Post-Katrina Vitriol Should Be Aimed at Derelict Officials, Not President Bush

"You and your family (yes, your children, too) should be dropped right in the middle of New Orleans and be forced to live there for three days, and maybe then your tight grip on the GOP might be loosened and you’ll be awakened to the failures of the incompetent man sitting in the White House." Such is the vitriol spewing forth in the aftermath of Katrina from those who believe George W. Bush is responsible for all of life’s misfortunes. I received this hateful e-mail after commenting on television that while the federal response to the crisis has shouldered most of the criticism, state and local officials bore major responsibility for the chaos that enveloped New Orleans in the immediate wake of the hurricane.

As it happened, my youngest son, Rudy, was in New Orleans as the storm approached the Gulf Coast, so I was acutely focused on what actions were being taken to evacuate the city. On Aug. 27, with the hurricane gaining force in the Gulf, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called for a voluntary evacuation of the city. But even after he ordered a mandatory evacuation the next day, he made no plans to transport the elderly, the infirm, or those too poor to get themselves out, much less thousands of tourists stranded without cars. On the afternoon of Aug. 27, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco held a press briefing in which she answered a question about what could be done to avert disaster: "We can pray very hard that the intensity will weaken. We don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but we’re all watching the weather service. I believe that’s the best we can do right now." It was at that point that I knew my son was in real trouble.

The governor had the power to call out the National Guard in advance of the storm. Indeed, it was imperative that she do so if troops were to be available in the immediate hours after the hurricane hit since it takes 72 hours to fully mobilize. Gov. Blanco delayed taking crucial actions — in fact, it was the president who called her to plead that she declare an emergency. "Gov. Kathleen Blanco, standing beside the mayor at a news conference, said President Bush called and personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation for the low-lying city, which is prone to flooding," the Associated Press reported Aug. 28.

The city had hundreds of vehicles at its disposal: school buses, city buses, garbage trucks, and city cars. But the mayor failed to mobilize these or to set up procedures for all city employees to be available to assist in keeping order and organizing evacuation. For those unlucky enough to end up at the Superdome, no plans were in place to get thousands of desperate people out of there once the winds died down. My son was able to get out on Sunday before the storm hit. Thanks to quick thinking, lots of determination and a measure of good fortune, he managed to get a rental car at New Orleans airport and drove to Baton Rouge with four friends. But others were not so lucky.

In our federal system of government, the national government does not step in — even in dire emergency — until state officials request that help. But what do you do when those officials are dysfunctional, as they clearly were in Louisiana? According to The Washington Post, federal officials have asked the governor for "unified control over all local police and state National Guard units reporting to the governor. Louisiana officials rejected the request after talks throughout the night, concerned that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law." And, the Post reported, "Louisiana did not reach out to a multi-state mutual aid compact for assistance until Wednesday, three state and federal officials said."

No doubt, the federal response to this crisis was far from flawless, but at the end of the day, it was federal troops that restored order, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that plugged breaches in the levees, and federal forces that ultimately evacuated thousands of those trapped. Instead of blaming federal authorities, the country ought to be giving thanks.