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A Perfect Time for Assessing Blame

The waters receding from a flood zone always leave exposed the unseemly reality lurking beneath the surface.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, we’re being told not to look. Officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, ask news organizations not to publish pictures of the New Orleans dead, and National Guard troops threaten photographers who hoist cameras within range of floating corpses.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Sep. 15, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 15, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Golden State column -- Michael Hiltzik’s column in Monday’s Business section about assessing blame for problems with the government’s hurricane response said there were thousands of suspected terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay. According to a Defense Department memo issued in August, there are approximately 505 detainees at the U.S. base.
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.

Meanwhile, the White House contends that now isn’t the time for “pointing fingers.” In other words, they don’t want anyone peering too closely at the human toll of the government’s dereliction of duty in the days after the hurricane, or at how little we have bought with more than $30 billion a year in federal disaster preparedness planning since Sept. 11, 2001.

On CNN, George H.W. Bush laments the “blame game” while Larry King, obediently playing the Mr. Bones role in this vaudeville act, nods his head solemnly, as though Bush were a sage of good government rather than a father trying to sugarcoat his child’s embarrassing performance.

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Others, including the usual shadowy whisperers in the White House, blame the suffering in Katrina’s aftermath not on the federal government, but on the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana.

Let’s accept that the city and state governments deserve their share of blame. But let’s accept that it’s not awfully relevant to our assessment of the federal response. For one thing, most of us don’t vote for mayor of New Orleans or governor of Louisiana. We do, however, vote for president, so a judgment of the man we’ve elected is appropriate.

Moreover, the inadequacies of local officials hardly justify the catatonia of federal agencies before and immediately after the storm. A few inside-the-war-room articles over the last week have depicted White House aides desperately parsing the laws governing the powers of presidents and governors to deploy troops or national guard units. Leaving aside that these questions should have been answered long ago as part of our post-9/11 establishment of crackerjack emergency preparedness, the Bush administration is not famous for standing on legal ceremony when it wishes to achieve something: Witness the detention of nameless thousands of supposed terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and the apparent trampling of habeas corpus in the Jose Padilla terrorism case (which is creeping toward the U.S. Supreme Court).

The “no blame” argument has the fetid aroma of special pleading. When would be the right time to start scrutinizing the performance of the federal emergency response system? Today, when the consequences of failure are still vivid enough to energize serious inquiry? Or months from now, when most people’s memories of these two weeks will have faded and the most vulnerable victims are beyond succor?

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The apologists for political leaders at all levels would have us believe that these questions somehow interfere with rescue and recovery efforts. The idea seems to be that the entire country can’t have more than one thing on its mind and that confronting the shortcomings of the Katrina response while also appropriating billions of dollars in emergency aid will turn Congress and the staff of the White House into zombies.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that one reason for the improvement in relief operations last week was precisely the storm of criticism -- excuse me, “finger-pointing” -- which jarred the Bush administration from its stupor. The manifestly incapable FEMA director, Michael Brown, the very face of federal fecklessness, has been sent back to Washington, replaced on the ground by a Coast Guard admiral whose qualifications apparently include actual managerial experience.

Not that it’s safe to holster the pointing fingers yet. As recovery on the Gulf Coast morphs into reconstruction, the federal government will be handing out billions of dollars in contracts.

Who will reap this bonanza? Not the people employed to remove wreckage, build houses and restore the infrastructure. While Congress was appropriating nearly $52 billion in relief and reconstruction programs last week, Bush quietly suspended the Davis-Bacon Act in the flood region. This law mandates that workers on federal construction projects be paid at least the prevailing local wage. As my colleagues Warren Vieth and Mary Curtius reported, the prevailing wage in the area is $9 an hour. Full-time work even at that scale would pay only $18,700 a year, or roughly the federal poverty level for a family of four.

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The disaster entrepreneurs, meanwhile, are already saddling up. Recently spotted in the region is Joe M. Allbaugh, the former Bush campaign manager who as his first FEMA director advocated privatizing much of the agency. In time, Allbaugh left FEMA to establish a consultancy helping clients land reconstruction contracts in Iraq. His successor at the agency was his former college pal, the wretched Mr. Brown.

Allbaugh, whose firm represents a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., the ethics-challenged oilfield services company once run by Vice President Cheney, said he was down South merely to “coordinate” private sector relief. A spokeswoman assured reporters, “The first thing he says when he sits down with a client is, ‘Don’t hire me if you’re looking for a government contract.’ ”

Almost simultaneously, one of Allbaugh’s clients, Baton Rouge-based Shaw Group, announced that it had received two $100-million reconstruction contracts, one of them from FEMA.

On the face of things, Shaw seems qualified to do what it has been hired to do. So maybe Allbaugh didn’t assist with the contracts. But my finger is cocked and ready for pointing, just the same.

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Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com.


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