The governor of Louisiana was "blistering mad." It was the third night after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco needed buses to rescue thousands of people from the fetid Superdome and convention center. But only a fraction of the 500 vehicles promised by federal authorities had arrived.And if this idiocy of "blaming local officials" needs an epitaph, let this serve as one:
Ms. Blanco burst into the state's emergency center in Baton Rouge. "Does anybody in this building know anything about buses?" she recalled crying out.
They were an obvious linchpin for evacuating a city where nearly 100,000 people had no cars. Yet the federal, state and local officials who had failed to round up buses in advance were now in a frantic hunt. It would be two more days before they found enough to empty the shelters.
The official autopsies of the flawed response to the catastrophic storm have already begun in Washington, and may offer lessons for dealing with a terrorist attack or even another hurricane this season. But an initial examination of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath demonstrates the extent to which the federal government failed to fulfill the pledge it made after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to face domestic threats as a unified, seamless force.
Oliver Thomas, the New Orleans City Council president, expressed a view shared by many in city and state government: that a national disaster requires a national response. "Everybody's trying to look at it like the City of New Orleans messed up," Mr. Thomas said in an interview. "But you mean to tell me that in the richest nation in the world, people really expected a little town with less than 500,000 people to handle a disaster like this? That's ludicrous to even think that."
But that's only a piece of it. At the Superdome:
By the time the last buses arrived on Saturday, he said, some children were so dehydrated that guardsmen had to carry them out, and several adults died while walking to the buses. State officials said yesterday that a total of 10 people died in the Superdome.Meanwhile:
"I'm very angry that we couldn't get the resources we needed to save lives," Chief Swain said. "I was watching people die."
FEMA's deference was frustrating. Rather than initiate relief efforts - buses, food, troops, diesel fuel, rescue boats - the agency waited for specific requests from state and local officials. "When you go to war you don't have time to ask for each round of ammunition that you need," complained Colonel Ebbert, the city's emergency operations director.And at some point you wonder: If you weren't prepared for a crisis, what exactly were you prepared for? You also have to wonder: did you consider sending food, rescue, aid? Given that Bush's first public response to the flooding of New Orleans was to declare looting the biggest concern, apparently not.
As New Orleans descended into near-anarchy, the White House considered sending active-duty troops to impose order.Maybe food and water should have been a bigger consideration. Apparently, however, that wasn't a big concern. They worried about sending in the military to impose order. But they worried more about making sure the right forms were used:
William D. Vines, a former mayor of Fort Smith, Ark., helped deliver food and water to areas hit by the hurricane. But he said FEMA halted two trailer trucks carrying thousands of bottles of water to Camp Beauregard, near Alexandria, La., a staging area for the distribution of supplies.And if this doesn't make you want to scrap the whole department and start over, nothing will:
"FEMA would not let the trucks unload," Mr. Vines said in an interview. "The drivers were stuck for several days on the side of the road about 10 miles from Camp Beauregard. FEMA said we had to have a 'tasker number.' What in the world is a tasker number? I have no idea. It's just paperwork, and it's ridiculous."
Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas, who interceded on behalf of Mr. Vines, said, "All our Congressional offices have had difficulty contacting FEMA. Governors' offices have had difficulty contacting FEMA." When the state of Arkansas repeatedly offered to send buses and planes to evacuate people displaced by flooding, she said, "they were told they could not go. I don't really know why."
The National Response Plan [of the Department for Homeland Security, released in January] set out a lofty goal in its preface: "The end result is vastly improved coordination among federal, state, local and tribal organizations to help save lives and protect America's communities by increasing the speed, effectiveness and efficiency of incident management."I'm sure the Department will understand if the rest of us have absolutely no confidence in their ability to respond to this self-inflicted crisis either.
The evidence of the initial response to Hurricane Katrina raised doubts about whether the plan had, in fact, improved coordination. Mr. Knocke, the homeland security spokesman, said the department realizes it must learn from its mistakes, and the department's inspector general has been given $15 million in the emergency supplemental appropriated by Congress to study the flawed rescue and recovery operation.
"There is going to be enough blame to go around at all levels," he said. "We are going to be our toughest critics."
Note: this article has the added benefit of completely undermining David Brooks' column in the same paper, where he manages to castigate the bureaucrats for their failings, but only those in Louisiana. Not once does he mention FEMA, or any of the facts contained in this article. Once again: too little, and far too late.
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