The Katrina Reports

This summer as a follow up to The Security Constitution I am working on a paper about emergencies and federalism. I have spent the past week reading the three reports—one by the White House, one by a House Select Committee, and one by the Department of Homeland Security—on the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

Getting through the three reports is no easy task. Together, they number 996 pages. (You really have a problem if it takes 996 pages to describe it.) All three assume knowledge of the inner-workings of the federal bureaucracy. Large swaths of the White House Report in particular are bureaucratic babble with sentences like this: “The JFO co-locates the Principal Federal Official (PFO) and Federal Coordinating Officer in situations not involving multiple FCOs.” And this: “Strategic-level coordination and resolution of resource conflicts unresolved by the NRCC occurs at the Interagency Incident Management Group (IIMG), an interagency body housed at DHS headquarters.”

Still, the three Katrina reports, with varying degrees of candor, come to a single basic conclusion: the federal government botched it.

The reports show how when Katrina hit the Administration held the view that—in the name of federalism—in an emergency states and localities should basically fend for themselves. The trouble Katrina presented was that it is hard to fend for yourself if, as in the case of New Orleans, you are 80% under water or, in the case of Waveland, Mississippi, you have been wiped off the map.

When Katrina struck, nobody watching from Washington seemed to know what to do or how to do it. Although after 9/11 the federal government had drawn up blueprints for dealing with emergencies, it remained short on know-how. There were too few people trained in coordinating emergency relief; supplies needed in the Gulf region were scattered throughout a vast federal bureaucracy with nobody to figure out how to bring them together; lines of authority were blurred and overlapping. Federal functionaries bickered about who got to do what. The person who was meant to be in charge, FEMA Director Michael Brown, hadn’t even thought to assemble in advance his staff of response personnel and to figure out their duties.

On the ground, federalism meant no single person was in charge. Federal responders showed up with equipment that wasn’t compatible with equipment used locally. Federal personnel couldn’t communicate properly with state officials. Nobody knew how to make efficient use of charitable donations or the services of non-governmental organizations or the offers of help that came from abroad. Federal personnel, worried about doing things that were the province of states and localities, waited in the wings. Efforts were duplicated; energies were wasted.

Among the most ridiculous of the federalism problems was that Louisiana insisted on deputizing federal personnel via a cumbersome process requiring the presence of a State Police Attorney. Similarly, some federal officials wanted to deputize state personnel before they could be allowed to enforce federal laws.

And so, the rest of us watched, in astonishment and sadness, as the Gulf Coast became a Third World country, its people dying in the streets and stuffed into refugee camps.

The three official Katrina reports don’t explicitly make it but the most frightening point is clear. Four years after 9/11, the federal government couldn’t do the one thing it is meant to do: keep us safe. Instead of putting in place a serious and effective emergency response system the federal government had apparently been too busy with other things. (Looking back, it’s not hard to identify what those things might have been: abortion, same-sex marriage, marijuana, teenage abstinence, issuing subpoenas to a dead woman.)

It remains to be seen whether the Katrina debacle will prompt the urgently necessary reforms in the federal government’s emergency capacities and plans. Who, besides me, has actually read these reports? And what has been done to fix all of the problems identified before the next incident occurs?

Bureaucracies don’t tend to change very much on their own unless somebody—somebody with power—forces them to reform.

Here, sadly, hope is slim. None of the reports say much about the failings during Katrina by the President—the one person who could produce reform.

It is no surprise that the reports don’t mention the President’s basic foolishness during Katrina (vacationing in Crawford while New Orleans drowned; flying about overhead while everyone else waded in toxic sludge; announcing that nobody had imagined the levees would breach; heaping praise on FEMA’s Michael Brown; rigging up a blazing light show in Jackson Square when nearby hospitals couldn’t power respirators). But it is surprising that the reports nowhere call specifically on the President to fix the things that didn’t work and ensure next time the government does much better.

In the scheme of things, Katrina was a soft ball. The hurricane came with plenty of warning. And, despite the devastation Katrina did unleash, its effects would look mild compared to, say, the detonation of a nuclear device in a major city. Next time disaster strikes, will we get an improved response? Or just a new government report, this one on how the lessons of Katrina were not properly learned?

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