. But in real life—as both the film makers and the they-will-outnumber-us alarmists are conveniently forgetting—it almost never happens that way.

The reality is that most zombie-caused fatalites are due to an individual’s being outnumbered and overwhelmed by the undead, with the inevitable result that the victim is eaten. It’s kind of hard to rise from the dead when your flesh has been stripped away by a ravenous hoard of ghouls. This is especially true when the zombies are the brain-eating variety, since having their brains eaten is provably just as bad for zombies as shooting them in the head.

The fifth reason there won’t be a zombie apocalypse is that zombie resurrection can be prevented by routine public health practices with regard to disposal of dead bodies. The CDC recommends that bodies should be disposed of by direct cremation in times of zombie infestations. If convenient cremation is unavailable, or if families object, hospital personnel (or first responders in the even of an unattended death) can discretely sever the deceased’s spinal cord at the base of the skull.

At the risk of repeating myself, I should also point out that in emergency situations, the responsible state agencies—or even groups of concerned citizens—can quell zombie activity among human casualties by shooting them in the head.

The sixth reason there won’t be a zombie apocalypse is that zombies just aren’t very effective combatants. In addition to not employing weapons or vehicles as force multipliers, zombies lack coordination at even the tactical level, and they are incapable of developing and promulgating evolving combat doctrines.

In the 1940’s the free world beat back the industrialized might of Germany and Japan, and throughout the remainder of the century we were prepared to do the same to the Soviet Union. By comparison, zombies are a weak, disorganized, low-tech threat, comparable to terrorists or small insurgencies at best.

Even that gives us too much credit, because insurgent warriors can sometimes fend off a large industrialized opponent by hiding out among the general population and only attacking when they are certain to obtain a tactical victory. Through this process, they wear down the morale of their opponent’s civilian population or the will of their government until the opponent eventually gives them what they want.

This is standard revolutionary doctrine, but it won’t work for the zombie hoards because (a) they lack a sense of a common goal, (b) they are unable to restrain themselves from attacking even in cases where they will clearly lose, (c) they are unable to hide among the general population, and (d) no matter how far our morale drops, we’re never going to give them what they want, because what they want is to eat us.

For all these reasons, zombies are not a significant threat to national or species security. Zombies victories are almost always the result of an unexpected outbreak hitting a small group of people. Once the alarm is sounded and professional counterzombie forces are brought to bear on the problem, it is quickly resolved. At the end of the day, we just have to shoot them in the head. 

These amazing photos of the I-35w Bridge Collapse in Minnesota were taken by Tim Davis. He has a civil engineering background, so his photos really show the enormous force it takes to bend and break something as strong as a road bridge.

As Davis points out, this isn’t some chaotic and unavoidable act of nature like an earthquake or a hurricane. This is engineering. The bridge collapsed for a reason.

Teams of engineers and scientists are already searching for the reason. I have no doubt they will find it.

And they will find the people responsible, too.

(Hat tip: Sharon.)

“I’m turning in my resignation today…I think it’s in the best interest of the agency and the best interest of the president to do that and get the media focused on the good things that are going on, instead of me.”

That’s Mike Brown resigning as the Director of FEMA. Man, I’ll bet he’d like the media to focus on something else…

(Hat Tip: Hit & Run.)

According to an AP wire story by Ted Bridis, former horse-show manager and current FEMA director Mike Brown… Wait a minute! What was that?

The FEMA web site gives Mike Brown’s history as follows:

Prior to joining FEMA, Mr. Brown practiced law in Colorado and Oklahoma, where he served as a bar examiner on ethics and professional responsibility for the Oklahoma Supreme Court and as a hearing examiner for the Colorado Supreme Court. He had been appointed as a special prosecutor in police disciplinary matters. While attending law school he was appointed by the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee of the Oklahoma Legislature as the Finance Committee Staff Director, where he oversaw state fiscal issues. His background in state and local government also includes serving as an assistant city manager with emergency services oversight and as a city councilman.

