No one anticipated that the aftermath of Katrina would include a false and ignorant tidal wave of calumny against President Bush. Conservatives beware, because the goal here is to politically disable the President, and the conservative agenda along with him.
A few basic facts will help to detox the political environment. First, FEMA is not an agency of first responders. It is not the agency responsible for bringing people bottles of water and trays of fresh food, or transporting them out of harm’s way. It also has zero law enforcement authority, or personnel.
These first responder jobs are the responsibility of local and state government — city police and firemen, city transportation and emergency services personnel, state police, and ultimately the state National Guard.
FEMA has always been primarily a Federal financing agency, providing funding to the locals after the crisis hits to help them respond and rebuild. That is why FEMA’s website baldly states don’t expect them to show up with their aid until 3 or 4 days after the disaster strikes.
Moreover, the National Guard is under the command of the Governor of each state, not the President. The President can Federalize control over a state’s guard on his own order, but doing so without a Governor’s consent to deal with an in state natural disaster would be a supreme insult to the Governor and the state. In addition, using Federal troops for local police actions is against the law and has been since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.
With this background, let’s examine who did what in response to Katrina. President Bush declared the entire Gulf Coast, including New Orleans and Louisiana, a Federal disaster area days before the hurricane hit, to enable Federal aid to get there sooner.
The disaster that struck New Orleans did not become apparent until the morning of Tuesday, August 29, as the levees broke after the brunt of the storm had passed. But that very day, the Army Corps of Engineers was already working on levee repair. And the Coast Guard was already in the air with helicopters rescuing people from rooftops, ultimately employing 300 choppers. These are both Federal agencies under Bush’s command.
In addition, before the end of that week, Bush had already pushed through Congress and signed an emergency aid package of $10.5 billion for the Gulf Coast region.
Now what about Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin? President Bush had to get on the phone two days before the hurricane to plead with the Governor to order a mandatory evacuation. In response, she dithered and delayed. Mayor Nagin also had full authority, and responsibility, to order an evacuation. He dithered and delayed as well.
The city’s own written evacuation plan requires the city to provide transportation for the evacuation of those without access to vehicles or with disabilities. But Nagin did absolutely nothing to carry out this responsibility.
Instead, hundreds of city metro and school buses were ruined in the flood, as Nagin left them in low lying areas. Jesse Jackson and Kanye West, do you think Nagin cares about poor blacks in New Orleans?
Nagin asked residents who couldn’t get out to go to the Superdome. It was his responsibility to then provide water, food, portable bathrooms, and security for them. But, again, Nagin did nothing to carry out this responsibility in service to the poor blacks who primarily exercised this option.
Incredibly, we now know that even though the Red Cross was ready to bring food and water to the Superdome the day after the storm, Governor Blanco actually barred them from doing so! She didn’t want to encourage the survivors to stay at the Superdome due to such relief, but somehow thought they should disperse back into the flooded city once the hurricane passed.
President Bush pleaded with Governor Blanco that same day after the storm to get the National Guard into New Orleans. Not much happened. Seeing this, he asked her to give him Federal authority over the state’s Guard. She refused. As a result, the Guard didn’t show up in force in the city until near the end of the week.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans police department, under the authority of Mayor Nagin, collapsed, with hundreds of officers walking off the job, and others involved in the looting themselves. As a result, gangs of criminals took over parts of the city, robbing, raping, and even murdering survivors, looting stores and restaurants, and absurdly shooting at relief workers and vehicles. Blanco failed to use the state police or National Guard to maintain law and order as well.
But this mayhem in the poor, black neighborhoods is not unique to the hurricane aftermath. With only 1500 officers in the city police force at full strength, the residents of these heavily crime ridden neighborhoods have been regularly left to fend for themselves for security as a matter of city policy. The city basically has just enough police to secure the tourist and downtown business districts. Again, who is it that doesn’t care for poor, black people?
President Bush finally had to order in 7,000 Federal troops, including the 82nd Airborne, on Friday to get stranded residents out of the Superdome, and the Convention Center, where Nagin had also completely abdicated responsibility. These troops led the way to restoring law and order. This was of dubious legal authority, but with the total collapse of the state and local governments in dealing with the crisis, what choice did he have?
Then there was Aaron Broussard, head of Jefferson Parish just outside New Orleans. He broke down bawling on national television over the deaths of nursing home residents in his jurisdiction on Friday, blaming President Bush and a slow Federal response. But it was Broussard, with authority over the parish’s police, fire, ambulance and other emergency services, who had failed them. When asked why he had done nothing to help them, he lamely said he had been told the cavalry was coming from Washington.
Again, however, FEMA is not a first responder agency. The first responders are Broussard’s local bureaucracy. It is not the U.S. Calvary’s job to bring bottles of fresh water from Washington to nursing home residents in Jefferson parish, Louisiana.
Finally, we have not seen public officials in Mississippi, which was hit even harder by the hurricane itself, or Alabama, crying on television or complaining about the lack of Federal aid. They properly mobilized their local police, fire, transportation, ambulance and emergency services, and the state National Guard, to serve their roles as first responders. Unlike Blanco in Louisiana, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Republican, announced looters would be shot on sight. That maintained law and order, without Federal troops.
Let’s shortcircuit the sickening and dopey political posturing now just beginning in Washington. President Bush organized the largest and quickest Federal mobilization in response to a natural disaster in U.S. history. Blanco, Nagin, and Broussard just need to resign in disgrace, as thousands of their own constituents died because of their misconduct.