Monday, August 28, 2006

New Orleans One Year Later

Former FEMA chief Michael Brown told George Stephanopoulos yesterday that Pres. Bush wanted him to lie about the administration's preparedness to handle Katrina, and when the lie fell apart, Bush made it clear that Brown should take the blame. Brown first made these comments in an interview published in the September issue of Playboy.

Former Director Michael Brown told ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" Sunday he stood by comments in a Playboy interview, and President Bush wanted him to take the heat for the bungling.

"The lie was that we were ready and that everything was working as a team. Behind the scenes, it wasn't working at all," Brown said. "There were political considerations going into all the discussions. There was the fact that New Orleans did not evacuate and the mayor (Ray Nagin) had no plan."

Brown said it was natural to "want to put the spin on that things are working the way they're supposed to do. And behind the scenes, they're not. Again, my biggest mistake was just not leveling with the American public and saying, 'Folks, this isn`t working.' "

The former FEMA chief cited what he called an e-mail "from a very high source in the White House that says the president at a Cabinet meeting said, 'Thank goodness Brown's taking all the heat because it's better that he takes the heat than I do.' "

The posturing, buck-passing, and p.r. photo ops continue to this day. A full year after the worst hurricane, and one of the worst natural disasters, in U.S. history devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Pres. Bush has learned exactly nothing about how to be compassionate and effective in the midst of horrendous human suffering, as opposed to trying to look as though he is. Can you say, Rocky Vaccarella?

Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Tulane University, says the inaction is actually part of the plan:

... "I don't think anybody's getting the Bush strategy. ... The crucial point is that the inaction is deliberate -- the inaction is the action." As he sees it, the administration, tacitly abetted by New Orleans's opportunistic mayor, Ray Nagin, is encouraging selective inertia, whether in the rebuilding of the levees ("Only Band-Aids have been put on them"), the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward or the restoration of the wetlands. The destination: a smaller city, with a large portion of its former black population permanently dispersed. "Out of the Katrina debacle, Bush is making political gains," Mr. Brinkley says incredulously. "The last blue state in the Old South is turning into a red state."

An excerpt from Brinkley's book about Katrina, The Great Deluge, is here. The combination of incompetence, lack of preparedness, and failure to comprehend the gravity of the crisis is breathtaking:

MONDAY. The eye of Katrina, a strong Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 125 m.p.h., struck the shore at 6:10 a.m. It hit just to the south of the hamlet of Buras, about 63 miles southeast of New Orleans. Virtually all of the fishing village's 1,146 households were flattened. Livestock and wildlife drowned en masse; the residents, fortunately, had fled.

Robinette took listeners' phone calls. Desperate pleas were coming in from Treme and Chalmette, Slidell and Metairie. A woman screamed, "We have a two-year-old -- I think we're going to drown." All the while, the radio station's high-rise building shook like a struck tuning fork. Then the studio's plate-glass window blew outward. An airstream, like that of a jet engine, almost sucked Robinette through the opening. Everything around him -- papers, books, furniture, tapes -- went flying into the morning sky. Even so, Robinette kept on broadcasting, shifting his operations to the closet. He told his listeners that, while wind damage would be extensive, Katrina seemed to be sidestepping the city, aiming its fury farther east.

Holed up in N.O.P.D. headquarters on nearby South Broad Street was Warren Riley, then the deputy chief of police. His dispatchers were overwhelmed. In the first 23 minutes after the hurricane swept through town, they received more than 600 desperate calls. The levees were being breached, storm surges were topping floodwalls, roofs were peeling off, and people were dying. Homes were being destroyed by the second.
Mayor Nagin decided to cloister himself in the Hyatt hotel, which loomed over the Superdome, a locale the mayor chose not to speak at, presumably fearing reprisals from evacuees enraged at what many perceived as his lax response to the hurricane -- charges Nagin would vigorously refute, saying, "There was no way to pull [a speech] off. There was no megaphone system. There was no microphone." Many of the Hyatt's windows had blown out. The building swayed in the winds, a jagged, gaping monstrosity. He decided to make the hotel his Emergency Operations Center, virtually abandoning City Hall because his bodyguards had told him the Hyatt "was safer."

