Monday, September 05, 2005

Lethal ineptitude and ideological paralysis


We moved from chaos to organized chaos.
New Orleans Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley

Krugman nails it:

Experts say that the first 72 hours after a natural disaster are the crucial window during which prompt action can save many lives. Yet action after Katrina was anything but prompt. Newsweek reports that a "strange paralysis" set in among Bush administration officials, who debated lines of authority while thousands died.

What caused that paralysis? President Bush certainly failed his test. After 9/11, all the country really needed from him was a speech. This time it needed action - and he didn't deliver.

But the federal government's lethal ineptitude wasn't just a consequence of Mr. Bush's personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn't forthcoming?

[Thanks to Peggy]

As does Rob Salkowitz on Emphasis Added (via Shakespeare's Sister):

Natural disasters are great community-building events. Who among us can look at the pictures from the Mississippi Delta and not wonder what we would do in the same situation? Empathy for the victims and a desire to help represent the best of human emotions. And as the Federal Government is the instrument of the American people, there is a strong emotional desire to see those resources mobilized to do good.

This presents a problem for the political party whose philosophy is rooted in “limited government.” As Matt Yglesias put it this morning, just as “there are no atheists in foxholes… there are no libertarians in the midst of a giant, city-wide flood.”

Bush and his people obviously understand the politics here, and he’s trying to go through the motions. The problem is, when you don’t actually believe in your heart that it really is the government’s business to intervene, it’s hard to put across the necessary urgency in your words and deeds. I didn’t see Bush’s first speech on Katrina, but if it got panned at the very conservative NRO’s Corner blog, it must have been a stinking wet turd of historic proportions. White House press secretary Scott McClellan seemed to insist that looting was a bigger problem than getting aid to the victims. Even the RNC website was a little late in recognizing what was going on.

And it’s not just Bush. Everyone talking about this on the right can’t seem to quite get the lingo down. Homeland security czar Michael Chertoff, in an interview on Fox yesterday, sounded as if he was blaming the victims for their inability to get out – a point that would be heartless even if true, but especially egregious given that most of the people couldn’t leave because they couldn’t afford to (no one is better at making this point than Steve Gilliard). Fox even dug up some economist whose “this isn’t our problem” rap appalled Neil Cavuto, the business show host not conspicuous for his fondness for the Federal government. And this is to say nothing of the usual “this is God’s punishment for tolerating gays and feminists” hate spewing from the so-called religious community.

It’s moments like this when you need a party in power that actually believes in the affirmative power of government to help its citizens, rather than the party that sees government’s role as protecting the property of the well-off from the predations of the underclass. It’s when the true ugly soul of American conservatism is borne out for what it is: a rationalization of selfishness and the hysterical denial of community. America is about to see what happens when the government is staffed by people appointed to their jobs precisely for their disdain for the whole notion of policy in the public interest. It’s won’t be pretty. [Emphasis added -- Ed]

I guess my point here is that liberals should try to avoid the temptation of blaming the hurricane damage itself on Bush, because claims like that, even if undergirded by a certain framework of truth, sound petty and arrogant. However, it is both appropriate and necessary to draw continuous contrast between the shocking tone-deafness and ineptness of conservatism, and the real value of government when people really need it.

[Thanks to Trish for the pointer]

It's hardly a thought that's original with me, but it's clear that what we will need, after the immediate concerns of rescue and clearing the flood are met, is a massive program that deals with putting what is perhaps a million unemployed and homeless people to work rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf. We need the contemporary equivalent of the Civilian Conservation Corps that put unemployed men to work during the Depression building infrastructure: roads, bridges, dams, buildings and so on. These people need to be housed, organized, instructed, supervised and given the tools to rebuild their lives and their communuities -- and the opportunity to do so.

Such a plan is (obviously) completely out of the realm of the possible with Bush and the right in power, and by the time the next President of the United States, a Democrat, takes office, it will (probably) be too late for such a program to do much good. By then, Haliburton will have the contract to do the job.

Update: An open letter to Bush from the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Dear Mr. President:

We heard you loud and clear Friday when you visited our devastated city and the Gulf Coast and said, "What is not working, we’re going to make it right."

Please forgive us if we wait to see proof of your promise before believing you. But we have good reason for our skepticism.

Bienville built New Orleans where he built it for one main reason: It’s accessible. The city between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain was easy to reach in 1718.

How much easier it is to access in 2005 now that there are interstates and bridges, airports and helipads, cruise ships, barges, buses and diesel-powered trucks.

Despite the city’s multiple points of entry, our nation’s bureaucrats spent days after last week’s hurricane wringing their hands, lamenting the fact that they could neither rescue the city’s stranded victims nor bring them food, water and medical supplies.

Meanwhile there were journalists, including some who work for The Times-Picayune, going in and out of the city via the Crescent City Connection. On Thursday morning, that crew saw a caravan of 13 Wal-Mart tractor trailers headed into town to bring food, water and supplies to a dying city.

Television reporters were doing live reports from downtown New Orleans streets. Harry Connick Jr. brought in some aid Thursday, and his efforts were the focus of a "Today" show story Friday morning.

Yet, the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach.

We’re angry, Mr. President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.

Mayor Ray Nagin did the right thing Sunday when he allowed those with no other alternative to seek shelter from the storm inside the Louisiana Superdome. We still don’t know what the death toll is, but one thing is certain: Had the Superdome not been opened, the city’s death toll would have been higher. The toll may even have been exponentially higher.

