Monday, August 28, 2006

Katrina Anniversary: The Blame Game

Well put.

TPM Cafe

Another Round of the "Blame Game"
By Boyd Blundell

On of the most noxious of the federal talking points after Katrina last year was that they weren't going to play the "blame game." Of course administration defenders were playing it vigorously, which is important to note, because if the "blame game" had not been played, things would have been much worse for the administration than they ended up being (which is in fact pretty bad). The reason it was a success is that it gave Bush's true believers something to hang their hat on if they didn't want to criticize the administration.

But all this is to misunderestimate the scope of what happened here, and how predictable it was. You could prove decisively that Nagin was an incompetent idiot and Blanco was clueless and uncooperative, and still do nothing to mitigate the "blame" due the federal government.

The threat presented by Katrina, which it managed to deliver on despite barely grazing New Orelans, had been considered long in advance. It ranked alongside nuclear bombs and bio-terror threats as one of the worst catastrophes possible. This was not a secret.

So the question is not whether the city of New Orleans or the state of Lousisana acted well or poorly, but rather how much the quality of their reaction matters given the scope of the disaster. Remember we are not talking about a few square blocks of destruction, where the resources of the rest of the city can be brought to bear on the problem. We are talking about donzens of square miles of devastation, which complely obliterates the whole command and control structure.

So pile on Nagin if you must. I have no particular interest in defending him. He's energetic and fairly honest, but is completely overmatched by his job. But it should be noted that the evacuation of New Orleans before Katrina was among the (if not the) most successful urban evacuations ever. The lessons of Ivan were learned, and contraflow performed admirably. While the mandatory evacuation was ordered Sunday, the rhetoric of evacuation was ramped up on Thurday and Friday. New Orleans does not have the resources to plan a perfect evacuation, or good post-storm care. Everyone knew this too.

(Horrifying thought of the day: The 17th st and London canal levees failed well below their design specs. The level at which they seem to have failed could conceivably have been achieved by tropical storm Cindy in July of 2005. Everyone would have been in the city. Potential six digit death tolls. And you saw FEMA perform with maximum warning -- imagine if they were taken by surprise.)

Or pile on Blanco if you must. This is harder, because she did in fact declare a state of emergency on the 26th and requested a federal declaration on the 27th. She, unlike senior federal officials, cancelled her out of town plans, and generally seemed more cognizant of the scope of the impending disaster than Bush and Nagin put together. But whatever Blanco's competence, she did not do a lot to inspire confidence in her consituents. She didn't look decisive, and that's part of the job.

But let's pretend that both Nagin and Blanco performed beautifully throughout the whole thing. Let'e pretend (and this is hard) that Nagin made all the right calls, ordered the mandatory evacuation at the proper time, and marshalled all of New Orelans' meager resources in preparing for disaster. Let's further pretend that Blanco was a model of foresight and was ready to be the grease that helped the enitre disaster machine run smoothly, cooperating fully with both Nagin and Bush. The only thing that stays the same in this scenario is the federal response.

New Orleans is still completely screwed.

If the mayor and governor had been perfect, the ice still would have been sent to Boston, the necessary resources would not have been pre-positioned, Bush would have stayed on vacation, interrupting it only to to photo-ops with McCain and country music stars, and Broderick would still have made life and death decisions based on CNN's coverage of drinking in the French Quarter while ignoring the 700 emails that described the catastrophic flooding.

For the people of New Orleans and Louisiana to hold Blanco and Nagin responsible for their failures is not difficult or even unwarranted. But when the rest of the country starts piling on as well, it misses the point by over-valuing the the mayor and governor's importance in the whole scenario. It would be like blaming a few officers for the comprehensive disaster in Iraq. (And who would be craven enough to do that?)

If we fail to keep our collective eyes on the federal ball here, we are missing one of the reasons why we should care about this more than we apparently do. (Others are enumerated here.) The Department of Homeland Securty, the ultimate architect of this abject failure, is still in charge of FEMA. And FEMA is not a fixed-venue performance; it is a travelling road show that could soon be coming to a city near you. And when they screw it up again, they're going to blame you.

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