Good communication...

David Alt my_public_email at
Tue Sep 13 02:04:01 MDT 2005

This discussion reminds me of the great cartoons in Krug's
"Don't Make Me Think", where the usability consultant is 
on the phone with a client who, near the close of a project, 
wants to conduct focus groups.  The bubble over the 
usability consultant's head is, "Focus groups?", as if they 
cannot believe the inappropriateness of their client's
suggestion.  In reading this thread, I've had the same
bubble going on the whole time--"Usability?"

I would like to emphasise the role of the government
in creating this unnatural disaster.  

Reports continue to emerge of the strategic ill-will and 
incompetence of the goverment.  It is these actions and 
intentions of the government that deserve criticism.  

How would you improve the delivery of the message 
"First Responders Urged Not to Respond"?

The levels of gross incompetence--and that's being polite--
are almost too many to believe:

o Strategic neglect of the levee infrastructure (caused, 
  in part, by funds drained by an expensive, unpopular 
  and aggressive war)

o The lack of precaution for evacuation plans for all but
  those who owned cars

o The several-day delay in taking any substantial actions

o The open-air morgue conditions sufferred by those who 
  did get manged to get evacuated

o Imposition of martial law, where due process is replaced
  with "shoot to kill" orders for suspected looters,
  carried out by hired mercenaries fresh from Iraq and 

o Relentless disaster profiteering by the same companies
  profiteering off of the war in Iraq

I think that the government's message is clear.  It is 
delivered point blank within firing range of those who 
tried to leave, as well as those who tried to help.  (See 
links about FEMA below.)  

This is not an issue of whether the emphasis on their web 
site should have been italicized or bolded.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate what I am talking about
is to point to a story of some people who survived the 
flooding, which includes numerous examples of this inhumane 

(If you are in SF, you can hear these two speak on 
Wednesday, 9/14 at 7PM--ask me for details if you are

As well, I would like to evaluate the other side of the 
discussion, which includes blaming the users (victims), 
whether it be active or passive:  What about personal 
responsibility?  What about peoples' well-founded 
distrust of the government due to racism?

The logical conclusion of the "personal responsibility"
argument is that, ultimately, each person is responsible 
for his or her welfare, and in the case of hurricane 
Katrina, each person bears the ultimate responsibility 
for the consequences of not having evacuated.  Those who 
didn't evacuate were not really victims but were simply 

If this sounds like a caricature of the notion, I will 
only point out that it sounds this way coming out of the 
mouth of FEMA chief Michael Brown, who claims that the 
high death toll is "going to be attributable a lot to 
people who did not heed the advance warnings."

The structural problem with the "personal responsibility"
argument is that it does not take into consideration the
material reality and systematic problems of society.  

Clearly, each person ought to make wise choices among 
those available to them, can be held responsible for 
those desicsions.  But what about the limitations on 
those decisions?  Who is held responsible for the context
of decisions made within a situation of poverty?  

To illustrate this, simply consider who is responsible 
for the situation of slave child?  The child?  Ridiculous, 
you say:  they had no choice in the matter.  His or her 
slave parents?  Equally ridicuolus:  is it not clearly 
the the slave owner, and the state who supports him, who 
impose their will by force, who are responsible for the 
loss of freedom, the poverty and exploitation of a slave 
What we see in New Orleans is the legacy of slavery.
To impose a morality of "personal responsibility" upon 
people suffering systematic oppression ignores the 
overriding oppression that is constraining their ability 
to overcome poverty and racism.  It places the blame 
upon the individual victims, away from the oppression 
that is ultimately at the root of their condition.
This "personal responsibility" argument is the same one
used by the Clinton administration to "end welfare as 
we know it".  It is no coincidence that many of the 
victims of that policy and also victims of hurricane 

What ever happened to 40 acres and a mule?  It seems that
the demand for reparations, which was easily ignored, 
has, at best--and only as a result of the civil rights 
movement delayed by a century of segregation--turned into 
a case for affirmative action.  Yet even today, we see a 
fierce opponent of affirmative action, former chief 
justice Renquist, feted incessently by the entire state 
apparatus, and another blame-the-victim idealogue, John 
Roberts, is offered up to fill Renquist's shoes.

This is the reality of our political situation in the 
USA.   I believe that changing this situation requires 
changing the political system, and taking matters into 
our own hands;  the established system has proven itself 
to be outside the realm of humanitarian, and in fact has 
shown itself to be anti-humanitarian.  Perhaps you will 
draw different conclusions than I, but I encourage you 
to undertake those discussions, since we will never get
anywhere by focusing simply on usability of government

To keep this reply focused on usability, I will
say that any effort, however well-intentioned, spent
trying to improve the usability of FEMA's communications
would be, at best "polishing a turd".  If we can't 
accurately assess the gravity of the overall situation, 
how can we even begin to contribute to its "usability"?

We do no one a favor, whether it is a client, or in this
case, our own society, by ignoring what is fundamentally 
broken, and instead reducing our focus to only those
things that constitue "usability".  That serves only to 
reinforce bad results.

David Alt
San Francisco
bird at

"I did not come here to be anti-American.  I would not 
waste my time doing that.  I came here to speak the 
truth, and if the truth is anti-American, then blame 
the truth, don't blame me." - Malcolm X

FEMA won't accept Amtrak's help in evacuations

FEMA turns away experienced firefighters

FEMA turns back Wal-Mart supply trucks

FEMA prevents Coast Guard from delivering diesel fuel

FEMA won't let Red Cross deliver food

FEMA bars morticians from entering New Orleans

FEMA blocks 500-boat citizen flotilla from delivering aid

FEMA fails to utilize Navy ship with 600-bed hospital on board,1,4144825.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

FEMA to Chicago: Send just one truck

FEMA turns away generators

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