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.

Wrong, Gov. Blanco declared a state of emergency on August 26th.

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:

  1. a Federal department or agency acting under its own authority has requested DHS assistance;
  2. the resources of State and local authorities are overwhelmed and Federal assistance has been requested;
  3. more than one Federal department or agency has become substantially involved in responding to the
    incident; or
  4. 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.


Sandy Smith

September 5, 2005
1:18 am

The Feds failed to do what even basic competence would have demanded, and they’ve been lamely trying to ex-post-facto cover their ass. Chernikoff and Brown, at a minimum, should be private citizens by Tuesday.
That same lack of foresight applies equally to state and city government. In fact, they made the *same exact mistakes* for hurricane Ivan:
And as for what assets the City of New Orleans could have used to transport the poor out of the city:
They weren’t waterlogged before the hurricane, I’ll bet.
It’s not excusing Bush to say that Nagin is a self-serving, do-nothing ass, and that the governor of Louisiana shouldn’t be negotiating conditions of aid but just accepting them, especially given that she’d already declared a state of emergency.
Mary Landrieu joined the it’s-not-me parade here:
Pretty much there’s no elected official who should have their job after this. And there are several appointed officials who should be joining them. And DHS should be disbanded.

Sandy Smith

September 5, 2005
1:21 am

Er, that is, Chertoff. I’m confusing him with Russian physicists, which happens at this hour.


September 5, 2005
2:22 am

I know a bunch of schmucks with blogs. Only the second half of the statement is true for you.


September 5, 2005
2:33 am

Jason, you are quoting the wrong part of HSPD-5. Section 6 defines the Federal/State relationship. Section 4 (that you quoted) defines relationships between Federal agencies. You have taken section 4 out of its intended context, which makes it look like it supports your argument but anyone reading the whole document would know you are reading it wrong.

Jason Lefkowitz

September 5, 2005
11:18 am

I’m not quoting HSPD-5 *at all*. I’m quoting the National Response Plan that was developed as a result of HSPD-5.
Here’s HSPD-5:
Section 16 of HSPD-5 has the instruction to develop the National Response Plan.
Because the NRP represents the completion of the process that began with HSPD-5, you should look to it rather than to HSPD-5 for guidance on the Feds’ role in these types of emergencies.
I would next direct you to look at pages 43-44 of the NRP, specifically the section titled “Proactive Federal Response to Catastrophic Events”. In there you will find this directive:
“Guiding principles for proactive Federal response include the following: …
* Notification and full coordination with States will occur, but the coordination process must not delay or impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources. States are urged to notify and coordinate with local governments regarding a proactive Federal response. ”
Seems pretty clear to me.

Bob M

September 5, 2005
7:09 pm

Excellent stuff. Do you or anybody else know about the New Orleans police looting? I read on a blog from guys holed up there (the link was on cnet) that there were confirmed sightings of police looting ATMs and safes. Then I read in the NY Times how the police aren’t showing up for work because of stress, suicide, etc. I wondered if they did not show up to work because they were millionaires. But I really don’t know what to think. Any ideas or links?

Jason Lefkowitz

September 5, 2005
7:19 pm

Don’t know much in the way of specifics on that issue. I know the blog you refer to, it’s this one:
It’s been an excellent source of info. However I did think the guy behind it lumped together two kinds of stories in his “police looting” story — one of police actually looting, and another of police commandeering things they needed to do their work protecting the public like guns, ammunition, vehicles etc. The latter isn’t really “looting” under any definition of “looting” I know.
If there were some police actually looting, it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing had happened. The writer William Langewiesche wrote a series of articles about WTC Ground Zero for the Atlantic Monthly (he later turned them into a book, “American Ground”) where he reported seeing evidence that some NYC firefighters had looted the Trade Center.
Of course Langewiesche got attacked from all sides for daring to suggest that some firefighters might have succumbed to temptation, which might keep any witnesses to police looting in NOLA from coming forward…


September 6, 2005
8:37 am

There’s been a lot of stupidity at both the federal and local levels on this. Particularly byChertoff, Nagin, and President Bush.
But although everyone is also throwing Brown and FEMA under the bus, I don’t know what else FEMA could or should of done before and immediatly after Katrina hit. The area was declared a federal disaster area before the hurricane arrived (first time I think that’s been done). Rescue teams and resorces were already on the way. It was up to the locals to id the problems of getting supplies in and people out, and for Bush and Chertoff to call in the army and other resources to overcome the problem. They all failed. But FEMA isn’t supposed to start running the state after a disaster, its supposed to get people and supplies to help deal with disaster. FEMA did that, and what else is it supposed to do, and when?

