In the days to come, as the nation and the people along the Gulf Coast work to cope with the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we will be reminded anew, how important it is to have a federal agency capable of dealing with natural catastrophes of this sort. This is an immense human tragedy, one that will work hardship on millions of people. It is beyond the capabilities of state and local government to deal with. It requires a national response.
Which makes it all the more difficult to understand why, at this moment, the country's premier agency for dealing with such events -- FEMA -- is being, in effect, systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security.
Apparently homeland security now consists almost entirely of protection against terrorist acts. How else to explain why the Federal Emergency Management Agency will no longer be responsible for disaster preparedness? Given our country's long record of natural disasters, how much sense does this make?....
Indeed, the advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 signaled the beginning of the end for FEMA. The newly appointed leadership of the agency showed little interest in its work or in the missions pursued by the departed Witt. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Soon FEMA was being absorbed into the "homeland security borg."
This year it was announced that FEMA is to "officially" lose the disaster preparedness function that it has had since its creation. The move is a death blow to an agency that was already on life support. In fact, FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission.
FEMA will be survived by state and local emergency management offices, which are confused about how they fit into the national picture. That's because the focus of the national effort remains terrorism, even if the Department of Homeland Security still talks about "all-hazards preparedness." Those of us in the business of dealing with emergencies find ourselves with no national leadership and no mentors. We are being forced to fend for ourselves, making do with the "homeland security" mission. Our "all-hazards" approaches have been decimated by the administration's preoccupation with terrorism.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which before the hurricane published a series on the federal funding problem, and whose presses are now underwater, reported online: "No one can say they didn't see it coming ... Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation."
The president's 35-minute Air Force One flyover of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama was the perfect metaphor for his entire presidency: detached, disconnected, and disengaged. Preferring to take in America's suffering -- whether caused by the war in Iraq or Hurricane Katrina -- from a distance. In this case, 2,500 feet. Apparently, the president "sat somberly on a couch on the left hand side of the presidential jumbo jet peering out the window" at the catastrophe below, joined at different times by White House staffers including Karl Rove and Scott McClellan. McClellan later quoted the president as saying, "It's devastating. It's got to be doubly devastating on the ground." Ya think?? Hey, here's an idea, Mr. President: maybe you should, y'know, get off the plane and see for yourself? Instead, he jetted on to Washington for a brisk 9-minute Rose Garden speech designed to let us know that his administration was doing everything in its power to mitigate the looming PR disaster the flooding of New Orleans could create for the White House... Uh, I mean, everything in its power to aid the recovery.
The speech contained the usual Bush bonhomie (he's "confident" New Orleans "will be back on its feet, and America will be a stronger place for it"). But the most telling moment came when the president discussed the ways his administration was moving to help ease the suffering of profit-soaked oil companies impacted by the storm, pointing out that he had instructed Energy Secretary Sam Bodman to work with refineries to "alleviate any shortage through loans" and that the EPA had waived clean air standards for gasoline and diesel fuels in all 50 states. You could almost see him getting misty.
He also unleashed a torrent of facts and figures: "The Department of Transportation has provided more than 400 trucks to move 1,000 truckloads containing 5.4 million Meals Ready to Eat -- or MREs, 13.4 million liters of water, 10,400 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice, 144 generators, 20 containers of pre-positioned disaster supplies, 135,000 blankets and 11,000 cots." It was as if by piling so many disparate numbers so high he might be able to block out the two most significant numbers of all: the number of National Guardsmen unable to help out in Louisiana and Mississippi because they are deployed in Iraq, and the tens of millions of hurricane and flood-control dollars that never made it to Lake Pontchartrain because they had been diverted to Iraq.
The president's Rose Garden speech followed an all-hands-on-deck press briefing earlier in the day featuring Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and as many cabinet members and agency heads could be crammed around a podium, including Bodman of Energy, Mineta of Transportation, Johnson of the EPA, Leavitt of HHS, and McHale of DoD. It had the feel of the old circus bit where clown after clown after clown piles out of the impossibly small car.
And, like the president, Chertoff and company came armed with plenty of designed-to-obfuscate numbers. In one head-spinning riff, Chertoff rattled off info on "39 disaster medical assistance teams," "1,700 trailer trucks," "truckloads of water, ice, meals, medical supplies, generators, tents and tarpaulins," as well as the Coast Guard's "three national strike teams" and other "ships, boats and aircraft" that had "worked heroically for the last 48 hours, rescuing and assisting well more than 1,000 people who were in distress." But still no mention of those unavailable Guardsmen or the funds that were taken away from shoring up Lake Pontchartrain and shipped over to Iraq.
Those are the blood red elephants floating belly-up in the middle of this deadly disaster -- and the reason for the full-court PR press.
During his press briefing, Chertoff declared the aftermath of Katrina "an incident of national significance." It's clear from Bush and his team's actions how worried they are that, as the facts come out, it will become "an incident of political significance" as well.
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