Bush’s Hurricane Response a Disaster
Nearly five years ago, the Bush administration rode into office bearing its cynicism about government high, like a banner.
It promoted a massive tax cut as a way of “starving the beast” of federal government. President Bush traveled the country telling us that we were overdependent on the government for help with healthcare and retirement. To those wondering what resources might see them into old age, he advised: “a conservative mix of stocks and bonds.”
For the record:
12:00 AM, Oct. 13, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Hurricane Katrina -- The Sept. 5 and Sept. 12 Golden State columns in the Business section about the Bush administration’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina said Joe Allbaugh, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and his successor, Michael D. Brown, were friends in college. A representative for Allbaugh says that the two men have known each other for more than 25 years, but that they did not know each other in college.
New Orleans is, or should be, the graveyard of the conservative ideology that government is useless. An American city is reduced to Third World desperation as people who own nothing scrounge for necessities in a sea of waste and federal officials offer lame excuses about how their disaster plans would have worked fine had there not been, you know, a disaster. The president, at the head of a global power that can’t get its own troops or supplies off their bases to reach the needful, whines, “The private sector needs to do its part.”
This deplorable performance has deep roots. Joe M. Allbaugh, a Bush campaign hack without any crisis management experience who was named director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, disparaged federal disaster assistance as “an oversized entitlement program” before Congress in 2001. The public’s expectations of government in a disaster situation, he said, “may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” He advised stricken communities to rely for help on “faith-based organizations ... like the Salvation Army and the Mennonite Disaster Service.”
If Allbaugh were not an amateur, he would have known that communities, “faith-based organizations” and the private sector become overwhelmed by disasters more modest than this one. In a crisis the federal government should be the first responder, not the last, to take charge, not wait to be asked.
Cynicism on such a scale is self-perpetuating. Determined to portray government as little but an intrusion into people’s lives, this gang made it irrelevant to hundreds of thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina -- thus giving them, and us, good reason to be cynical after all.
The federal officials assigned to New Orleans have displayed an appalling combination of arrogance and ignorance. Thursday evening on NPR, I heard Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees FEMA, dismiss reports of thousands of refugees trapped at the New Orleans convention center for days without sustenance. He called the reports, in so many words, “rumors and anecdotes.”
Informed that an NPR reporter had been on the scene, he sniffed, “I can’t argue with you about what your reporter tells you.” Later, his staff called back to say that he had “received a report confirming the situation” and that he was now “working tirelessly” to get food to the location.
At a news conference that day, FEMA Director Michael Brown, Allbaugh’s successor and college chum, attributed the death toll in New Orleans “to people who did not heed evacuation warnings.” Insensitive to the truth that many of the stranded had no way of responding to the warnings -- no money, no transport out of the city and nowhere to go -- he blamed them for having failed to prepare any better than, well, the federal government.
He also described security in the city, where snipers were firing on rescue boats and a mob beat back police trying to impose order at the convention center, as “pretty darn good.” The image of lawlessness, he said, was fomented by those willing to “stick a camera” in front of “bad people.”
The Bush administration is not alone in having ignored pleas to improve the hurricane and flood defenses of New Orleans. But it bears sole responsibility for a crisis response that has been fairly labeled a national disgrace. FEMA drafted an action plan for a New Orleans flood: pre-position food, supplies and hospital ships for immediate deployment in the aftermath. Brown and Chertoff failed to implement it adequately, pleading that no one could have anticipated a disaster that had in fact been anticipated by engineers, geographers and political leaders for decades. As I write, the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort remains moored in Baltimore, not to arrive off New Orleans until the end of this week.
President Bush will surely feel the consequences of his dereliction. Every policy of his administration will be viewed through the prism of the debacle of New Orleans. The pursuit of a personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein, supported by manipulated intelligence, has sucked billions out of the treasury and removed more than 30% of Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard members from their homes, so they must watch the disaster unfold from half a world away instead of assisting their own communities. Tax cuts for the wealthy have been financed by budget cuts
for disaster preparedness and other crucial programs. Four years of anti-terrorism planning have failed to produce a competent system for mitigating a metropolitan cataclysm -- one that, on the ground, is indistinguishable from the effects of the terrorist attack we’ve supposedly been girding for since 9/11.
Then there’s Bush’s sustained assault on social insurance programs such as Social Security, safety nets that are to be replaced by the slogan “You’re on your own.”
New Orleans is not a local calamity; it belongs to us all, not least because it signals what to expect from this administration. If a major earthquake strikes Los Angeles or San Francisco, will President Bush wait to respond until he can conclude his vacation, as he did last week? Will his appointees express surprise at an eventuality that “no one could have predicted”?
Probably. George W. Bush is known for never admitting his mistakes. Consequently, he never learns from his mistakes. The chances are dismal that he will learn from this one. We’re on our own.
Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at email@example.com and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.