Along the Tracks

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Time to enter recrimination phase

Andrew Sullivan links to this post at Constructive Interference, a liberal site, which aims to place the blame for local failures on FEMA interference. It's a good post, and I think offers a good opportunity for me to join in all the finger-pointing. It is my hope to do so based on the facts available, and not merely on the partisan grenade lobbing I've primarily seen so far.

I think any honest observer will agree that FEMA's bureaucratic lethargy delayed aid from many sources. In fact, the federal response didn't really get rolling until Thursday to Friday, and wasn't in New Orleans in force until Saturday, after President Bush arrived to crack some heads. So the criticism is completely legitimate.

Even so, it is simply impossible to claim the local response was, as Constructive Interference calls it, "inadequate, but not disastrous." In any and every emergency - even (perhaps especially) one with a forewarning of days - the local jurisdiction is the first responder. For major disasters, this often includes multiple local jurisdictions with the assistance of state government or governments. The feds preposition to assist, but do not "take control" unless asked to do so. Indeed, every directive I've seen, as well as conversations with emergency response experts, explain local and state officials are to be capable of self-sufficiency for at least 72 hours after a disaster strikes. If one counts from the start of the hurricane, that's Wednesday night/Thursday morning. If one counts from the breaking of the levees, that's Friday morning. The federal response came in full force on Saturday - so yes, the feds failed by at least a full day, maybe even two days.

What happened before that was in the hands of local and state leaders. (NOTE: Special thanks to Rightwing Nuthouse for the excellent timeline. I couldn't have provided many of the links you see here without it.)

People keep talking about this "state of emergency" (PDF) declared by Gov. Blanco on the Friday before the storm. This declaration does not put the feds in charge. It is a statewide declaration which gives authority for state responses. It has nothing to do with the feds.

This Blanco letter to President Bush is a request for the release of federal emergency funds and FEMA assistance (an advance team) - which Bush then signed on the Saturday before the storm. Here in Ohio, Gov. Bob Taft did the same thing just days before due to drought problems in western and central Ohio. The feds haven't rolled in and taken over our agriculture sector - and they haven't brought in airplanes to seed clouds for rain, either. They okayed federal disaster relief funds - that's it.

Mickey Kaus is quite correct that the failure of the storm preparations and relief effort ultimately lies in the incompetence of local and state officials. Even prior to the feds rolling in, Blanco, Mayor Nagin and their subordinates were capable of requesting as much or as little assistance through FEMA as they wished. However, these requests (here comes the bureaucracy/federalism conundrum) had to follow proper channels to be considered legitimate, and authority to act had to be transferred. Nagin can cuss on the radio and demand Army paratroopers land in the French Quarter to stop looters, but (not surprisingly) FEMA will not consider it a legitimate request, nor is Nagin authorized to transfer such policing authority to the federal government, nor may active Army troops perform normal law enforcement duties within the United States.

However, Blanco could have asked for federalization of the National Guard to give the feds the authority to send in those Guard troops and restore order; yet it appears she chose not to do so. Without that action, the nearly 5,000 National Guard soldiers sitting outside New Orleans as the city drowned and burned were Blanco's troops - and she did almost nothing with them.

All the above, of course, I write with the disclaimer that I am interpreting events based on media and blog reports so far. My post below makes clear that I have little faith I've received the full story from the mainstream media.

Timelines of the events surrounding Katrina and its aftermath are now being developed. Among the crucial points to determine are when (and if) Blanco and Nagin asked for specific actions through FEMA (this is interesting but unclear), and the delay between those requests and the federal response. Let me point out again: The federal bureaucratic incompetence cited by Constructive Interference delayed the response and shortchanged the people of New Orleans. Yet, until we know precisely what FEMA had been authorized and not authorized to do, it's hard to lay blame for the stories cited at their doorstep.

