Monday, September 05, 2005

Hurricane Katrina and the perils of bullshit

The catastrophe in New Orleans was predicted in such precise and exquisite detail by so many people in so many places that it must be classified not as a natural disaster but as a national disgrace.

It was a known fact that flooding in New Orleans was unlike flooding in any other U.S. city, because once the pumps that keep the city dry are submerged in water, they fail. The back-up plan is this: Everybody drowns.

It doesn't matter if the flooding is caused by the direct hit of a hurricane, by a levee break, by a storm surge, or by a downpour. If the pumps are submerged they fail, the water level rises, and everybody drowns.

Criticism has been leveled at local officials who did not drive into poor neighborhoods with buses and bullhorns and force everyone to evacuate as Hurricane Katrina approached. But it is easy to imagine how well that would have gone over if local officials had done it three or four times a year, as prudence would dictate, whenever a heavy storm threatened to flood the city. Total evacuation of New Orleans was never a realistic possibility although it was the city's only plan in the event of a major hurricane.

The real survival plan for New Orleans was killed in Washington. The Army Corps of Engineers and everyone who approved their budget knew the levees that protected New Orleans were not capable of withstanding anything above a category 3 hurricane. They saw simulations of the catastrophic destruction and high death toll that would result if a powerful hurricane hit the city. Yet the government never made it a priority to upgrade and strengthen the levee system before the worst happened.

When Katrina hit, the brand new Homeland Security Department issued the first-ever declaration of an "incident of national significance," triggering our new "national response plan."

"Essentially," the Associated Press reported on August 31, "the plan funnels help from all federal agencies through a single point of contact, a reform demanded after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks."

It will be months or, if the Bush administration can help it, years before we know how many truckloads of aid and teams of emergency workers were stopped in that bureaucratic bottleneck. A hint of what is to come surfaced in a Meet the Press interview on September 4, when Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard angrily reported that Wal-Mart had sent three truckloads of water to New Orleans, only to have them turned away by FEMA officials who said they were not needed.

What has happened to FEMA, once a model of compassion and efficiency? Today the Los Angeles Times described how the Federal Emergency Management Agency's budget, authority and cabinet-level status were reduced as part of the massive government reorganization that created the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA "has suffered budget cuts, the elimination or reduction of key programs and an exodus of experienced staffers," the Times reported.

It appears that no one in the Homeland Security Department -- the single point of contact for disaster response -- was prepared for flooding in New Orleans once the hurricane veered to the east and dealt the city only a glancing blow. "Tuesday morning, I opened newspapers and saw headlines that said 'New Orleans Dodged The Bullet,'" Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff told Meet the Press yesterday, repeating the administration's story that no one could have foreseen a storm surge and a levee break after the hurricane had passed.

Actually, quite a large number of people foresaw it, but none of them worked for the Department of Homeland Security.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and sometimes with bullshit.

President Bush decided after the terror attacks of 9/11 to stage a showy reorganization of the government, even though absolutely nothing that happened on September 11th would have been prevented by the newly-constructed Department of Homeland Security, or, for that matter, by the government's takeover of airport security.

The attacks could have been prevented with the agencies that existed at the time if only people had read the memos and the intelligence, translated the intercepts, and not been afraid of being called racist or undiplomatic for investigating Saudi and Egyptian nationals in U.S. flight schools.

Furthermore, the worst damage on September 11th was caused by the faulty premise that hijackers always set the plane down safely and negotiate for their demands. It may still be possible today for terrorists to get on a flight and hijack it with a smuggled weapon, but it will be a cold day in hell when the passengers sit quietly while they fly the plane into a New York City landmark.

Rather than fire the intelligence professionals who failed or admit that anyone made a wrong call, President Bush declared that the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, FEMA and all the agencies involved in security were inconveniently located in different departments of the government.

At great expense and with immense bureaucratic upheaval, President Bush relocated massive chunks of the government into the new Homeland Security Department. This would allow him, he said at the time, to make one call to one person and demand to know how we were doing.

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, it immediately became clear that we were not doing very well.

After the Northridge earthquake in California in 1994, FEMA did spectacularly well. We had a government agency that was working. Today we have a government agency that takes a week to get bottled water to New Orleans -- and tells Wal-Mart to back off because they think they've got it covered.

Speaking of the private sector, the L.A. Times reported one more interesting scene from the streets of New Orleans. A reporter met up with members of an Israeli security company that had been hired to protect Audubon Place, a gated community off St. Charles Avenue.

This is where the president's reorganization has led us. The Homeland Security Department has successfully consolidated control of all the disaster-relief resources in America. So if you need help, you have to call another country.

A national disgrace.

Copyright 2005