Blame to go around

Posted: Sep 12, 2005 12:00 AM

A team of Indiana firefighters, volunteering to help rescue victims of Katrina, went to Atlanta, where Federal Emergency Management Agency staffers told them that their job was to hand out fliers and that their first task was to attend a multi-hour course on sexual harassment and equal employment opportunity.

 This is, astonishingly, standard operating procedure at FEMA. And in other parts of the federal government: Former CIA agent Robert Baer writes in his recent book how in Central Asia he asked headquarters to send someone who spoke Afghan languages, and Langley offered to send a four-member sexual harassment team, instead. These are perhaps things to keep in mind when it comes time to assess the response to Katrina. Government is a clumsy instrument.

  Even so, it is possible to spot some clear mistakes. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin should have ordered an evacuation on the Saturday, not the Sunday, before the hurricane, which, as predicted, came on Monday. Nagin made an even greater mistake by not following the city's emergency plan and using the 200-plus school buses to evacuate the elderly, infirm and infants who had no other way of getting out of the city.

 Gov. Kathleen Blanco's state department of homeland security should not have blocked the Red Cross from bringing water, food and sanitary facilities to the people in the Superdome. I don't doubt that Nagin and Blanco wanted to do what was best for their city and state, and I would not want to have to shoulder the responsibility they had. But, alas, they made mistakes.

  As for President George W. Bush, he probably should have left Crawford, Texas, a day earlier, and he might well have made a mistake in appointing Michael Brown, a man with little previous experience in emergency management, as head of FEMA. In a little-noticed move last week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff named Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who has such experience, to be Brown's deputy and to be in charge of all recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast. Reading between the lines, it looks as if Bush, despite his usual loyalty, recognized his mistake, bypassed Brown and put in a man who knows how to do the job.

  But it's a bum rap to say that Bush left New Orleans unprepared for the flood. New Orleans has been engineered to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, as the result of decisions taken by many federal, state and local administrations over many years; Katrina was a Category 4. But the Army Corps of Engineers hasn't been shortchanging Louisiana.

 As Michael Grunwald wrote in The Washington Post last week, "Over the five years of President Bush's administration, Louisiana has received far more money for Corps civil works projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion; California was a distant second with less than $1.4 billion, even though its population is more than seven times as large. Much of that Louisiana money was spent to try to keep low-lying New Orleans dry. But hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to unrelated water projects demanded by the state's congressional delegation and approved by the corps, often after economic analyses that turned out to be inaccurate."

 So there have been mistakes all round, some made by single individuals in moments of crisis, some by many people over the course of many years.

  But we should resist the notion that we can come up with some organizational solution that can prevent every mistake. Today, as we look back on World War II, we tend to think that everything worked smoothly. But that wasn't the case.

 Rick Atkinson's "An Army at Dawn" shows that U.S. commanders made many blunders in the 1942-43 North Africa campaign. There were constant complaints about bottlenecks and snafus in defense production, and President Roosevelt changed the organizational chart several times.

 In 2002, everyone agreed FEMA should be put under Homeland Security; now, people say it should be taken out.

 Fortunately, we don't depend just on government. Millions of citizens have contributed $500 million, thousands are taking Katrina evacuees into their homes and schools and churches, and private companies are hurrying free supplies to those in need. Government will never be perfect, but fortunately America is more than just government.