Now, I had rather assumed that the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency had some background in, well, emergency management. Not to disrespect any of the fine legal bloggers I read every day, but when the levee breaks, my first thought is not that I’ve got to call a lawyer for help. Brown’s only emergency experience seems to be his oversight of emergency services for a city they don’t bother to name.

This is disappointing. But it gets worse. The Boston Herald is reporting that Brown’s official history is missing an item:

Before joining the Bush administration in 2001, Brown spent 11 years as the commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association, a breeders’ and horse-show organization based in Colorado.

“We do disciplinary actions, certification of (show trial) judges. We hold classes to train people to become judges and stewards. And we keep records,” explained a spokeswoman for the IAHA commissioner’s office. “This was his full-time job . . . for 11 years,” she added.

Brown was forced out of the position after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures.

“He was asked to resign,” Bill Pennington, president of the IAHA at the time, confirmed last night.

Soon after, Brown was invited to join the administration by his old Oklahoma college roommate Joseph Allbaugh, the previous head of FEMA until he quit in 2003 to work for the president’s re-election campaign.

Yeah. Fired from running horse shows.

Anyway…

According to an AP wire story by Ted Bridis, former horse-show manager and current FEMA director Mike Brown didn’t request additional personnel until several hours after Katrina made landfall:

WASHINGTON – The government’s disaster chief waited until hours after Hurricane Katrina had already struck the Gulf Coast before asking his boss to dispatch 1,000 Homeland Security employees to the region—and gave them two days to arrive, according to internal documents.

Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sought the approval from Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff roughly five hours after Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29. Brown said that among duties of these employees was to “convey a positive image” about the government’s response for victims.

I’m thinking that whole “positive image” thing isn’t working out for them.

Of course, what’s the point of taking your time to send help when other people are more on the ball? Gotta do something about that:

The same day Brown wrote Chertoff, Brown also urged local fire and rescue departments outside Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi not to send trucks or emergency workers into disaster areas without an explicit request for help from state or local governments. Brown said it was vital to coordinate fire and rescue efforts.

And when you do get rescue workers from outside, you wouldn’t want their heroic efforts to overshadow your big important government agency:

As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded on national television for firefighters – his own are exhausted after working around the clock for a week – a battalion of highly trained men and women sat idle Sunday in a muggy Sheraton Hotel conference room in Atlanta.

Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers.

Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers and a phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.

So far, I’ve been willing to give FEMA the benefit of the doubt. The rescue effort is a gigantic operation, and I’m not surprised that it took a while. However, I’m beginning to have my doubts. Via Brendan Loy’s excellant hurricane coverage, comes a link to a quote by FEMA Director Mike Brown:

“Saturday and Sunday, we thought it was a typical hurricane situation — not to say it wasn’t going to be bad, but that the water would drain away fairly quickly…Then the levees broke and (we had) this lawlessness. That almost stopped our efforts….Katrina was much larger than we expected.”

Well, Brendan Loy’s got a copy of a bulletin from the National Weather Service:

URGENT – WEATHER MESSAGE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA 413 PM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005

…EXTREMELY DANGEROUS HURRICANE KATRINA CONTINUES TO APPROACH THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER DELTA… …DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED…

MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS…PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL…LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.

THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL. PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE…INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.

HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY…A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT.

AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD…AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS…PETS…AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.

POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS…AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.

THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING…BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE KILLED.

The National Weather Service is not known for their lurid writing, so you’ve got to wonder what parts of “devastating damage” or “uninhabitable for weeks” or “human suffering incredible by modern standards” did Director Brown have trouble understanding?

Also, a few hours after that bulletin, Katrina was re-assessed as a slightly smaller hurricane. It made landfall a little further east than expected, so the effect on New Orleans wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Believe it or not, what really happened is that Katrina wasn’t quite as bad as originally expected.

I’m getting pretty tired of hearing the Mayor of New Orleans whining about the rescue effort:

The mayor of New Orleans made an impassioned plea for help on Friday as tens of thousands of people remained stranded in the flooded city. Ray Nagin, in a radio interview, said: “I need reinforcements. I need troops, man. I need 500 buses, man. Now get off your asses and fix this. Let’s do something and let’s fix the biggest goddam crisis in the history of this country.”

