In the aftermath of the California wildfires, pundits have compared how government officials sheltered refugees at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium with how they sheltered Hurricane Katrina refugees at New Orleans’s Superdome in 2005. But the two disasters are so different that such comparisons aren’t illuminating. Katrina was an unprecedented natural catastrophe that flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, destroying neighborhood after neighborhood. The city’s near-complete inundation created an acute sense of helplessness, on top of physical deprivation, for the people stuck in the Superdome. San Diego’s evacuation, on the other hand, was temporary. While fires destroyed more than 2,000 homes, the great majority of the people who camped out at Qualcomm and at other public shelters knew that they could soon return to largely intact houses.
Further, the two stadium operations differed in crucial respects. In Southern California, state and local officials welcomed evacuees with plentiful food, water, electricity, and toilets, as well as medical care for people in need. But crucially, Qualcomm Stadium never became cut off from the outside world, as the Superdome was after New Orleans flooded. If San Diego officials ran short of supplies—whether diapers or diabetes medication—they could readily get more. By contrast, the Superdome, quickly without electricity and working bathrooms after New Orleans’s levees broke, seemed isolated from civilization. Moreover, responsibility for the stadium’s safety was in the hands of city officials who had difficulty securing law and order on a good day, let alone amid Katrina’s chaos.
The evacuee populations of San Diego and New Orleans were also very different. As media coverage did point out, New Orleans had twice San Diego’s poverty rate. And the Superdome took in the comparatively few citizens—fewer than 10 percent of the city’s pre-Katrina population—who hadn’t been able or willing to comply with a much-publicized mandatory exit of the city in the days before the storm. The Superdome’s evacuees, then, were some of the poorest, oldest, and sickest residents of an already poor city. Among them were also the people who took advantage of the immediate aftermath of Katrina to loot their city before floodwaters engulfed it.
A much more relevant comparison is between New Orleans’s handling of Katrina evacuees and Houston’s handling of Katrina evacuees. Just days after Katrina flooded New Orleans, the state of Texas, and Houston in particular, welcomed the very same people who had been languishing in the Superdome to the Houston Astrodome and other venues. Moving quickly to take in more than 25,000 people who had been stewing in the Superdome’s filth, dark, and danger—as well as 40,000 others in need of public shelter—Texas’s state and local officials rose to the occasion, confronting a disaster for which they had never planned, a disaster that didn’t affect them directly until they chose to take on the responsibility. Houston maintained an environment of safety and security at the Astrodome, showing that a competent, flexible government with access to basic resources like electricity, modern medications, and an adequate police presence can meet the needs of any population. It doesn’t detract from California’s competence in handling wildfire evacuees to say that its performance at Qualcomm unlocked no secret new formula for adequate government performance. Houston provided the same good example two years ago.
In light of the huge differences between San Diego’s and New Orleans’s disasters, another comparison making the rounds—between President Bush’s performance then and now—is also irrelevant. In San Diego last week, Bush played the president’s usual role after a natural disaster. He gave moral and public support to a governor who was clearly in control of the situation, and reminded beleaguered victims, through his presence, that the nation was thinking of them. In New Orleans two years ago, though, the president couldn’t play that role, since neither Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco nor New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin seemed able or willing to take charge. As the president said last Thursday: “It makes a big difference when you have someone in the statehouse willing to take the lead.” In New Orleans, that wasn’t the case.
The president didn’t have a playbook for Katrina, and he foundered for far too long without one—even as local and state officials in Texas quickly grasped the magnitude of New Orleans’s natural disaster and its accompanying governance disaster. Thankfully, the California wildfires are a study in contrasts to both the natural cataclysm, and the necessary government reaction, of two years ago.