Monday, September 12, 2005

The Federal Response To Hurricane Katrina


I am not sure how I came across this editorial by Jack Kelly, a columnist whose work I don't previously recall reading. I am not sure whether he is being intentionally misleading, or if he simply doesn't grasp the issues. Kelly complains,
It is settled wisdom among journalists that the federal response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina was unconscionably slow.

* * *

But the conventional wisdom is the opposite of the truth.

Jason van Steenwyk is a Florida Army National Guardsman who has been mobilized six times for hurricane relief. He notes that:

"The federal government pretty much met its standard time lines, but the volume of support provided during the 72-96 hour was unprecedented. The federal response here was faster than Hugo, faster than Andrew, faster than Iniki, faster than Francine and Jeanne."
So the National Guard met its "standard timeline" once deployed? Does that mean that no criticism can be made that the "standard timeline" is inadequate, or that deployment should have occurred at an earlier time? Does that mean that no criticism can be made of other failures - after all, it was not only the National Guard which had a duty to respond to the crisis, and it seems to be beyond quesiton that DHS and FEMA fell down on the job.
Journalists who are long on opinions and short on knowledge have no idea what is involved in moving hundreds of tons of relief supplies into an area the size of England in which power lines are down, telecommunications are out, no gasoline is available, bridges are damaged, roads and airports are covered with debris, and apparently have little interest in finding out.

So they libel as a "national disgrace" the most monumental and successful disaster relief operation in world history.
Fortunately for them, Jack Kelly is here to... well, fail to explain the logistics, or why deployment could not have been more efficient. It is even possible to question all of that without disputing that the Guard did a good job once deployed. But apparently Kelly is here to score rhetorical points, not points of fact. And as if I needed more evidence of that:
Journalists complain that it took a whole week to [accomplish a significant rescue effort]. A former Air Force logistics officer had some words of advice for us in the Fourth Estate on his blog, Moltenthought:
"We do not yet have teleporter or replicator technology like you saw on 'Star Trek' in college between hookah hits and waiting to pick up your worthless communications degree while the grown-ups actually engaged in the recovery effort were studying engineering.
What is more telling? That Kelly sought out Moltenthought's blog as a source, or that he thought that particular stupid insult was so clever and insightful as to merit repetition in a newspaper column?

Kelly concludes,
Exhibit A on the bill of indictment of federal sluggishness is that it took four days before most people were evacuated from the Louisiana Superdome.

The levee broke Tuesday morning. Buses had to be rounded up and driven from Houston to New Orleans across debris-strewn roads. The first ones arrived Wednesday evening. That seems pretty fast to me.

A better question -- which few journalists ask -- is why weren't the roughly 2,000 municipal and school buses in New Orleans utilized to take people out of the city before Katrina struck?
I'm not going to defend the local response in any number of respects. For example, the declaration of the Superdome as a point for people to seek refuge was made without any advance provision for food, water, or sanitation. But last I heard, there were not great lines of people trying to escape the city before the Levees broke - and afterward it was too late. According to Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, the buses were in use up to that point. It may be that the bus effort was too little or too late, but Kelly again doesn't appear interested in the facts.

Here's something that bothers me. Before 9/11, the "big three" emergency scenarios for federal disaster officials were reportedly a terrorist attack on New York City, a major earthquake in Los Angeles, and a hurricane that flooded New Orleans. Spread the blame as you will, but if this is the Best that Bush's Deparment of Homeland Security can do for one of the "big three" some four years after 9/11, there is no conceivable defense of its incompetence. Whether or not state and local officials were doing their jobs, once Bush declared Louisiana a disaster state the federal response should have been kicked into high gear. Just as federal ineptitude doesn't absolve the state and local authorities of their share of responsibility for their own failures, the state and local mistakes and failures do not excuse a botched federal response.

But then, as I have noted before, government officials can be expected to take responsibility for mistakes only when they are certain that they will not be held accountable.

2 comments:

  1. You missed the point entirely. Read what I wrote again.

    I said the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT more or less met its standard timelines. I never mentioned the National Guard.

    If you don't know the difference between the Federal government and the National Guard, you really have no business critiquing the logistics.

    You don't even delineate HOW FEMA failed, other than it wasn't fast enough. Well, what is FEMA supposed to do? Truck seven truckloads of supplies into New Orleans before the flood hit?

    Well, FEMA did precisely that, although the crowds were two or three times what local officials predicted according to the Washington Post. But the fact that FEMA managed to kick in a whole truck convoy that early is astonishing.

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  2. Jason, assuming you are "Jason van Steenwyk, the person quoted in the Jack Kelly idiotorial, it should have been obvious to you that I was not responding to you. I was responding to Jack Kelly - and I made that clear from the outset. Granted, I did not quote his entire piece - would my choice of words have been better understood by you had I quoted the next paragraph:

    "For instance, it took five days for National Guard troops to arrive in strength on the scene in Homestead, Fla. after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. But after Katrina, there was a significant National Guard presence in the afflicted region in three."

    If you want to complain about somebody taking your quote and applying it to the National Guard, you need to start with Jack Kelly, not with those who are responding to Kelly's assertions about the Guard.

    Further, even if I had been replying to you, and thus had said "federal government", nothing about my remarks would be affected. With all due respect to your subsequent personal attack, your semantic challenge changes nothing.

    You conclude with a red herring, which I will choose not to pursue. There are obviously many things that can and should be done in preparation for one of the "big three" disasters long acknowledged by FEMA. You don't need an IQ above room temperature to look at New Orleans and see cataclysmic failure at the local, state, and national level.

    So far I have radical lefties like Joe Scarborough and David Brooks conceding as much. (To quote Brooks, " Katrina was the most anticipated natural disaster in American history, and still government managed to fail at every level.") I just heard that Mike "Brownie" Brown was forced out of FEMA. So... is the entire right-wing world ganging up on poor Jack Kelly, or could it be that Kelly really is out to lunch?

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