It was clear to us by late morning Monday that many people inside the Superdome would not be returning home. It should have been clear to our government, Mr. President. So why weren’t they evacuated out of the city immediately? We learned seven years ago, when Hurricane Georges threatened, that the Dome isn’t suitable as a long-term shelter. So what did state and national officials think would happen to tens of thousands of people trapped inside with no air conditioning, overflowing toilets and dwindling amounts of food, water and other essentials?

State Rep. Karen Carter was right Friday when she said the city didn’t have but two urgent needs: "Buses! And gas!" Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially.

In a nationally televised interview Thursday night, he said his agency hadn’t known until that day that thousands of storm victims were stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He gave another nationally televised interview the next morning and said, "We’ve provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they’ve gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day."

Lies don’t get more bald-faced than that, Mr. President.

Yet, when you met with Mr. Brown Friday morning, you told him, "You’re doing a heck of a job."

That’s unbelievable.

There were thousands of people at the Convention Center because the riverfront is high ground. The fact that so many people had reached there on foot is proof that rescue vehicles could have gotten there, too.

We, who are from New Orleans, are no less American than those who live on the Great Plains or along the Atlantic Seaboard. We’re no less important than those from the Pacific Northwest or Appalachia. Our people deserved to be rescued.

No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced. Especially not one as preposterous as the claim that New Orleans couldn’t be reached.

Mr. President, we sincerely hope you fulfill your promise to make our beloved communities work right once again.

When you do, we will be the first to applaud.

It would not have fundamentally changed my opinion of him, but if Bush's response to the Katrina disaster had been fast and appropriate, I would have given him full marks and a modicum of respect for it, just as I did for Rudy Guiliani -- a man I disliked almost as much -- in the aftermath of 9/11, when he provided strong and approprate leadership. Unfortuntely for the victims of the hurricane, and for our entire country, Bush was not equal to the task, and his government unable, unwilling and ideologically unpredisposed to give the kind of help that was needed.

And just where, as Keith Olbermann asks, is Cheney in all of this? The fabulous disappearing [vice-]president seems to have disappeared again.

Update (9/6): Well, now we'll surely get some answers about why the Bush administration's response to Katrina was so late and so lacking. I mean, who better to determine why Bush's appointees and Bush's advisors and Bush's cabinet secretaries completely screwed the pooch than the President of the United States himself, George W. Bush? Surely you've got to go to the top to find out why the guy at the top, and everyone under him, can't do the job, right?

This is today's fox guarding the hen house moment. I hope it sounds as ludicrous to the majority of Americans as it does to me.

I eagerly await the results of Bush's investigation. I understand he's going to use the same investigative team that OJ used to look for the real killer of his ex-wife.

Not everyone may be mollified by the Bush investigation:

Local officials bitterly expressed frustration with the federal government's sluggish response as the tragedy unfolded.

"Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area. And bureaucracy needs to stand trial before Congress today," Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, said on CBS' "The Early Show."

"So I'm asking Congress, please investigate this now. Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don't give me the same idiot."

Surely the idiot at the top needs to be changed, but not just at FEMA, and blaming the bureacracy doesn't get at the root of the problem: bureaucracies know how to operate in ways that are well-defined, either under normal circumstances or in extremis. If the proper response to a new situation hasn't been planned beforehand, a bureacracy doesn't know what to do, that's just the nature of the beast. That they didn't isn't a failure of the bureacracy, it's a failure of the bureacracy's leadership. And to compound that failure, the other thing that can be done is to throw out the rulebook and improvise, but only a strong leader at the top can do that -- preferably as high up the ladder as it is possible to get, because the higher up, the more juice, and the more juice, the more the bureaucracy jumps.

So don't blame the file clerks and the middle managers, the fish stinks from the head.

Update (Wed 9/7 1:15am): As I've said over and over again, these people have absolutely no shame. They continue to try to shift the blame from the Federal government, which is totally controlled by Republicans, to local authorities.:

DeLay: Onus for emergency response starts with locals

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House majority leader late Tuesday tried to deflect criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina by saying "the emergency response system was set up to work from the bottom up," then announced a short time later that House hearings examining that response had been canceled.

Now, if FEMA had mobilized the needed massive response and were prevented from entering the disaster area because mayors and governors refused to let them come in, DeLay might have a point, if a pedantic and legalistic one, but nothing like that happened. What happened, in fact, was that the local authorities requested Federal action before the storm even hit, which means there was nothing preventing FEMA doing its job except incompetence, ineptitude and the ideological predisposition of Bush and his handlers and appointees not to use the power of the government to help people and solve problems.

Update (4:56am): They're really flailing around looking for someone to pin this on. Their campaign to blame local authorities isn't catching fire, and, in fact, is stirring up a lot of resentment -- if there's any government that people feel protective about, it's their local government; they feel perfectly free to bitch about it, but just let outsiders do so, and that's a different matter -- so they've got another ready-made scapegoat handy:

"Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people," Bush said after meeting at the White House with his Cabinet on storm recovery efforts.

This may get some traction, because it's undoubtedly true that the bureaucracy didn't do a good job. But why didn't they? Because there was no one to light a fire under them and ride herd on their efforts. There was no one at the higest level saying "drop everything, and get this done ... now, or heads will roll," or whatever else was needed to get them moving. There was no one parting the red tape, kicking butt and taking names.

But what if the blame-the-bureaucracy gambit fails, just as the blame-the-local-authorities one did? I wonder if they'll turn to their old standby, the one that they never fail to turn to whenever they can: blame Bill Clinton.

People died because they couldn't get it right. People died because they didn't deliver on their promise.
George Haddow
FEMA Deputy Chief of Staff under James Lee Witt,
on FEMA's response to Katrina

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/05/2005 09:00:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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© 2003-2008
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