He castigated the government’s failure to help those stranded in the city by Hurricane Katrina…

20050902-DeadlyKatrina.jpg

It’s about time you paid attention, Ray. The National Hurricane Center was issuing increasingly severe warnings since about Thursday. The Governor of Louisiana declared a state of emergency on Friday. Blogger Brendan Loy (from whom I stole this frightening picture of Katrina’s enormous size) was calling for an evacuation late Saturday night, then again about 7am Sunday morning:

What the hell is the point of even having such a thing as “mandatory evacuations,” if you’re not going to order them right now (or better yet, about 24 hours ago) for New Orleans, Gulfport and Biloxi?!? Don’t the officials down there get it?!? ONE OF THE MOST INTENSE HURRICANES IN RECORDED HISTORY IS 24 HOURS AWAY FROM QUITE POSSIBLY DESTROYING THEIR CITIES!!!

If it’s not appropriate to order a mandatory evacuation now, when would it ever be appropriate to do so?!? A huge, still-strengthening Category 5 hurricane… a high-confidence forecast track… an extremely vulnerable, densely populated area in the very center of the track… bottom line, this is nuts!!! Hundreds or perhaps thousands of people are going to die because their local officials inexplicably refuse to pull the trigger and tell them they have to get out!!!

About two hours later, Mayor Nagin finally ordered an evacuation. Eighteen hours later, Katrina made landfall.

Oh, and as for all those buses you need, here are 205 of them found in New Orleans by an AP photographer:

20050902-NolaSchoolBuses.jpg

On Thursday, 18-year old Jabbor Gibson found a school bus abandoned on the street in New Orleans and stole it so he could drive 100 people to Houston. They were the first refugees to arrive at the Astrodome.

If Mayor Nagin’s people had had half as much initiative, they could have driven those 205 school buses into the poor neighborhoods before Katrina hit and evacuated about 15,000 people from the city. Instead, as you can see, they left the buses to drown in the parking lot where they’re no good to anyone.

So while there are probably mistakes being made all over the place at all levels of government, Mayor Nagin should think twice before he throws any more stones.

A lot of people are starting to complain about the pace of the hurricane relief effort. I don’t know enough about disaster relief to be sure (and I don’t want to make excuses for any screw-ups) but I suspect that the agonizingly slow pace is nevertheless incredibly fast, given the scale of the operation.

Here’s a thought I had that gave me some perspective:

My wife’s company is moving their offices this week. After weeks of planning and preparation, moving an office of about 15 people to new quarters 10 miles away is going to take two days.

The hurricane only struck four days ago.

The evacuation of New Orleans alone will move 10,000 times as many people a much greater distance. And the roads are flooded. And there’s no electrical power, no running water, no gas stations, no restaurants, no stores selling supplies, and no telephones. And people are shooting at them.

Disaster relief is hard. If it were quick and easy, people could do it for themselves, and we wouldn’t be calling it a disaster.

Here’s an idea of how bad it is in New Orleans right now: The Mayor has told the Fire Department to stand down. The firefighters are securing the firehouses against the storm and heading to shelter.

Update: Woke up around 6am and turned on the TV. New Orleans has just lost power. In the Superdome, the emergency lighting system kicked on. Ten thousand people will be stuck there for the next 12 hours with no air conditioning.

CNN and MSNBC both have reporters to the east and west of New Orlieans, in Biloxi and Mobile, but the only reports in New Orleans are from people in shelters, with pictures from remote cameras. There’s not much to see because of the power failure.

The weather animations show the eye of the storm making landfall somewhere in the marsh to the south of New Orleans. The good news is that Katrina is no longer a category 5 hurricane. The winds have slowed to about 145. The meteorologists are now saying that the storm surge might not rise over the levees.

