Friday, September 02, 2005

Another New Orleans rant

You know, I don't blame the President a lot for what he's doing right now. It looked bad when he took two days to decide to cut short his vacation (which he shouldn't have been on anyway) because of the disaster, but he did go back to Washington and presumably started kicking some butts to get things moving. A day late and a dollar short for a lot of people, though. The critical mistakes were made earlier.

Fact: the Clinton Administration doesn't get off scot-free on this. They didn't fight for funding for shoring up the levees in the 90's, though after 1994 it is doubtful they could have gotten anything passed in the Congress anyway. But here's another fact: Clinton's director of FEMA was a professional emergency manager who completely rehabilitated the agency, turning it from a "sorry bunch of bureaucratic jackasses" (to quote Sen. Fritz Hollings) into a streamlined, responsive organization that drew praise from local disaster officials around the nation. Ironically, this appointment occurred after hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida and brought attention to FEMA's shortcomings.

Bush's first director of FEMA was a professional politician, who had worked on the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign and became W.'s chief of staff in Texas. He ran the 2000 campaign and was rewarded with the FEMA post. He resigned in 2003 when FEMA was put under the Department of Homeland Security. The new FEMA director was a professional lawyer before taking his new job, with limited experience in emergency management.

Some leadership! Leadership includes getting the best-qualified people to run your agencies. We can argue about whether Rumsfeld pursues the right strategies or whether Rice is the best ambassador for our country; but they are undeniably qualified for their positions. The Bush FEMA directors have been political operatives and buddies, not emergency preparedness experts. And to the extent that they are planning for things, their superiors at the Department of Homeland Security are focused on terrorism, not domestic natural disasters. So it's not altogether surprising that FEMA falls flat on its face when a real disaster occurs.

Leadership is also being prepared ahead of time for events. We've had five years of the Bush administration having control of all the levers of power; if they were going to do something for New Orleans, they had ample time. There were several warnings put before them over the last years of what could happen if New Orleans sustained a direct hit; yet they were no more inclined to spend money on the region than the Clinton administration had been. In fact, money was shunted away from the Corps of Engineers to help finance the Iraq quagmire. It might seem like Monday-morning quarterbacking; but the fact is, it is their job to plan for these things and have responses prepared. If there was any such plan, I see little evidence of it. Instead it's all shock and surprise and spur-of-the-moment reaction.

So now supplies and troops are finally starting to show up. But the disaster is still unfolding, and it won't end until order is restored and cleanup begins. Then we will count the cost of our leaders ignoring expert advice and choosing political expediency over the welfare of the people.

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