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September 3, 2005
Congress Takes Five Days To Act, Criticizes 'Bureaucracy'

In what would be seen as irony under less-deadly circumstances, Congress took the opportunity to carp at the federal response to Hurricane Katrina after passing a $10.5B funding bill five days after the destruction of New Orleans. The New York Times reports that members of both parties criticized the relief efforts while promising hearings into supposed bureaucratic inertia:

Members of Congress from both parties acknowledged on Friday that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina had fallen far short and promised hearings into what had gone wrong. ...

Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, who plans to go to the New Orleans area this weekend, said he had asked the committee that oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency to convene hearings so that "any lessons learned during this experience are brought to the forefront so that we may continue to be more effective in responding to any future disaster."

Before the House action, members of the Congressional Black Caucus strongly criticized the federal response to the hurricane, saying the government had abandoned many poor and frail victims, most of them members of minorities. ...

Republican lawmakers were also critical, with Representative Jim McCrery of Louisiana choking up during a news conference.

"You might note a bit of frustration in my face and in my voice," said Mr. McCrery, whose district in the northwest part of the state was spared by the storm but is struggling to deal with evacuees. "I will tell you: It is there. I am frustrated in my attempts to deal with a wide array of bureaucracy in trying to get assets on the ground."

Let's talk about poor response. Why did it take Congress five days to take action? They knew this storm went to a category 5 last week before it made landfall. No matter where it hit, it had a 100% chance of doing catastrophic damage somewhere, and by Friday it had New Orleans squarely in its sights. Congress should have been back in DC by Monday to get this bill passed and hand it to President Bush, not five days later. They couldn't be bothered to come back from their August vacation more than a couple of days early.

If CQ readers have not guessed it, a night's sleep has changed my mood somewhat. The above paragraph is more or less a parody of the criticisms aimed at George Bush, but if they apply to the President, they also apply to Congress. In fact, they simply don't apply to anyone.

When the storm reached Cat-5 status in the Gulf of Mexico, what did George Bush do? He declared the entire Gulf coast an emergency area and mobilized FEMA. Until it actually made landfall, however, he could not pinpoint the assets. Even at the last moment, the brunt of the storm hit Gulfport, not New Orleans. The levee failure came later, on Tuesday, and until then the damage to New Orleans was major, not catastrophic.

Even so, the existence of the storm off the coast of Louisiana should have prompted governments on all levels to act. What happened? The city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana asked people to evacuate, but made no preparations to assist people in that endeavor. By Friday the outbound roads clogged with people in cars looking to escape, which all did. However, an entire fleet of school buses -- hundreds of them -- sat in their parking lots, gathering dust. Until George Bush called Governor Blanco personally and pleaded with her to make the evacuation order mandatory on Saturday, neither Mayor Nagin nor Blanco told people they had to leave. Apparently, that order only went out over the TV and radio from their press conference; no attempt was made to direct people out of their homes and onto the road.

After the levees broke on Tuesday, the situation broke down rapidly, a drearily predictable result. The two main refugee centers, the official one at the Superdome and the ad-hoc site at the Convention Center, should have been evacuated at that point. However, even two days after landfall, New Orleans had not moved its buses to high ground to keep them ready for use in case the levees broke. Lousiana's governor had not called out her National Guard units, only 25% of which have deployed to Iraq. With I-10 from the east completely unusable for vehicular traffic and the New Orleans PD completely absorbed by search-and-rescue functions, looting ran wild and order completely broke down. Nagin only ordered the PD to take on looting as a high priority on Thursday.

What did George Bush do? He had a wide area of devastation to manage. Mississippi has also sustained catastrophic damage, with entire towns destroyed, flooded, and unable to fend for themselves. He does not have the authority to call out anyone's National Guard until he federalizes the units, a move usually reserved for use when governors prove recalcitrant in mobilization. Yet within three days of the levee burst and the drowning of New Orleans, Bush had 40,000 troops entering the city to take over the management from Nagin and Blanco, delivering the aid that had waited for lines of communication to get established and the order that the NOPD and Louisiana could not maintain.

We work within a federal system, where cities and states control the allocation of resources used within their borders. We do this because we recognize that, for the most part, federalism works. Local decisions about resource allocation usually create better results than top-down bureaucratic management. The main requirement for that to work is local leadership. Blaming George Bush because he delivered results within three days of the major catastrophic event while following these rules is as silly as blaming Congress for taking five days to pass an aid bill.

The main failure in New Orleans came when the local and state governments refused to recognize that the storm had a high chance to cause catastrophic damage and use its assets to get the poor and infirm out of its way. They had plenty of resources (in vehicles) with which to do that, but left them right where the floods would destroy them. All the rest of the damage would have been mere property destruction, difficult to rebuild but nonetheless easier to accept than the unbelievable hardship we've seen this week.

However, I suspect that all of this will come out in whatever hearings get held after the rescues have been completed. In the meantime, let's continue to focus on getting assistance where needed and drop the idea of holding political events that will distract the very people conducting the emergency operations from their primary tasks. CQ readers have done a wonderful job of helping Catholic Charities, and I would encourage them to keep giving.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 3, 2005 7:03 AM

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