In the coming days, Nagin often divided his time between an office lair on the 27th floor, the 17th floor (where he had sleeping quarters), and the 4th floor (which had electrical power). While certain mayors in the storm's path were out and about, putting their lives at risk on Monday afternoon, raising morale and checking up on everything after Katrina's onslaught, Nagin was comparatively sedentary, getting the latest news courtesy of a hand-cranked radio straight out of The Waltons. To many, he appeared to be a commander stuck in his bunker.

Nothing in Michael Brown's resume seemed to recommend him to lead America's disaster-relief efforts. Self-centered and blandly suave, traits amplified by a regal demeanor, Brown was a cuff-link-shooting Republican dandy. As he shuttled between TV interviews on Monday, he received an e-mail from a female colleague at FEMA saying, "You look fabulous -- and I'm not talking the makeup." Flattered, Brown fired back, "I got it at Nordsstroms [sic]. E-mail [FEMA spokeswoman LeaAnne] McBride and make sure she knows! Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?"

Brown's job came courtesy of cronyism. As the governor of Texas, George Bush had learned to rely on his chief of staff, Joseph Allbaugh, who would go on to be his campaign manager during the 2000 presidential election. Allbaugh knew how to raise funds, manage personalities, and navigate the rough-and-tumble of power politics, but he had little experience in disaster preparedness. For his efforts, however, he was rewarded with a job as FEMA's director. When Allbaugh stepped aside in 2003 -- once FEMA had been absorbed into the newly created Department of Homeland Security -- his position went to Brown, one of his college friends. To give Brown credit, he performed ably during the rash of Florida hurricanes in 2004. And he was very much on the job in August of 2005, advising the administration early and often on the approaching storm. But he would become, unwittingly, one of the most visible and all-purpose federal scapegoats in recent memory.

At noon on Monday, Brown, adopting caution as his leitmotif, made an incredible announcement, actually directing emergency responders outside the region to stay home until specifically summoned by local authorities. "The response to Hurricane Katrina must be well coordinated between federal, state and local officials to most effectively protect life and property," he said in the statement. "It is critical that fire and emergency departments across the country remain in their jurisdictions until such time as the affected states request assistance."

At six p.m., President Bush telephoned Governor Blanco. Shell-shocked, disconcerted, and running on no sleep, she told the president that Katrina had decimated much of Louisiana. She was near tears. Though the hurricane's wrath had been more muted than expected, the city's fragile levee system had not held. Soon, it would become clear: the 17th Street Canal had been the first of three serious breaches, flooding neighborhoods below sea level. The long-anticipated worst-case scenario -- New Orleans as Venice -- was occurring.

"We need your help," Blanco pleaded. "We need everything you've got." The utter open-endedness of Blanco's request told the president that there was a leadership problem at the governor's mansion. (Behind her back, according to Brown, Bush regarded her as "totally incompetent," while his senior adviser Karl Rove, in Brown's view, saw an "opportunity to denigrate her for political advantage." The White House denies Brown's characterization of the administration's attitude toward Blanco.)

The governor intuited the situation. "You know, I asked for help, whatever help you can give me," she later snapped, discussing her lack of specificity that day. "If somebody asks me for help ... I'll say, 'O.K., well, I can do this, this, this, and this. What do you need?' But nobody ever told me the kinds of things that they could give me." With no detailed request from either Blanco or Brown, Bush didn't pursue the matter actively enough.

As for Brown, Bush seemed to trust him wholeheartedly. While Brown's hesitation may have been understandable from a bottom-line, C.E.O. perspective, Bush's failure to take immediate action was a grave mistake, even if doing so would have meant letting Blanco take credit for positive results. Great presidents in a time of crisis rule by instinct, bypassing the limitations of novice governors. But given Blanco's vagueness, Bush, understandably, demanded specifics. What he failed to comprehend, however, was that federal troops should have been filling the vacuum and weren't.