Nagin is the primary person who needs to be held accountable. He failed to evacuate his city in a timely manner. He failed to evacuate his most vulnerable citizens at all. He failed to prepare shelters and hospitals for a potential three days of isolation. He failed to prepare his police and fire departments for operations in the city should the levees break. He failed to follow his own hurricane response plan. He failed to coordinate effectively with Gov. Blanco or with FEMA. He failed to lead when a leader was desperately needed.

Close behind in culpability is Gov. Blanco. She failed to make ready and to insert adequate state resources, including the National Guard troops, when the need arose. She failed to become actively involved by demanding mandatory evacuation on Saturday before the storm - the point where lives could have been saved - and providing transportation when it was needed. She apparently failed to request and authorize the resources of the federal government in a timely manner. She failed to follow through on the decisions she did make. She failed to take the leadership role until long after the mayor's failures became obvious.

Finally, President Bush bears responsibility for the slow federal response. As I've mentioned before, once it became clear that catastrophe was striking - Tuesday morning when the consequences of the ruptured levees became apparent - the president should have taken the helm of the federal response in some public way. He should have gone through what assistance the governor had requested, what needs were not being met, and immediately spoken with the governor - again, publicly at least in part. Behind the scenes, he should have told Blanco to hand over the authorities needed or he would take executive action (of questionable legality, granted), then publically announce the federal action plan. By Wednesday morning, the federal response should have been entering the city in force.

Instead, Bush failed to appear to be on top of the events in New Orleans, particularly after the levees broke. Bush failed to recognize the local and state response had become inadequate. Bush failed to answer the public outcry for action as Wednesday dragged on with practically no visible disaster response underway and the city devolved into violence and looting. Bush failed to show leadership until days after that leadership was needed.

Some Bush defenders will say my criticisms center on appearances, not actions. In some ways, this is true - but my criticisms are still legitimate. Leadership is more than signing authorizations and ordering around department heads. Leadership is about inspiring, energizing and consoling - all capabilities I would argue Bush holds in abundance. We don't elect a president merely to be manager. We elect him to be leader. The people of New Orleans needed a leader when the mayor skipped town and the governor broke down. That was the moment for Bush to step in and assume public control - "Damn the torpedoes!"

Yes, there would have been outcries from Democrats that Bush "overstepped his authority" and had "interfered with the rescue" by federalizing what was under a local and state jurisdiction. Others would have claimed he should have done it sooner, even before the storm hit, and would have blamed him for a lax response no matter what. The race card would have been played, as Bush "callously" brushed aside the city's black leadership; he would have been accused of displaying the "soft bigotry of low expectations" he himself decries.

Still, lives would have been saved (although undoubtedly the vast majority of the dead were killed that Tuesday as the waters filled "the bowl"), a week from hell for so many stranded at the Superdome and convention center could have been avoided - and Bush should know by now he will be criticized no matter what he does. Better to have the criticism leveled after acting to save, protect and lead, than to be accused of flinching, failing and abandoning.

Bush can recover from his failure - I think he's on the right path now. Yet the past nine days has diminished him in many Americans' eyes.

Blanco - what is to be said? She has failed her own citizens terribly, and her petulance mixed with victimhood is unbecoming a state leader and only serves to deepen the pain those who have lost everything now feel. It also hinders recovery, as the cities and towns trying to cope with hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens have no one to look up to. I hope she steps down.

Nagin is a "leader" almost without precedent. He has failed his people before, during and after the storm. Even now, he bounces around the media, getting ridiculously soft questions and still flounders. His "command" of the situation is non-existent, and his statements only serve to confuse.

During the active crisis, I refused to criticize any of those involved in the evacuation or rescue efforts, and even offered a small defense of Nagin for at least ordering a mandatory evacuation Sunday. Now that more facts are in, I withdraw that defense.

Nagin's last minute order undoubtedly stranded tens of thousands who might have otherwise caught rides out of town - that was dereliction of duty. His failure to provide transportation for those unable to leave the city, and his failure to assure food, water, medicine and security for those taking refuge in the Superdome and especially the convention center were criminally negligent acts which resulted in deaths, rapes, assaults, robbery - hell on earth. For these he should be charged and tried.

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