Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Stepping Back: Blame And Implications

Republicans seem to be titling the outcry against the pathetic federal response to Katrina as an unfair blamegame, accusing those who have attacked the federal government's response as engaging in partisan fingerpointing, and, in turn trying to blame the inefficient government response on local and state officials (i.e., Democrats), perpetuating the blame game.

The Republican spin has been that local government is supposed to lead disaster efforts, not the feds. Rove got the Washington Post to print a false statement that Governor Blanco never declared the state of emergency that was required to get federal relief efforts on the ground. But that lie was exposed by the Post in a correction item within hours -- Blanco issued the state of emergency in PLENTY of time to trigger the federal response which never happened in a meaningful way.

A more serious and honest critique of the local response has been that evactuation efforts could have been better... that it's primarily the local government's fault that 200,000 people were left behind in New Orleans.

I'll grant them that. The evacuation could have gone a lot better.

That said, Nagin succeeded in evacuating 80 percent of his city... 800,000 people. Has an evacuation of that magnitude EVER occurred in an American city before??? I don't think so. He should absolultely get credit for the evacuation being as successful as it was.

A 100% evacuation would have been the first EVER, perhaps of ANY city in the world, under such circumstances. Blaming the deaths of the past week on his failure to accomplish what had never been accomplished before is a bit unfair.

Yes, I wish they had more closely followed their own evacuation plan... but such a 100% total evacuation had NEVER been executed before in an American city. Should we keep striving for total evacuation for catastrophes in the future? Absolutely.

But to make sure it happens in the future, it's not unreasonable to ask the federal government to step in and help with the evacuation efforts as well. Future plans should make sure that that IS appropriate. If we have FIVE DAYS' WARNING from hurricane centers that a CATASTROPHIC hurricane is going to hit and state of emergency declarations issued days ahead, that DOES give the federal government time to step in, fly, boat, or drive extra bodies in to help drive those busses and otherwise help with the evacuation effort. It should have happened.

Hopefully, in the future, it will happen.

But in the meantime, 80% of the city got out safely, and that's pretty impressive.

Now the difference between the issue of evacuation (which locals are being blamed for) and what came after (which people are starting to understand was largely a FEMA-led disaster of incompetence) is this:

there are so, so many potential disasters (especially of the terrorist attack type, tornados, etc.) where we will not HAVE days' and days' of warnings to allow for a 100% evacuation, let alone 80%.

What WILL occur with EVERY disaster, however, is an IMMEDIATE need to get emergency relief supplies to people who are trapped, injured, or dying.

THAT is a more regular occurrence, something this nation faces multiple times a year, something that is the essential NATURE of FEMA's job, or should be. If Federal Emergency Management means anything, it should mean being prepared to efficiently and quickly respond to disasters and catastrophes as soon as we know they are going to happen.

So, keeping score, at first the Bush administration response, when trying to disown responsibility for lack of meaningful federal assistance in the Katrina relief effort, was "no one could have predicted this."

Which has been refuted over and over again. For years, scientists and New Orleans officials alike had warned that EXACTLY this could happen if a hurricane of this strength hit New Orleans. catagory 4 or 5 hurricane hit New Orleans.

So then the Bush administration and their friends have finally settled on a talking point to avoid having the buck stop with the feds: it was the locals' fault for not more fully evacuating New Orleans... no one could have predicted that 20% of the city's population would be stranded.

Which is JUST as nonsensical. In ANY disaster, people are going to be left behind (and in this case, an amazing 80% got the hell out). Don't tell me you expect a huge city to be fully evacuated before a catastrophic disaster... it's never happened before, did you REALLY expect it to happen this time?


So, getting away from blame here, the real issue is the IMPLICATIONS of what went wrong.


Everyone understands that. The outcry last week from those of us who were horrified to see that dying people were being left stranded to die without resources from the federal government for four days was not politically driven, but rather driven by the urgency of getting the government's attention to wake up before it was too late... to get down there and fucking save lives. NOW!

This week, the tone is starting to shift. With pretty much everyone evacuated and federal relief finally having arrived (though the FEMA fiascos continue), the tone of questioning the federal government's response now is much more about making sure it NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN.

These are completely valid questions, and those accusing those of us questioning the government's response as being led by politics are missing the point.

I'm willing to concede that there was a breakdown at every level of the government, that though 100% evacuation would have been great, and 80% evacuation is pretty damn impressive, there are still more things the locals could have done to get the evactuation rate up even more.

I also think every Democrat in office who stripped Louisiana's flood prevention program of its funding is just as responsible and culpable for that part of the Katrina disaster as every Republican who voted the same.

At the end of the day, what I'm trying to say here, is that it's NOT ABOUT BLAME. It's about making sure it NEVER happens again.

PUT together a national plan that streamlines the communication between locals and feds and has them working TOGETHER to try to accomplish 100% evacuation where catastrophes are known about enough in advance that such things are possible.

