Ramblings From the Ragged Crumbling Edge Of The Reality-Based Community

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Price of Ignorance 

...of all the failures, underestimations, and misapprehensions that characterized the response at all levels of government to Hurricane Katrina, the shortcomings of the federal response stand out as the most disturbing. It isn't just that, as has widely been reported, that FEMA and the Homeland Security Agency took a seemingly casual response to the aftermath of Katrina's landfall. The most disturbing aspect of the whole failed federal response is that they were told almost exactly what was going to happen and where it was going to happen...

This is probably one of the most distressing and depressing aspects of the inability or refusal of federal agencies to redeem their well-established responsibilities in the case of a major disaster such as this one. They were told how bad it could be; they knew in advance that there was a pretty good chance that a major portion of New Orleans could be flooded and almost unimaginable destruction could be visited on a wide swath of the central Gulf Coast. And they did...well, not much. The federal response became a combination of reaction, blame-seeking, and the imposition of standard bureaucratic practices in a case where being proactive, open communication, and well-established streamlined emergency response procedures would have been the logical, conservative thing to do. Following procedures outranked getting rescue forces into the area in a timely fashion; possession of the proper paperwork was more important than actual delivery of emergency food and water; filling out the correct requistion form trumped resupply of vitally needed medical resources. This wasn't just a New Orleans or Louisiana thing; little help for some Missippippi communities has been seen three weeks out despite the deep, abiding silence of long-time Republican insider Governor Barbour...

Yeah, everybody made mistakes, and the inevitable Republican-led whitewash/investigation that Congressional leaders keep yammering about will no doubt focus almost exclusively on the failings of state and local governments in New Orleans and Louisiana. We'll even hear more about all those school buses that didn't get used to evacuate New Orleans, even though there were a couple of sticky little problems, such as finding people to drive the buses and deciding just exactly who had to stay behind to face Katrina' wrath since those buses wouldn't have possible been able to evacuate even a majority of the folks who couldn't get out on their own. It will all miss the point. The Federal government had a chance to be prepared for this disaster, and they blew it completely. In the meantime, all risk of terrorism aside, we still have the Cascadian Subduction zone, the San Andreas fault, the New Madrid fault series in the mid-west, the Pacific Ring of Fire, and any number of other natural disasters that we aren't going to be able to watch on TV for a couple of days before they manifest themselves and which will totally overwhelm the capability of local authorities to respond (a fellow I was listening to on "Talk of the Nation" on NPR today listed a midwinter earthquake in the New Madrid fault region in the midwest to be his absolute disaster worst case scenario). What we know for now is that the federal government, the rescuer of last resort, isn't ready or much capable of handling such a circumstance. We also know that, because of the completely political nature of Bush's administration, there isn't any interest whatsoever in conducting any sort of near term post mortem that would lead us to policy changes that would offer a better response; that can't be allowed to happen, in the eyes of this gang, because it would only serve (in their minds) to highlight the failings of their boy, possibly driving his poll numbers down even farther, and we just can't have that regardless of the unnecessary death toll that could accrue from a preventable but inadequate response to the next event. That should make those of us who live within the bull's eye ring of any number of potential big time natural disasters very, very nervous....

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Death, Taxes, and Properly Filled-out Forms 

...you almost have to feel sorry for the Roman Emperor Nero. If only he would have had something like FEMA around in his day, he could have beaten that rap about fiddling while Rome burned. Had he been encumbered with such an organization, he could have clearly demonstrated that he couldn't have possibly been fiddling or playing a lyre or any of that nonsense because he would have been filling out the requisite forms until the fiddle actually was invented centuries later. The medical response teams sent to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina didn't have fiddles, either, but they did have the forms.

It's like some twisted sequel to that Clint Eastwood movie "Heartbreak Ridge" that shows up on cable every so often. You know the one: The colonel in charge of the Marine combat unit has a background in supply and insists on running the show like any good quartermaster, demanding accountability for every bullet even as the grim spector of brutal combat with Grenada looms. Here, however, it's happening in real time, and real live emergency response personnel working in a primitive environment are required to fill out the proper, specific requision form in advance in order to get needed supplies as their existing stocks dwindle, even though they don't have any electronic means of delivering the required paperwork to Baton Rouge. The Colonel in charge of the medical teams attributes the understandable complaints to doctors being used to operating in large, well-stocked hospitals where they immediately get what they ask for. And then the money line:
"This is the Federal Government and we have a process we go through."
Well, that's true, as far as it goes. On the other hand, if the three or four major federal land management agencies had that same process, we wouldn't be fighting over Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative out west because there probably wouldn't be any appreciable number of forests - healthy or otherwise - west of the Mississippi. They would have burned down long ago.

Out at the pointy end of the stick in the world of wildland fire fighting, if you need something you ask for it - over the phone, over the radio, whatever. A person at the other end fills out a relatively simple document called a resource order that indicates how much of what you want needs to be delivered where and when. Other people up the line worry later on about where and how it gets paid for. Thousands of times every year, on big fires that make the national news and little fires people in the nearest community may not even know about, people order airplanes full of retardant, fire crews, shovels and pulaski's, water trucks, road graders, kitchen units, shower units, portapotties, sack lunches, candy bars, water pumps and fire hose, flashlight batteries, helicopters, medical supplies, and just about every other thing under the sun to deal with the situation. This juxtaposition is perhaps the clearest example of how FEMA has lost its way, having wandered away from being an organization that was geared to operating with a sense of immediacy in the primitive conditions found in a disaster area and settling instead into the cold, officious, hidebound world of civilized bureaucracy. This time it's not about whether state or local officials screwed up; the medical response teams work for FEMA. This is directly a FEMA issue and just as directly a demonstrable failing by FEMA. The everyday, run-of-the-mill procurment maze with which bureaucracy so enriches the everyday lives of civil servants doesn't work in an emergency situation; that's why it's not used in an emergency situation. For some inexplicable reason, the folks in charge of managing federal emergency disaster response don't seem to understand that right now. God help the victims and the worker bees if they don't have it figured out before the next big one happens...