Outdoor camera footage shows some flooding, but that doesn’t mean the sea is pouring in. New Orleans is in the middle of a giant bowl in the land. It only takes an inch of rain to cause a flood. This could be normal. On the other hand, the pumping system that normally drains New Orleans is without power, so the water will keep building up.

As I write this, Hurricane Katrina is climbing up the Gulf toward the mouth of the Mississippi and the City of New Orleans. The winds have slowed from 175 miles per hour to about 160, but the warm Gulf water could drive it faster at any time.

If you’ve ever stuck your hand out the window of your car at 55 miles per hour, you know how much force that is. Katrina’s cyclone winds are three times as fast, which means they push nine times as hard as the air on your hand. There’s not much that can take that and keep standing. Even fewer things can take the pounding force of debris carried on that terrible wind.

And then there’s the sea.

Of all the people ever killed by hurricanes, nine tenths of them died not from the wind but from the storm surge. A hurricane is driven by a slight reduction in pressure at its center. While the weight of the surrounding air presses down on the sea with full force, the sea under the hurricane lifts up slightly.

Even worse, the continuous winds slowly build a giant wave. In some sense, it’s really not that big. Hurricane Katrina is a million feet wide, but its storm surge is only going to be about 20 feet. If it were a normal wave, it would crash against the land and be done. But it’s not. It may only be 20 feet high, but it stretches for miles and miles.

If Katrina hits New Orleans dead on, the storm surge will arrive in the form of wind-swept waves that crash on the shore again and again, retreating a little less each time. In just minutes, the waves will over-top the 14-foot levees surrounding the city. Then the sea will rise up and pour into the valley where New Orleans lies.

I’ve only ever been to New Orleans once, and then only for a few days. I was in a hotel located on the edge of the the French Quarter.

Have you ever been to Disney World? Running down the center of the Magic Kingdom is Old Main Street, Disney’s idea of an old-time small town. The main street in the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, is just like Disney’s Old Main Street, except with jazz bars and strip clubs. It’s ancient and decadent and a lot of fun. It’s what Old Main Street would like to be…if it weren’t for all those damned kids.

I don’t actually remember much. I remember all the spinning fans on the ceiling of the Old Absinthe House. I haven’t seen it in 20 years, but I’ll bet it hasn’t changed a bit. It’s been there for 200 years, why would they have made any recent changes?

I remember Jackson Square. As I recall, the pigeons there were really fat, no doubt stuffing themselves with scraps left behind by visitors to the surrounding bakeries and restaurants.

Then there’s Antoine’s Restaurant. Probably their most famous dish is Oysters Rockefeller. It’s the original, you know. The recipe is a secret. Every other Oysters Rockefeller you’ve ever had is just a cheap imitation. Or so I’m told. I didn’t get around to visiting Antoine’s back then.

I’m a northerner, a Midwesterner. I was born in Chicago, and I have every intention of staying here all my life. My visit to New Orleans was brief and long ago. Not much happened to me there. I’m not a party animal, so I didn’t do any legendary amounts of drinking. I didn’t meet a girl and have a fling I’ll always remember. I didn’t have any mystical epiphany in one of the all-night jazz clubs.

Truth is, I really only ever saw the tourist areas, and not much of those. If Katrina does her worst, there are a lot more important things that will be lost. Lives will be lost, possibly a lot of them. I am frightened for the people who remain behind, and I wish them all the best in their struggle to come.

And still…

I was comfortable there, just strolling through the Quarter. There’s been a little bit of New Orleans in my heart ever since. I always planned to go back and see the rest of it. I always figured it would be there.

When Monday morning comes, I guess I’ll know.

Note added June 2006: I’m rather proud of this piece and the way it captured my thoughts at the time. I wrote it quickly, but it holds up pretty well. Because I’ve just added it to my “Best Of” list, I figured I should add a few notes on how things turned out.

My last line was off by a day. The leading edge of the hurricane made landfall on Monday morning, but it was a big storm. It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that we started getting good reports on the extent of the damage.

Although Katrina lost strength and didn’t strike New Orleans directly, it was still more than the levies and flood walls could stand. They failed in dozens of places for reasons that remain confusing and controversial.