Sunday, September 04, 2005
In the last several days, there has been a lot of talk about the federal government's lackluster performance during the Hurricane Katrina crisis. Not many of the talking heads on the cable networks have bothered to ask about the state and local government's culpability. However, the more one reads of the facts, the more one begins to wonder:
From the Washington Post:
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.
Behind the scenes, a power struggle emerged, as federal officials tried to wrest authority from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). Shortly before midnight Friday, the Bush administration sent her a proposed legal memorandum asking her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans, a source within the state's emergency operations center said Saturday.
The administration sought unified control over all local police and state National Guard units reporting to the governor. Louisiana officials rejected the request after talks throughout the night, concerned that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law. Some officials in the state suspected a political motive behind the request. "Quite frankly, if they'd been able to pull off taking it away from the locals, they then could have blamed everything on the locals," said the source, who does not have the authority to speak publicly.
A senior administration official said that Bush has clear legal authority to federalize National Guard units to quell civil disturbances under the Insurrection Act and will continue to try to unify the chains of command that are split among the president, the Louisiana governor and the New Orleans mayor.
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, Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said.
"The federal government stands ready to work with state and local officials to secure New Orleans and the state of Louisiana," White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said. "The president will not let any form of bureaucracy get in the way of protecting the citizens of Louisiana."
Blanco made two moves Saturday that protected her independence from the federal government: She created a philanthropic fund for the state's victims and hired James Lee Witt, Federal Emergency Management Agency director in the Clinton administration, to advise her on the relief effort.
Bush, who has been criticized, even by supporters, for the delayed response to the disaster, used his weekly radio address to put responsibility for the failure on lower levels of government. The magnitude of the crisis "has created tremendous problems that have strained state and local capabilities," he said. "The result is that many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans. And that is unacceptable."
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."
Chertoff planned to fly overnight to the New Orleans area to take charge of deploying the expanded federal and military assets for several days, he said. He said he has "full confidence" in FEMA Director Michael D. Brown, the DHS undersecretary and federal officer in charge of the Katrina response.
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."
New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas acknowledged that the city was surprised by the number of refugees left behind, but he said FEMA should have been prepared to assist.
"Everybody shares the blame here," said Thomas. "But when you talk about the mightiest government in the world, that's a ludicrous and lame excuse. You're FEMA, and you're the big dog. And you weren't prepared either."
In Baton Rouge, Blanco acknowledged Saturday: "We did not have enough resources here to do it all. . . . The magnitude is overwhelming."
No one is going to argue that the state of Louisiana had abundant resources to deal with the crisis, which makes Governor Blanco's actions that much more perplexing. In fact, President Bush seemed to have more prescience than the Louisiana state government:
(Governor Blanco) said President Bush called and personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation for the low-lying city, which is prone to flooding.
So why weren't the warnings heeded? Why weren't the indigent and infirm bussed out of the area using the vehicles in this picture?
It seems that surely at least a few thousand could have been evacuated with these vehicles alone. In hindsight, if the Bush administration has forced thousands of New Orleanians to evacuate, would the ACLU have let that slide? It's doubtful. Moreover, how could the Feds have acted more quickly in the aftermath if Blanco wasn't even willing to cede authority to manage the situation? Just how exactly is this a federal problem if the federal authorities were not allowed to handle the mess in the first place?
Blanco and company have been more than willing to blame FEMA, DHS, and the executive branch without looking first at their own actions. If the sharks in the political water weren't so determined to pin this disaster on George W. Bush personally, perhaps we could find out more quickly what could have been done more effectively at all levels of government.
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