Commentary

Federal Failure in New Orleans

This article originally appeared in the Australian on Sept. 5, 2005
Is George W. Bush a serious person? It’s not a question to ask lightly of a decent man who holds the US presidency, an office worthy of respect. But it must be asked.

No one “anticipated the breach of the levees” due to Hurricane Katrina, he said, after being criticised for his administration’s dilatory response to the suffering in the city of New Orleans. A day later he told his director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, Michael Brown: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”.

Is Bush a serious person?

The most important duty at the moment obviously is to respond to the human calamity, not engage in endless recriminations. But it is not clear that this President and this administration are capable of doing what is necessary. They must not be allowed to avoid responsibility for the catastrophe that has occurred on their watch.

Take the President’s remarkable assessment of his Government’s performance. As Katrina advanced on the Gulf coast, private analysts and government officials warned about possible destruction of the levees and damage to the pumps. A year ago, with Hurricane Ivan on the move - before veering away from the Big Easy - city officials warned that thousands could die if the levees gave way.

Afterwards the Natural Hazards Centre noted that a direct strike would have “caused the levees between the lake and city to overtop and fill the city ‘bowl’ with water”. In 2001, Bush’s FEMA cited a hurricane hit on New Orleans as one of the three top possible disasters facing the US. No wonder that the New Orleans Times-Picayune, its presses under water, editorialised: “No one can say they didn’t see it coming.”

Similarly, consider the President’s belief that his appointee, Brown, has been doing a great job. Brown declared on Thursday - the fourth day of flooding in New Orleans - that “the federal Government did not even know about the convention centre people until today”. Apparently people around the world knew more than Brown. Does the head of FEMA not watch television, read a newspaper, talk to an aide, check a website, or have any contact with anyone in the real world? Which resident of New Orleans or Biloxi believes that Brown is doing “a heck of a job”? Which person, in the US or elsewhere, watching the horror on TV, is impressed with the administration’s performance?

Indeed, in the midst of the firestorm of criticism, including by members of his own party, the President allowed that “the results are not acceptable”. But no one has been held accountable for anything. The administration set this pattern long ago: it is constantly surprised and never accountable.

The point is not that Bush is to blame for everything. The Kyoto accord has nothing to do with Katrina: Kyoto would have a negligible impact on global temperatures even if the Europeans complied with it.

Nor have hurricanes become stronger and more frequent in recent decades. Whether extra funding for the Army Corps of Engineers would have preserved the levees is hardly certain and impossible to prove. Nor can the city and state escape responsibility for inaction if they believed the system to be unsafe.

Excessive deployment of National Guard units in the administration’s unnecessary Iraq war limited the flexibility of the hardest-hit states and imposed an extra burden on guard members who’ve recently returned from serving overseas. But sufficient numbers of troops remained available elsewhere across the US.

The real question is: Why did Washington take so long to mobilise them? The administration underestimated the problem, failed to plan for the predictable aftermath and refused to accept responsibility for its actions. Just as when the President took the US and many of its allies into the Iraq war based on false and distorted intelligence. Then the administration failed to prepare for violent resistance in Iraq. The Pentagon did not provide American soldiers with adequate quantities of body armour, armoured vehicles and other equipment.

Contrary to administration expectations, new terrorist affiliates sprang up, new terrorist recruits flooded Iraq and new terrorist attacks were launched across the world, including against several friends of the US. In none of these cases has anyone taken responsibility for anything.

Now Hurricane Katrina surprised a woefully ill-prepared administration. President Bush and his officials failed in their most basic responsibility: to maintain the peaceful social framework within which Americans normally live and work together.

Bush initially responded to 9/11 with personal empathy and political sensitivity. But his failures now overwhelm his successes. The administration’s continuing lack of accountability leaves it ill-equipped to meet equally serious future challenges sure to face the US and the rest of the world.

Doug Bandow, a former special assistant to president Ronald Reagan, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.