REALIZE that most catastrophes will NOT give us that kind of advance notice, and that Homeland Security needs to make sure our homelands are protected and that relief efforts can start pouring in AS SOON AS a catastrophe hits... not four and five days later.

We've had FOUR years to do this since 2001, and it's not like catastrophes didn't exist before then. When Bush restructured FEMA after 2001, the presumption was going to be that our disaster response on a national level would be MORE efficient and potent and life-saving than ever... and the past week does throw all of that into question.

Do I want the FEMA director to be fired? Absolutely. Do I want to ensure that from now on, Bush isn't going to appoint unqualified, inexperienced people to such critical positions in the future, when our collective lives are in their hands, and American lives should be valued above nepotism? You bet.

But I wish to god that none of this had happened. No matter where the chips fall and who is to blame, the real issue last week was screaming for lives... and the issue now is making sure this never happens again.

For such outcries to be shrugged off as unfair partisanship is not just disingenuous... it is life-threateningly dangerous. Do not, America, do NOT, start making excuses to protect your favorite politicians at the risk of allowing the government to walk away from this WITHOUT FIXING THE PROBLEM.

This didn't come out as clearly as I wanted it to, but it's as good as I can get.

This will not be the last disaster to hit our country. I don't care what political party controls the national or the affected state the next time... I want them to fucking SAVE LIVES the best they can, and I will be upset if they don't. Corpses and hurricanes and floods and catastropic loss marred by bureuacratic incompetence knows no political party. But if one party controls the federal government, damn straight the members of that party are responsible for the failure of the federal government to saves the lives of our people on such a massive level last week.

And now, with Bush himself -- the commander-in-chief who STAYED ON VACATION as thousands were drowning to death in New Orleans through the first half of last week, the president who appointed his close political buddies with no experience handling disasters (other than political ones) to head FEMA -- leading the investigation into what went wrong...

... well, I fear that this WILL happen again. With no accountability, no owned responsibility by the federal government, with spin and saving political skin apparantly being prioritized above saving human lives in the past week...

... we may be doomed to see history repeat itself over. and over. and over. again.

The blame assigned is incidental. The implications for all of us are huge.

Do your homelands feel more secure today than four years ago? THAT is the question.


Coming back to add something here. Just finished reading the New York Times, and it seems that they're pretty much on the same page as I here. Snippets from today's editorial on the so-called "blame game":

"With the size and difficulty of the task of rescuing and rebuilding New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas still unfolding, it seemed early to talk about investigating how this predicted cataclysm had been allowed to occur and why the government's response was so slow and inept. Until yesterday, that is, when President Bush blithely announced at a photo-op cabinet meeting that he, personally, was going to "find out what went right and what went wrong." We can't imagine a worse idea.

"No administration could credibly investigate such an immense failure on its own watch. And we have learned through bitter experience - the Abu Ghraib nightmare is just one example - that when this administration begins an internal investigation, it means a whitewash in which no one important is held accountable and no real change occurs.

"Mr. Bush signaled yesterday that we are in for more of the same when he sneered and said, "One of the things that people want us to do here is to play a blame game." This is not a game. It is critical to know what "things went wrong," as Mr. Bush put it. But we also need to know which officials failed - not to humiliate them, but to replace them with competent people.

"It's obvious, for instance, that Michael Brown has met the expectations of those who warned that he would be a terrible director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This is no time to be engaging in a wholesale change of leadership, but in Mr. Brown's case there seems to be precious little leadership to lose. He should be replaced with someone who can do the huge job that remains to be done.

"But the questions go way beyond Mr. Brown - starting with why federal officials ignored predictions of a disastrous flood in New Orleans - and the answers can come only from an independent commission. We agree with the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, Senator Hillary Clinton and others who say that such a panel should follow the successful formula of the 9/11 commission: bipartisan leadership and members chosen by the White House and both parties in Congress on the basis of real expertise. It should have subpoena power and a staff expert enough to find answers and offer remedies.

"Mrs. Clinton has also proposed pulling FEMA out of the Homeland Security Department and restoring its cabinet-level status. That is premature. . .

"Before throwing the system into chaos again, an investigation should determine whether the problem lies in the structure or in execution. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal showed how the Bush administration had systematically stripped power and money from FEMA, which had been painfully rebuilt under President Bill Clinton but had long been a target of Republican "small government" ideologues. The Journal said state officials had been warning Washington - as recently as July 27 - that the homeland secretary, Michael Chertoff, was planning further disastrous cuts. . .

". . . disasters like this are not a city or a state issue. They concern the entire nation and demand a national response - certainly a better one than the White House comments that "tremendous progress" had been made in Louisiana. We're used to that dismissive formula when questions are raised about Iraq. Americans deserve better about a disaster of this magnitude in their own country."


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