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Opening Arguments

Beyond Katrina

Three weeks out from Katrina, it's clearer than ever that people at every level of government made a lot of mistakes, which had a multiplier effect. Those who just can't get past their own political prejudices to take an honest look at what happened will be increasingly irrelevant to the debate; they will add nothing helpful.

The greatest danger is that those involved will learn nothing or learn the wrong lessons. President Bush, stung by criticism of the lack of federal response in the first few days, has pretty much given the Gulf Coast, and especially New Orleans, a blank check; anybody think that money will be mostly well-spent? Mayor Nagin, who had no plan to get people out of New Orleans, now can't wait to bring them back. Rep. Landrieu rips the federal response, but quickly switches gears and says "now is not the time to point fingers" when talk turns to possible state and local mistakes.

Looking ahead, there are two areas we ought to be talking about:

1. We do disaster response the way we do because of federalism (keep scrolling; lots of links address the issue), the intricate layers of local, state and federal government. The system has always assumed that those at the local level would have the responsibility of first response -- that's why cities are told they could be on their own for up to 72 hours. After we're done with disgust at the bumbled Katrina response, do we really want to change the system and come up with something that assumes an immediate and massive federal takeover? Won't that fundamentally change this nation, especially when combined with some of the civil-liberties changes we seem willing to accept in the wake of 9/11? We have resisted (sort of) the accumulation of massive power in this nation. Do you suppose it can be amassed for terrorism/disaster response and then not used for other reasons?

2. It's fair to ask how prepared we are for the next big catastrophe and whether Homeland Security is working the way it should be. But I think it's a mistake to make a distinction between natural disasters and terrorist attacks, the way some people seem to be doing; let's just separate out FEMA and give it clear control of natural disasters, and everything will be fine. A more important distinction is between disasters that strike once, then leave us free to clean up, and disasters whose continuing effects compound the problems of recovery.  This distinction can be made both within natural disasters (a tornado, for example, as opposed to ongoing flooding after a hurricane) and within terrorism-caused disasters  (a 9/11 type of attack as opposed to a chemical or biological attack).