Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The sins of (a) commission 

The inevitable happens:
With many blaming the growing scope of Katrina's devastation on the Bush administration, Sen. Hillary Clinton called yesterday for a 9/11-style probe into how the federal government responded to the crisis.

"It has become increasingly evident that our nation was not prepared," Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in a letter to Bush asking him to set up a "Katrina Commission."
After the water is pumped out and the mud hosed out, there will be plenty of blame to go around, between all three levels of government and over the last few decades. The "Katrina Commission", should it actually eventuate, promises to be however merely like another exercise in Bush-bashing, this time officially sanctioned.

This is at the same time that it's becoming clear that major breakdowns have occurred on the state and local levels, whether it was the reluctance to surrender some of the authority to the federal government, the botched evacuation with hundreds of school and municipal buses remaining unutilized, or the law and order and manpower problems.

The last point deserves some evaluation. Only just over 3,500 out of 11,500 Louisiana National Guardsmen are in Iraq. The state authorities dragged their feet with mobilizing the remaining 8,000, although that was partly offset by the arrival of National Guard from other states (7,500 within the first 24 hours).

The law enforcement forces already on the ground did not manage to exert sufficient influence. Three days ago, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, had this to say about the New Orleans Police Department: "I would say they are significantly degraded and they have less than one-third of their original capability." The Police Department was significantly more optimistic, saying that only 200 out of 1,500 officers have walked off the job. A few joined in to help themselves in NO's shops.

But Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu turned defensive at any efforts by the feds to shift back some of the blame previously wholesalely shifted on them by the state and local guys:
"If one person criticizes our sheriffs, or says one more thing, including the President of the United States, he will hear from me - one more word about it after this show airs and I - I might likely have to punch him -– literally."
Increasingly, though, it looks like Louisiana in general and New Orleans in specific were a disaster waiting to happen, not just in a sense that a medium-sized city situated below water level in a hurricane-prone region is a disaster waiting to happen, but that the whole political, social and economic culture of the state was one big dysfunctionality, only held in equilibrium by the absence of a genuine crisis. In the end, these things always come out in the wash, and this time the wash was Katrina. As Mark Steyn writes,
New Orleans is a party town in the middle of a welfare swamp and, like many parties, it doesn't look so good when someone puts the lights up.
Or, indeed, turns the lights off.

There is a case to be made that the federal authorities have not done enough/quickly enough - Steyn, for example, argues elsewhere that the federal bureaucracies learned nothing in the four years since 9/11 - but on the other hand, I think people tend to have unrealistic expectations of what even the most efficient, best organized and best resourced organizations can achieve in dangerous, emergency situations. On this point, see an interesting perspective from a former Air Force logistics officer (hat tip: Michelle Malkin). I have a feeling though that the tide has finally turned, and the rescue, aid, and eventually reconstruction effort is now powering ahead with sufficient momentum to make it look like what people traditionally expect America in action to be.


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