by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
September 1, 2006
KATRINA: A TRAGEDY MADE WORSE BY OFFICIAL INCOMPETENCE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- A year ago this week, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
What made Katrina a singularly horrific tragedy were the images the world saw after the storm had passed.
Badly-needed emergency aid was slow in coming, and people were literally dying in the streets of New Orleans waiting for food, water and medicine that arrived too late.
Why did this happen? It happened because of conscious decisions made by people who believe that government is evil and exists only to reward friends and punish enemies. It happened because of an Administration that believes the private sector can do things better and gutted the very institutions that could have saved lives in New Orleans.
Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College, wrote an essay earlier this summer that sums up the problem. Entitled "Why Conservatives Can't Govern," Wolfe put forth the idea that "contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government."
The perfect illustration of Wolfe's view is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Under President Clinton, FEMA shifted its focus from preparing for a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union to dealing with more likely and predictable natural disasters. It worked closely with state and local officials and responded promptly and efficiently when disaster struck. It is not a stretch to say that by the end of the Clinton years, FEMA was one of the best run federal agencies.
When President George W. Bush assumed office in 2001, he put Joe Allbaugh, a former campaign aide with no emergency management experience, in charge of FEMA. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FEMA was folded into the Department of Homeland Security, an agency that Mr. Bush initially opposed until political pressure forced his hand.
Allbaugh left for the private sector in 2002. His handpicked successor, Michael Brown, had even less experience. They did, however, had one thing in common - they believed FEMA was just another federal entitlement program that needed dismantling.
Allbaugh and Brown privatized many of FEMA's functions and shifted the agency's focus from responding to natural disasters to preparing for another terror attack. Even though FEMA stated before 9/11 that a major hurricane destroying New Orleans was one of the three most likely catastrophic disasters this nation would face (a major earthquake in San Francisco and a terrorist attack in New York were the other two), FEMA had its disaster preparedness money cut. Scores of the agency's professional staff, people who knew something about emergency management, left in disgust and were replaced by a variety of political cronies and appointees.
What happened once Katrina hit was almost inevitable: a total lack of leadership in the first days of the disaster that was nothing short of criminal negligence.
Why did it take until Sept. 2, five days after the storm, for President Bush or any other high-ranking official to set foot in the Gulf Coast? Why did FEMA turn away rescuers and supplies from New Orleans? Why did it take days for food and water to reach victims? Why was most of the Louisiana National Guard, which would have been quickly deployed in New Orleans, stuck in Iraq with their equipment? Why did it seem like our federal government was uninterested in providing the essential services of government - providing security, rescuing those in need and preparing for disasters before they happen?
Why? Because of the core belief of conservatism that government is bad. In Wolfe's view, conservatives "can't govern for the same reason that vegetarians can't make a world-class boeuf bourgunon: if you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well."
At the heart of homeland security is the protection of citizens from disasters, manmade and natural. Hurricanes and floods are more likely and more destructive than terrorist bombings. But the Bush Administration chose to ignore this. Cutting money designed to minimize the damage of a disaster that everyone expected would happen had deadly consequences for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
"Human beings can't prevent natural disasters," wrote Wolfe, "but they can prevent manmade ones. Not the Bush Administration. It's ideological hostility toward government all but guaranteed that the damage inflicted by a hurricane would be exacerbated by the human damage caused by incompetence."
The toll for one of the worst natural disasters this nation has ever seen? More than 1,500 dead and 1,500 missing, hundreds of thousands of people displaced and more than $80 billion of damage. How much can be blamed on the human incompetence that left a great American city to die?
In the year since Katrina destroyed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, about 60 percent of New Orleans is unoccupied. The job of cleaning up storm debris remains unfinished and basic services like water and electricity remain spotty at best.
Tens of thousands still live in temporary trailers and have no idea if they'll ever find permanent housing. Tens of thousands more may never return to the city. And all the promises immediately after the storm that the federal government would do whatever was necessary to get the city back on its feet have gone mostly unfulfilled.
It is the sad result of having a government that doesn't believe in governing.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.