Salon has an illuminating timeline on Katrina that, to my mind, somewhat exonerates FEMA and the federal response to the disaster. It points out that Hurricane Katrina didn’t destroy New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain did. After the storm had passed, there was a widespread feeling that the town had survived and emergency efforts were largely successful. Standard procedures were followed, and if New Orleans had been any other town, everyone would have breathed a sigh of relief and moved on (especially when compared with the devastation in Biloxi and Gulfport). But New Orleans is a city in a bowl, and its levees’ lack of structural integrity has been ignored and swept under the bureaucratic rug for decades.
Much as I enjoy seeing Bush under duress, I have a hard time faulting him for the New Orleans disaster. Sure he demoted FEMA out of his cabinet and put a useless crony in the captain’s chair, and sure he was slow to move on realizing how massive a catastrophe New Orleans truly was, but the flooding was caused by institutionalized denial on a mass scale from local, regional and federal bureaucracies over many years.
Here’s how I see it breaking down:
- Failure 1 was a failure to prepare New Orleans for an inevitable flood, and that falls on local and state officials, and the federal officials who cut the funding for levee improvement.
- Failure 2 was poor evacuation planning and execution by the mayor and governor, which again is only considered poor because nobody thought about the levees bursting.
- Failure 3 was the inability of FEMA to predict that local and regional first-responders would be incapacitated by the peculiarities of the New Orleans infrastructure, namely, broken levees.
- Failure 4 (the worst, really) was FEMA’s and the governor’s inability to figure out how to get supplies and buses for 100,000 people stranded at the Superdome. Brown’s statement of “We learned about it factually today that that’s what existed” after two days of coverage is pretty inexcusable, as is the miscalculation of turning away the thousands of private citizens who rushed to Louisiana to help.
Am I wrong?