Katrina's detritus will be months in the sifting, but what best reveals what went wrong may be found in the contrast between bureaucrats ensnared in red tape and three individuals who sprang into action as circumstances required.
Their names are Deamonte Love, Jabbar Gibson and Sheriff Warren C. Evans.
Deamonte Love is probably the most familiar. He is the 6-year-old who led a troupe of tiny refugees to safety after rescuers separated them from their parents. Deamonte was the oldest of the group, which included his 5-month-old brother, three toddlers in the 2-year-old range, a 3-year-old and her 14-month-old brother.
All held hands as Deamonte led the group along Causeway Boulevard in New Orleans, where he identified himself and his associates to authorities. In a sea of helpless victims, while heartier adults dithered or complained, Deamonte found the guts and fortitude to take care of himself, his family and friends.
Another victim of the storm, Gibson is perhaps better known as the 20-year-old who commandeered a school bus and drove 70 homeless passengers from New Orleans to the Houston Astrodome, beating the other 25,000 or so refugees awaiting evacuation from the Superdome by officials still trying to figure out who was in charge.
When no one is in charge, as seems to have been the case for too long in New Orleans, a leader eschews the clipboard and takes action. While city officials couldn't find their way to use hundreds of available school buses to evacuate some 100,000 residents without transportation, Gibson "stole" a bus and rescued 70 strangers.
A photo of the abandoned and eventually submerged school buses has become an iconographic image in Katrina's record - a kaleidoscopic history that would qualify as comedy if the results had not been so tragic. At times like this, bureaucracy isn't just a frustrating boondoggle; it is a faceless accomplice to negligent homicide.
(ITALICS)"No one is to blame because, sir, we were just following the rules."
Not Warren C. Evans. The sheriff of Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, ignored his own governor's pleas to wait for "formal requests" and put his leadership instincts to better use. While other law enforcement volunteers were held up for 2-3 days dealing with paperwork, Evans led a convoy of six tractor-trailers, three rental trucks and 33 deputies to Louisiana.
Explaining his pre-emptive action to The New York Times, Evans said: "I could look at CNN and see people dying, and I couldn't in good conscience wait for a coordinated response."
Meanwhile, other more obedient citizens and potential rescuers, as well as evacuation vehicles, medical and food supplies, even a floating hospital, were stalled or unused as officials and politicians bickered over territory and protocol and - in an indictment that speaks for itself - gender sensitivity concerns.
I wish I were kidding. Hundreds of firefighters who volunteered to help with Katrina relief were held up for days in Atlanta while they took classes on sexual harassment and community relations, all courtesy of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of coordinating federal relief. At the White House, concerns about overriding the female governor of Louisiana reportedly contributed to the decision not to take control of a national disaster that clearly had overwhelmed state and local officials.
There are other examples of such absurdities too numerous to list, but two stand out. Amtrak offered to evacuate people from New Orleans, but city officials declined and the last train left the city - empty. A Navy hospital ship, the USS Bataan, which was in the Gulf of Mexico through the storm, had 600 empty hospital beds and six operating rooms, awaiting relief orders while the injured and ill on land were without aid. Although the Bataan was among the first to help in rescue missions, federal authorities were slow to use the ship's other resources.
Dozens of readers have reminded me the past several days about the proper order of things, that local and state officials are the first responders to a catastrophe and the federal government responds only as local officials make "formal requests" for help.
Noted. But sometimes the rules get in the way of what is right. The rules were for Sheriff Evans to stay put until the paperwork was processed, but Evans thought lives were more important. The rules were for firefighters to take classes on sexual harassment, and who knows how many lives didn't get saved as a result?
The argument that we are a nation of laws is of course inarguable and admirable - as far as it goes. But we are also a nation of pioneers endowed with common sense, and catastrophes call for the talents and spirit of that heritage. Such as that we witnessed in Evans. And in a 20-year-old who stole a bus.
And finally, in a little kid named Deamonte whose can-do spirit exposed the sometimes impotent inhumanity of the United Bureaucracy of America.