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From horse shows to national emergencies

Reader Peter H raises more doubts about the Bush administration’s response to Katrina:

I just wanted to respond to some of the comments your blog has posted defending the Bush Administration’s response to Katrina. I don’t have time to respond to all of the points they make, but I would just like to clear several of their misconceptions:

First of all, contrary to what some of your posters claim, it is the federal government, not state and local governments, that are primarily responsible for cooridinating emergency management of disasters the scope of Hurricane Katrina. The federal government has the expertise, resources and capacity that state and local governments lack, and is in a much better position to coordinate responses of various governments. It is on the Department of Homeand Security’s own website that it will “assume primary responsibility … for ensuring that emergency response professionals are prepared for any situation. This will entail providing a coordinated, comprehensive federal response to any large-scale crisis and mounting a swift and effective recovery effort.” That does not mean the governments of Louisiana or New Orleans should be absolved of their failures, but let’s not ignore who has primary responsibility.

Also, the claim that “most of the state administration is from a different political party to the federal administration”, while true, ignores the fact that Louisiana Democrats are far more conservative and supportive of Bush than typical Democrats; New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, for instance, had been a contributor to George W. Bush’s presidential run in 2000 and only reluctantly endorsed John Kerry in 2004. Anyway, disaster mitigation is typically not an area where partisan divisions are relevant.

I would like to discuss a lot of different aspects of how the Bush Administration’s combination of ideology, incompetence, and patronage have undermined the response to Katrina, but since I’m pressed for time, I will focus on one point. When Bill Clinton became President in 1993, he appointed James Lee Witt, a director experienced in emergency management, as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Witt was highly praised by Republicans and Democrats alike for his reforms of FEMA. President Bush, in contrast, appointed Joe Allbaugh, who had absolutely no experience in disaster relief but had served as George W. Bush’s campaign manager in 2000. Allbaugh’s successor was Michael Brown, whose experience prior to joining the Bush Administration was– I’m not joking– “commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association”.

According to this article in the Boston Herald (which, FWIW, is a conservative newspaper that endorsed Bush in 2000 and 2004): “Brown was forced out of the position after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures.” In the article, the president of the International Arabian Horses Association confirms that Brown was asked to resign.

Is that the kind of man we want cooridinating the response to one of the greatest natural disasters in American history?

To run the federal agency responsible for savings lives and helping victims in national emergencies, President Bush selected a guy who was too incompetent to oversee horse shows?

Beyond belief.

Reader Tom Beck reflects on the damage to America’s stature in the world caused by the post-Katrina debacle:

The point, as seen from a European perspective, is not whose fault the whole dreadful hurricane business was, but that its aftermath took on such awful proportions. I (in the UK) follow the news regularly both in English and German, and not just on one broadcaster/ print medium. It is simply wrong to claim, as some in America appear to be doing, that the broadcasters/journalists to a man are all anti-American. They are not. The question that remains to baffle us is why on earth it took so long for anything to be done. The facts are incontrovertible, tens of thousands of people were left in the most appalling conditions, the forces of law and order collapsed, and this in the most powerful nation on earth, and one which regularly chides others for inefficiency. No one really cares whether or not the Mayor of New Orleans, or the governor of this state or that had 24 or 48 hours, or whether… waffle, waffle, waffle.

The point is that nothing was done in a country that regularly berates rest of the world for it many failings. America always has, so it claims, the better solution to this or that problem. Do things the American way, we are told, and all will be well. So it defies belief that the excuses being made can have led to such a state of affairs. And if the reasons given, rivalry between political parties, national vs. state competence and the rest of it, are true, then they, too, are no excuse. On the contrary. America regularly, and rightly, takes the UN to task for its inability to get things done, demands less bureaucracy, less waste, etc. etc. etc. and then this! If America wishes to lead the rest of the world, to preach about how others should run their affairs, even to the extent of regime-change, then the kind of total incompetence on the part of officialdom the hurricane demonstrated is nothing of a scandal.

What is at stake is America’s standing in the world. If this is how the most powerful and advanced nation on earth copes in a crisis, then what are other nations to do? Telling us, as various contributors have done, that there were all sorts of perfectly good reasons why nothing happened for some five days is merely passing the buck in the cheapest possible way. I am anything but anti-American, have stood by America in many an hour of need, and it would do no harm for America just for once to say, ‘We made a right mess of it’. The pettifogging reasons don’t matter. What does matter is that the US of A gets its act together, makes sure such a thing can never happen again, and that before others start pointing the finger and saying, ‘Don’t lecture us! In the last resort you’re no better!’

Update: Reader Monica writes:

I read Peter’s post and something I read in The Washington Post might add some perspective to his claim that:

“First of all, contrary to what some of your posters claim, it is the federal government, not state and local governments, that are primarily responsible for cooridinating emergency management of disasters the scope of Hurricane Katrina.”

The following passage makes it clear that the state needed to have a plan in place that would have sustained the city/state/area 72 to 96 hours:

“Other federal and state officials pointed to Louisiana’s failure to measure up to national disaster response standards, noting that the federal plan advises state and local emergency managers not to expect federal aid for 72 to 96 hours, and base their own preparedness efforts on the need to be self-sufficient for at least that period. “Fundamentally the first breakdown occurred at the local level,” said one state official who works with FEMA. “Did the city have the situational awareness of what was going on within its borders? The answer was no.”

Does anyone know anything about this advisory not to expect aid for 72 to 96 hours? I can find no mention of it on the FEMA website.