The End of New Orleans: And The Buck-Passing Begins
Even as thousands remained to be evacuated from the sodden ruins of New Orleans, even as gun battles continued to rage in the streets, even as corpses rotted in untold numbers of houses and cars and out in plain view — even as all the weight of the disaster began to settle in around the American conscience — the Federal officials whose ineptitude doomed the city began to pass the buck:
Tens of thousands of people spent a fifth day awaiting evacuation from this ruined city, as Bush administration officials blamed state and local authorities for what leaders at all levels have called a failure of the country’s emergency management…
As you read the story, here’s a fun game you can play. Count the lies being told by administration officials.
Louisiana did not reach out to a multi-state mutual aid compact for assistance until Wednesday, three state and federal officials said. As of Saturday [August 27th], [Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux] Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said.
In a Washington briefing, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said one reason federal assets were not used more quickly was “because our constitutional system really places the primary authority in each state with the governor.”
Oh really? Funny, I found this in the “National Response Plan” prepared by your department, Mr. Secretary:
Pursuant to HSPD-5, the Secretary of Homeland Security is responsible for coordinating Federal operations within the United States to prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. HSPD-5 further designates the Secretary of Homeland Security as the “principal Federal official” for domestic incident management.
In this role, the Secretary is also responsible for coordinating Federal resources utilized in response to or recovery from terrorist attacks, major disasters, or other emergencies if and when any of the following four conditions applies:
- a Federal department or agency acting under its own authority has requested DHS assistance;
- the resources of State and local authorities are overwhelmed and Federal assistance has been requested;
- more than one Federal department or agency has become substantially involved in responding to the
- the Secretary has been directed to assume incident management responsibilities by the President.
Hmm, state authorities overwhelmed and requesting help and more than one Federal agency involved… it sure sounds like what went down the other day in New Orleans.
You have read the National Response Plan, right, Mr. Secretary? Right?
Now back to the Post story:
[FEMA Director Michael] Brown, a frequent target of New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s wrath, said Saturday that “the mayor can order an evacuation and try to evacuate the city, but if the mayor does not have the resources to get the poor, elderly, the disabled, those who cannot, out, or if he does not even have police capacity to enforce the mandatory evacuation, to make people leave, then you end up with the kind of situation we have right now in New Orleans.”
OK. But what if evacuating everyone is beyond the abilities of the local government, or if the locals are unable to function due to the crisis? If only we had some kind of Federal agency to assist in large-scale evacuation efforts! Oh, wait…
Look. If you’re wondering why I’ve been following this story so closely, since I don’t live anywhere near New Orleans and in fact have never even been there, here’s why: it’s because I knew as soon as I heard that a Category 4-5 hurricane was headed for New Orleans that it had the potential to be a major disaster.
How did I know that? Because three years ago on PBS, Bill Moyers’ program NOW explained it to me. The show demonstrated clearly just how serious the risk to the city would be in such a situation — so when I realized that the situation might be coming true, I sat up and took notice.
This was not the only time the subject was covered. Some folks got enlightened by Scientific American, or the Times-Picayune, or Time Magazine, or one of the many other outlets that have told this story over the last few years.
So when I hear Secretary Chertoff say something like
I will tell you that, really, that perfect storm of combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight
… well, I’ll be frank with you: it gets me INCREDIBLY pissed off.
“Exceeded the foresight”? What? I knew a crisis was possible and I’m just a schmuck with a blog! Why couldn’t the multi-billion dollar DHS, with all its whiz-bang toys and full time experts, see the same thing?
The short answer is: they could. Chertoff is just trying to weasel out of why they didn’t do anything about it by constructing a false distinction between flooding from overtopped levees and flooding from broken levees. But put aside for a moment the fact that it would have been worse if the levees had been topped, rather than breaking — the simple fact is that Chertoff is just engaging in Clintonian word-parsing, hoping he can get us dancing around “it depends on what the meaning of ‘flood’ is” rather than the real issue — the awesome negligence his agency has displayed this week.
The only thing I can say is this: if we fall for it — if, after 9/11 and no-WMDs and Abu Ghraib and all the rest of it, we decide to believe the lie once again, rather than doing what citizens in a functioning republic must do and demanding accountability — than all of us, not just a few liars, miscreants, and incompetents, will have the blood of New Orleans on our hands.