I was watching "Meet the Press" and Russert was interviewing the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. Tim reported that Amtrak is saying they offered free train rides out of New Orleans the Saturday night before the storm. Nagin said he never got that message and would have appreciated it.
In a game of "Who's the Rat?" I think Amtrak is a government-dependent junkie turning a political trick. Amtrak probably was moving idle assets out of New Orleans, but it is hard to believe that something that bleeds red ink as badly as Amtrak could possibly be horizontally integrated into an emergency management information architecture and participate in a major evacuation on short order.
Note: we really should commend New Orleans and Louisiana on what overall was a very impressive ability to evacuate a million or so people out of severe harm's way. I also think we should take Nagin at his word that New Orleans knew it didn't have the manpower to evacuate the 100,000 or so people who for a host of reasons were staying behind. Getting everyone out is plan A, but to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go into Katrina with the city you've got...they circled the wagons and evacuated most everyone to the Superdome, convention center, hospitals and hotels, and waited for the cavalry. They did the right thing.
But back to Amtrak. They probably were moving idle assets out of New Orleans on Saturday, probably wanted to help, and they probably did have open capacity, but I'd be surprised to hear that they're capable of communicating any of that beyond their existing communications silo.
The problem with playing "Who's the Rat" is that you come out ahead only by losing less. Because the truth is, even if Amtrak knew all they could know about the trains they had that were in a position to help, mayor Nagin's office had no way of putting that information to good use. In this game, Amtrak probably also contacted the mayor's office leaving Nagin to look like a lying-to-cover-my-own-ass politician.
The enormous challenge for FEMA is that the Federal Government does not have a grip on the how to manage the mass of information needed to marshal all of the assets of the Federal Government in a disaster. At the same time, state and local governments, NGOs, and civilians have no way to reliably put this information to use were it readily available.
What lacks on the national level is a securely federated identity and presence management system. When the mayor issued the voluntary evacuation order, or even when the President declared a state of emergency, a federation should have occurred between all relevant nation, state, local and even NGO information chains that pooled all available emergency assets.
(This means that at every level of government there has to be superior monitoring of what assets exist, their precise location, their capabilities, and their state of (dis)repair. It also means you have to know the location, role, and availability of your human resources...no small challenge.)
Were this system in place when an emergency alert occurred, locals access and sort through a mass of information by simply requesting what they need and leaving it to the power of presence to sort out which resources best suit their need, how they get them, and whatever else they need to know about them. In the case of New Orleans and Amtrak, a local church could have called an emergency call center asking for help evacuating some of the elderly in the neighborhood. The call center could have then informed them of train availability. Knowing where the city's buses were could have allowed the call center to arrange a pickup or encourage the church to organize volunteer drivers. If the church could relay their volunteer information back to the information pool, those volunteers could be tapped for other evacuees as well.
This oversimplifies the architecture I am sure, and certainly overlooks the legal and privacy issues involved. On the other hand, that can and needs to be managed if we are to expect seriously responsive government in times of crisis. Here the Federal Government can play a constructive role as information clearinghouse and provider of very big assets.