I guess I must look for complicated reasons for simple problems. I had presumed the lack of a brilliant performance in getting aid to the Gulf Coast might have been a combination of, 1) the fact that it was the biggest natural disaster to ever hit the United States in modern times and, 2) mistakes made by lots of people at all levels of government. Silly me. Anyone who's thought about it for a minute and a half knows in his bones that it was an evil plot by George Bush to get rid of a few thousand poor, black people. Need proof? Well, he didn't send Bill Clinton down to fix everything the day before the hurricane hit.
For those who might want to think about it longer than a minute and a half, let's consider what some of the factors might have been.
1. A lack of readiness by local officials. You can have the greatest-looking plan on paper, full of flowery government phrases and an intricate chain of command, but that's no substitute for having thought about the potential disaster a lot and then having the ability to make it up as you go along based on all that pre-disaster thought. New Orleans officials certainly should have been thinking about this a lot; they have known forever that, based on the simple geography of where they were, a disaster of epic proportions was more than likely. What does it say when the mayor of the city was basically looking into cameras in a daze, blaming the lack of response on everybody but city officials? City officials missed a lot opportunities, and when an evacuation finally began, guess who suggested it? Yes, that's right:
Gov. Kathleen Blanco, standing beside the mayor at a news conference, said President Bush called and personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation for the low-lying city, which is prone to flooding.
2. Inaction from state government. It's long been known that the N.O. levees were inadequate. A lot of people can share blame for not doing something, including those in Washington and with the Army Corps of Engineers. But New Orleans, as Gov. Kathleen Blanco, has acknowledged, has not always been the state's top priority. "We have to think big," someone in the governor's office said three years ago. No, acting big would be better. (See entire five-part series from 2002 in The New Orleans Times-Picayune.) If a state knows it has a looming diaster, should it not bear the primary responsibility to act?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.
3. A lack of coordination by the federal government. We've been thinking about homeland security for four years, have we not? Yet planning for a major disaster -- which should include those from nature, not just from terrorists -- has been underwhelming. Why did it take so long to coordinate the National Guard response? Was FEMA pushed aside in the homeland-security reorganization so much that it couldn't adequately respond? What kind of debates should we be having about Homeland Security's effectiveness and role? Let's not let Congress, while it's conducting inquiries, escape answering a few questions as well. Finally, George Bush's response was less than prompt and less than stellar. At the very least, he seemed to have lost the eloquence he had after 9/11. He finally acknowledged that efforts hadn't been enough, a departure for the man who doesn't like to talk about failure.
4. The unfathomable scope of the disaster. All the blame spread around in the remarks above needs to be leavened with the knowledge that the extent of the devastation itself made responding to it more challenging than most people could have imagined. Much of the relief depended on infrastructure that wasn't there anymore.
I would add the further caveat that much of what you're reading in this post might turn out to be nonsense. In the coming weeks, we will learn a lot about what went wrong and how to do it better next time. The only prediction I feel safe to make is that all those who are merely using Katrina to vent their pet hates and obsessions will reap the scorn they deserve. And since we started off talking about Bill Clinton, let's give him the last word.