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Swilling the Rovian Kool Aid With David Brooks 

...it is hard not to admire, from a purely academic standpoint, David Brooks' effort to skillfully carry the water for both Karl Rove and Grover Norquist without either breaking a sweat or even dragging Norquist into the game. Brooks hits the political trifecta in this particular little effort, in one dramatic sweeping gesture smearing local government for failure supposedly borne of bureaucratic intransigence, the Army Corps of Engineers for so-called pork-barrel spending that dramatically misrepresents their role in federal appropriations, and supposedly bloated government for it's root failure to respond to the needs of the people.

It's not exactly going out on a limb here to suggest that Brooks has some particular points he wants to make and has elected to take a sledgehammer to the Katrina realities to bludgeon them into the shape he wants them to be. The simple fact is that Brooks is wrong. He was going to be wrong anyway because of his desperate desire to make points conforming to the story line that the White House has been desperately trying to peddle ever since it became clear to the minions therein that they were looking little better that Scrooge McDuck in their response to the massive human tragedy spinning out in front of us - live and direct - on cable TV. Aside from the effort to bravely leap off that metaphorical landing craft onto that heavily defended punditry beach packing all those pounds of neo-con talking point baggage, Brooks is fundamentally wrong simply because of the past history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and his own misrepresentations of human reality and various facts. The crisis in New Orleans was not primarily a failure of the emergency plans the local government had in place, and it's not primarily a failure of some bloated local bureacracy that refused to allow the plan to be implemented. The failure is one of hubris and redirected priorities by the Bush Administration that left FEMA incapable of fulfulling a role that under the leadership of a previous administrator in a previous administration it was more than capable of handling. As things now stand, there is no room for unanticipated failures in local disaster response services, because there is no plan at the federal level for stepping in to take over when local efforts collapse.

The size of government is of little consequence in circumstances like this. No, in fact that's wrong; the size of government can be of tremendous consequence, and it is more likely that the sort of stripped down organization that slick, streamlined, high-speed poly-pundits like Brooks are actually campaigning for is exactly the set-up that is going to fail under stress. That is the organization that doesn't have the resources to keep pace with all the unfolding elements of a disaster, whether it's a natural disaster or a terrorist strike, and it's going to fail sooner under even less stress than that which caused the collapse at all levels, and most disturbingly at the Federal level, in this case. That, of course, isn't going to deter folks like Brooks and
George Will (hey, George, Alaska, with fewer people, caribou, moose, and bears combined than the human population of New Orleans, got almost $200 million more that Louisiana) from grabbing a big stick in all the smoke and confusion and taking a few solid whacks at their own neo-con pet peaves. That gig can be way more productive than just digging into the blame game...

Sunday, September 11, 2005

How 'Bout Bringin' Some 2x4's Next Time 

...clearly the alleged brain trust that keeps George W. Bush in power has decided that a constant, reiterative presence along the Gulf Coast by Gee Dub is somehow the way to try to erase from the people's mind the abject failure of the federal government to redeem their role in the immediate aftermath of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. It seems like an odd sort of response, sort of like returning to the scene of the crime over and over again, and the people still caught up in this nightmare know - even though the press doesn't always tell us - that each of these carefully staged political events does nothing much except tear recovery and rescue resources away from the task at hand. Lest we forget, all those Coast Guard helicopters and personnel arrayed behind the "let-'em-eat-cake" guy-in-chief the other day were being held on the ground for that photo-op while people were slipping into dehydration-induced delirium on New Orleans rooftops and above-floodline overpasses and downtown balconies at that very moment...

But never mind. Gee Dub is back, spinning nonsensical connections between the hurricane and 9/11 in a vain effort to get ahead of a story that has already been told, clear to the last page. George W. Bush cannot get out in front of this one, regardless of the staged photographs and staged meetings and staged stoic bravery quite simply because pretty much everything that will make this the compelling piece of American history that it will become has already happened, and all of the after-the-fact presidential visits in the world won't make what happened over those five terrible days between the Monday landfall of Katrina and the too-late arrival of resources and assistance at the Convention Center ever be any better. If Gee Dub really wants to try to improve his rep and erase all those powerful mind-images of him screwing around with a gift guitar while people were dying in their attics in New Orleans, he might want to consider giving up on hanging out on the Iwo Jima and maybe fuel up his big ol' underutilized Ford pickup sittin' back at the ranch in Crawford, pile that baby up full with 2x4's, bags of nails, hammers, hand saws, some power tools, a couple of portable generators, and some cans of gas to run them, and take a spin on down to the Gulf Coast to actually pitch in and get something done. Try the Jimmy Carter/Habitat for Humanity approach and actually apply some of that brush-chopping muscle to the actual task at hand. Otherwise, forget it. He can walk through every neighborhood in every destroyed town in Katrina's path for all the people care. They won't ever forget that he didn't even decide to chop the last couple of days off of this most recent of his record-setting number of vacations until well after a few million Americans had lost their homes, security, future, livelihoods, and - in far too many tragic cases - their lives...

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