Jason Lefkowitz

September 6, 2005
10:31 am

As I see it, the Federal government failed in two major ways in this crisis:
1) Evacuating the populace. The evacuation was left up to local authorities, who did a half-assed job of it (as local authorities will tend to do).
2) Maintaining order. For several days there was no effective law in the city, because the local PD was overwhelmed. This turned the people left behind by the evacuation (see #1) into prey for violent elements.
I think you’re correct that neither of these are failings specifically of FEMA, especially in its new reduced role. They are quite glaring failures, however, for DHS.
The reason is because the entire reason we have DHS is so that in a terrorist strike or natural disaster, there will be a powerful agency ready to step in and make sure that things like evacuations go smoothly — and to make sure that random idiots with guns can’t roam the streets terrorizing people at will.
Imagine if someone set off a dirty bomb (or worse, a _real_ A-bomb) in a major city in the US. We’d have to deal with these issues again — evacuating large numbers of panicky displaced people, dealing with looters and lawlessness, etc. — with added problems mixed in, like radiation.
Would DHS leave these tasks up to the local mayor in that scenario? Would they leave it up to the beat cops to keep order in the ruined city?
If so, why do we need DHS?
Personally — and now we’re getting out into Just My Humble Opinion territory here — I think the call to sack Michael Brown that has started to come out in the last couple of days is a political tactic. Notice that it’s the right-wingers who are now calling for his head the loudest:
I think they’re hoping to throw Brown to the lions to keep them from going after Chertoff — or Chertoff’s boss, the President.
Which would be a shame since Bush and Chertoff (and Tom Ridge, whatever he’s doing these days) have a lot to answer for, considering the shameful return on investment we’ve gotten from their incarnation of DHS.


September 6, 2005
11:09 am

I think this means we need a broad look at what the federal government can actually do in these situations, and how to fix problems that everyone has ignored because they are hard to think about.
in short DHS is broken, and we need to know why before we can fix it.
Start with a look at evacuation and security. Can the federal government order the mandatory evacuation of a city? Under what statutory authority (DHS rules saying they think they should be in charge are not enough)? good legal question. I’ll try to find out on my lunch break. And the feds still are not in charge of security in New Orleans. If the National Guard were federalised, they can’t perform law enforcement unless there is approval by congress, or the President declares New Orleans in a state of insurection (I guess the president can also suspend habeaus corpus rights, but I don’t think anyone wants to go there). So the Governor is still in charge of every National Guardsman (even from other states)in the State. Don’t know enough about the governor’s performance to feel whether that is good or bad.
So we need the ability of the feds to quickly put one point man in charge (I would sugest that on any coast area it would be a ranking Coast Guard officer, since they have the rescue/evac/security experience others don’t have, and perhaps pre-selected National Guard Generals or army reserve officers in other areas), so resources can be directed when needed, and to immediatly take over from the locals if they are overwhelmed.
If this capability wasn’t created after 9/11 (and it appears it was not) then we have been waisting a lot of time, money and lives…
Well, only three more years till the Guilliani administration makes things right:)

Bob M

September 7, 2005
11:31 pm

Thanks for your take on police looting in New Orleans. It looks like a non-issue to me, much like the looting alleged in the WTC in the link you gave above. A few possible bad people, but everybody else is just great.
What do you think will be the new New Orleans a decade from now? I see a Disneyland kind of place, ringed with vacation timeshares, with much of the present property of the poor taken over by the rich, and real protection this time.
I would be interested in others’ opinions.