At seven p.m., Brown received an urgent call from Marty Bahamonde, his FEMA representative on the scene, who had just toured New Orleans by helicopter. His main concerns: with 80 percent of the city underwater, there was virtually no ground transportation into the metro area; shelter was scarce for thousands who had lost their homes; search-and-rescue missions were critical as citizens stood on roofs and balconies; throngs were headed to the Superdome, where food, water, and equipment for medical teams were dwindling. Bahamonde's laundry list had a sobering effect on Brown. He understood that the future of New Orleans was at stake. "I was beginning to realize," Brown recounted, "things were going to hell in a handbasket." Under the circumstances, Brown did exactly the right thing. At eight p.m., he called his boss, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, upon whose shoulders lay the federal government's ultimate responsibility. Overwhelmed by his department's lack of preparation and convinced that the governor's and mayor's operations were, in his words, "dysfunctional," Brown sought guidance from a superior. Tragically, it was the first time the men had spoken all day.

Chertoff, for his part, would later claim that he was unable to reach an elusive Michael Brown all the next day, even though he tried repeatedly. Chertoff, a principal engineer of the Patriot Act, is a Harvard-trained prosecutor and jurist whose sunken cheeks and closely cropped beard give the impression of a haggard academic denied tenure. According to The Washington Post, Chertoff seemed to downplay the early, bleak reports as rumored or exaggerated. He also insisted that FEMA was doing an "excellent" job. On top of it, he kept to his Tuesday plans to attend a medical conference in Atlanta.

It's disgraceful enough that the people of New Orleans have been betrayed and abandoned by their own leaders. What's arguably even worse is that the larger lessons of Hurricane Katrina have been all but ignored. The levees -- which government officials had known for years were in grave danger of breaching -- have still not been addressed adequately, as Douglas Brinkley noted in the quote farther up in this post. But it's much worse even than that. It's not just New Orleans' infrastructure that is compromised: the entire infrastructure system in the United States is on the verge of collapse. If there is another natural disaster on the order of Hurricane Katrina; or if terrorists attack on U.S. soil again, the results could be devastating:

A pipeline shuts down in Alaska. Equipment failures disrupt air travel in Los Angeles. Electricity runs short at a spy agency in Maryland.

None of these recent events resulted from a natural disaster or terrorist attack, but they may as well have, some homeland security experts say. They worry that too little attention is paid to how fast the country's basic operating systems are deteriorating.

"When I see events like these, I become concerned that we've lost focus on the core operational functionality of the nation's infrastructure and are becoming a fragile nation, which is just as bad -- if not worse -- as being an insecure nation," said Christian Beckner, a Washington analyst who runs the respected Web site Homeland Security Watch (

The American Society of Civil Engineers last year graded the nation "D" for its overall infrastructure conditions, estimating that it would take $1.6 trillion over five years to fix the problem.

"I thought [Hurricane] Katrina was a hell of a wake-up call, but people are missing the alarm," said Casey Dinges, the society's managing director of external affairs.

British oil company BP announced this month that severe corrosion would close its Alaska pipelines for extensive repairs. Analysts say this may sideline some 200,000 barrels a day of production for several months.

Then an instrument landing system that guides arriving planes onto a runway at Los Angeles International Airport failed for the second time in a week, delaying flights.

Those incidents followed reports that the National Security Agency (NSA), the intelligence world's electronic eavesdropping arm, is consuming so much electricity at its headquarters outside Washington that it is in danger of exceeding its power supply.

"If a terrorist group were able to knock the NSA offline, or disrupt one of the nation's busiest airports, or shut down the most important oil pipeline in the nation, the impact would be perceived as devastating," Beckner said. "And yet we've essentially let these things happen -- or almost happen -- to ourselves."

The Commission on Public Infrastructure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said in a recent report that facilities are deteriorating "at an alarming rate."

As a result, we have the NSA headquarters near Washington, D.C., experiencing equipment failure at an alarming rate because their 'supercomputers' scarf up enormous amounts of electricity, while at the same time George W. Bush and Dick Cheney argue ferociously that the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program is an 'essential tool' the government needs to have in order to keep Americans safe. This country's security is being endangered by men who are so blindly committed to an ideology of militarism and secret surveillance that they ignore, trivialize, and outright miss any other threat to national security.

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