Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Not on the Job

“I don’t want to play the blame game,” says BushCheney about the national failure created by Hurricaine Katrina. “Now’s the time to get help to the people who need it.” And for once, he is right. The job at hand is Rescue, Relief and Rebuilding. The “blame game” doesn’t do much for that. But accountability and performance have everything to do with the job at hand. And with building the capability to forestall such a calamity in the future. Asking what happened, who failed and why is a necessary rite of public administration. Government that is serious about protecting its citizens must find out why it did not respond effectively when the shit hit the fan and look for ways to see that it doesn’t fail the next time.

But Katrina’s damage is an all too present reality. Government failed to protect its most vulnerable citizens from a predictable disaster. The old, infirm, sick and poor were left to face the fury of one of the strongest storms to hit the US, a storm whose land fall was well known. Trapped by the storm, these same people where left to suffer and die government did little or nothing to rescue them or provide relief. Even when government acted, offering refuge in the Superdome, no support was provided to thousands of people in a crippled city. Katrina in New Orleans was a catastrophic failure exceeding the 9-11 attacks.

Katrina created calmitous bureaucratic dithering of the highest order. Agencies, administrators, military commanders hesitated, worked at cross purposes and argued about responsibility as floodwaters rose and conditions became more extreme. What happened? The city and state ordered an evacuation made nor provision for those who could not leave on their own. When the levees broke, a likely prospect based on pre-storm warnings, conditions became extreme, quickly spiraling beyond the capability of a stricken city and state to handle.

BushCheney’s failure was not seeing the catastrophe and marshaling the considerable resources and authority of the federal government to relieve the city. (The photograph of George W. eating cake and strumming a guitar while New Orleans drowned will be as inconic as his wide eyed interlude at the Florida elementary school after learning New York had been attacked on 9-11.) Asleep at the switch. Blaming the state and local government or the complications of federalism in no way absolves the federal government and its chief executive of responsibility to ensure domestic tranquility and provide for the general welfare, two of the six purposes established by the US Constitution. Whatever failures at the local and state levels, once the scope of the storm and its damage were known, Katrina became a national issue.

A vigorous, focused federal response should have begun when the Director of the National Hurricane Center briefed the Secretary of Homeland Security and the FEMA director two days prior to landfall that Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 or 5 storm and warned that if it came ashore at or near New Orleans it could breech the city’s levees, creating the toxic flood that is now all too familiar. Why New Orlean’s poorest and weakest citizens were not evacuated along with the majority of citizens prior to the storm is a question that begins with the mayor and governor to start. Why those citizens were stranded is also a question for BushCheney and his emergency managers. The storm is not the issue. The issue is twofold: Why did government fail? How do we ensure that it does not fail again?

The specifics of emergency management in a federal system are mind-bendingly complex. Failures occurred at multiple levels and operational interfaces. But one key ingredient was missing: a President who Kicks Ass and Takes Names, a strong executive pushing his organizations into immediate action. BushCheney had all the authority he needed to make things happen but did nothing. He could suspend or waive regulations and normal procedures. He had federal troops and equipment at his disposal. More importantly, he had the Bully Pulpit. Can anyone doubt that a President shouting “Get those people out! Now!” would not have lit some fires in the bureaucracy. Presidential follow up calls would have fanned the flames. But BushCheney was absent. The ponderous engine of federal bureaucracy was left to sputter into life as people died. Simply put, Elvis was not in the building.

The absence of 40 percent of the Louisana’s National Guard and over half of its equipment aggravated the situation. As I write, 11 days after landfall, sufficient resources seem to be in place to rescue citizens willing to evacuate. But the lack of local forces–“boots on the ground”–to deal with the disaster immediately clearly did not help. Neither, too, did BushCheney’s unwillingness to fund public works necessary to avert the flooding.

But for the time being, the biggest failure was that the one person with the responsibility, authority and resources to deal with a crisis of this magnitude did nothing until shamed into action by the desperate plight of New Orleans.