Lessons from Katrina

Posted: Sep 12, 2005 12:00 AM

New Orleans is still underwater, and Hillary Clinton wants an "independent" Katrina Commission to review the government's reaction -- never mind that the government is still reacting.

George W. Bush has decided to lead an investigation to examine "what went wrong and what went right" -- never mind that "what" is very much still going wrong and right.

Question: How do you review or investigate something that hasn't stopped happening? Maybe Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld knows the secret. He's just ordered a "lessons learned" study of the military response to Katrina -- even, of course, as the military is still responding.
Not to be outdone, both houses of Congress have planned Katrina "hearings." Hindsight may well be 20/20, but this has got to be double vision. "What we don't want to happen is that the people who are on the ground in the Gulf States have to come up here and talk to 13 or 14 different groups," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert. No, we don't.

On the other hand, maybe that's what government is for. There may be some Darwinian explanation for this highly evolved, reflexive tendency of national leaders to waste resources -- survival of the profligatest? -- but it also reveals a strange hubris. In the shocking, media-Left consensus that was coalescing even before Katrina dissipated -- namely, that George W. Bush is responsible for all storm-wrought death and destruction -- there is a deep blindness to the, well, catastrophic nature of catastrophe that, by definition, wreaks havoc. A Category Four storm with a Category Five storm surge flattened the Gulf Coast on the last Monday in August.

The next day, two levees in New Orleans, built to withstand Category Three waters, broke, ruinously flooding the city. What man, what plan, what country, copes seamlessly with that?
What commission, what investigation, what hearings explain how?

This isn't to say that man -- particularly in the person of the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans -- couldn't have better adapted to nature this extra-horrific time around. But leaving aside the pre-storm dithering that failed to enact state and local plans to evacuate populations in harms' way; and leaving aside the years of state and local failures (laid out in an eye-opening piece by Cybercast News Service) to take advantage of federal monies to strengthen levees; and leaving aside the dysfunctional underclass that turned New Orleans into an Iraqi-style theatre of battle requiring military pacification before aid could flow; federal responders were on the ground in force by Thursday. Frankly, that's just not that bad.

As Richard Baehr pointed out in a piece debunking media myths about Katrina at the Web site The American Thinker, the feds arrived 48 hours after the flooding began. We know that these were two days of despair and suffering for the 20 percent of New Orleanians unable or unwilling to heed the mayor's tardy but still pre-storm evacuation order. We also know additional lives were lost in those terrible hours, victims of both nature and predatory man. Yes, a shorter lag time, if humanly possible, would have been better. The question is, should these interim hours become the permanent Ground Zero of a still-unfolding crisis?

Democrats seem to think so. Wading a few steps into the massive disaster, Democratic leaders stop, clutching their political footballs and hitting the president for being "on vacation" (Harry Reid) and "oblivious" (Nancy Pelosi) to the earliest aftermath of the hurricane. They seem to regard their attacks and hearings and commissions as a fleet of lifeboats out of the whole mess. Such sniping would be frivolous if the disaster weren't so serious. Learning from the failures in pre-storm preparation and post-storm reaction is instructive, but such lessons don't apply to the enlarging crisis at hand. In other words, not even the president's presence in the White House Situation Room -- the Pelosi solution? -- would have prevented the 30-foot storm surge from making a fabled city, not to mention the rest of the Gulf Coast, unlivable.

The ultimate arrival in New Orleans of "the cavalry" -- federal aid in Chinooks, on jet skis, on horses -- didn't end this story. It only closed the first chapter of a national tragedy. The problem Katrina now poses isn't one of hindsight; it's the future of the Gulf Coast. We don't need multimillion-dollar commissions to teach the hurricane's lessons -- for example, that state and local evacuation plans should be carried out, not ignored, the next time a massive storm threatens a major population center below sea level. But even after these lessons are learned, the essential problem remains: what to do next.