New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. The city knew it, the state knew it and the feds certainly knew it as they embarked 40 years ago on a project to strengthen levees and flood walls around the city. On Aug. 29, the Big One finally hit with Hurricane Katrina. The city at first appeared to dodge the Category 4 storm, but the backwash from Lake Pontchartrain broke through flood control walls and the Lower 9th Ward began filling up with brackish water, a scenario that had long been feared.
But the Federal Emergency Management Administration sat on the sidelines and watched while city and state officials struggled to save 100,000 unfortunates who had been unable to evacuate as the megastorm approached. The state's Homeland Security Department kept the Red Cross out of New Orleans, supposedly to force residents to evacuate, but buses that were promised to transport evacuees never showed up and those who tried to walk across the Mississippi River bridge into relatively dry Jefferson Parish were turned away at gunpoint by police and sheriff's deputies. Gretna police reportedly even confiscated evacuees' food and water.
With electricity and communications cut off, command and control of New Orleans emergency services broke down and the city descended into anarchy, some of which we saw on TV. Meanwhile, FEMA actually prevented assistance, turning away offers from other cities, states and corporations, rejecting water, diesel fuel, generators, trains to evacuate victims, National Guard units and emergency workers.
US military resources remained on standby, waiting for word from the White House that didn't come for five days while people drowned or died of exposure. A rescue team from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from Vancouver made it to New Orleans before the US Army did. Frustrated Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, after a week of being told "the cavalry is coming," on Sept. 4 told NBC's Tim Russert, "the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in US history." He accused the bureaucracy of committing murder. He even accused FEMA of sabotaging the local sheriff's communication lines.
But when President George W. Bush finally showed up on the scene three days after the storm, all he had to say to his FEMA director was "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job." When, a week later, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi urged Bush to fire Michael Brown "because of all that went wrong, of all that didn't go right last week," the president asked, "What didn't go right?"
In the end, Brown, a political hack who was plainly unqualified for the job, was relieved of responsibility for the hurricane relief. Two weeks after the storm he was allowed to resign. His successor, David Paulison, is best known as the FEMA wonk who advised Americans to stock up on duct tape to protect against a terrorist attack.
Are we to conclude that the depopulation of New Orleans went according to the Bush administration's plan? The dispersal of hundreds of thousands of Democrat-leaning voters from New Orleans could turn Louisiana from a swing state to a Republican lock. And the stricken area of Mississippi has a Democratic congressman, so it might have been considered expendable as well.
Not that the disaster didn't create opportunities. While the US Army Corps of Engineers worked to pump the toxic flood waters back into Lake Pontchartrain, Congress was putting $60 billion at the disposal of FEMA, which quickly awarded the first no-bid contracts to some of President Bush's and Vice President Cheney's favorite companies. The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 9 reported that Republicans hope to use the disaster to market conservative social-policy solutions. US Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, was overheard telling lobbyists: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."
The Bush administration walked the fine line between corruption and incompetence, but both traits were in evidence. On Saturday, Aug. 27, Gov. Kathleen Blanco asked for federal help. That same day Bush declared a federal emergency, but when the White House listed the parishes in Louisiana that were eligible for disaster relief it excluded parishes along the Gulf Coast. That's right: Shreveport, on the border with Texas and Arkansas, was eligible for help, but not New Orleans.
It may have been a clerical error, but in any case no federal help was forthcoming. The day the storm hit, Blanco asked Bush for "everything you've got." When almost nothing arrived, she called the White House and demanded to speak to the president, but was told he could not be located, Time reported. After being passed from one office to another, she finally left a message but never heard back from Bush. She called back several hours later and when she finally got Bush on the line he assured her, "Help is on the way." The first real help arrived two days later.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on Sunday, Aug. 28, offered Blanco help from the New Mexico National Guard. Blanco accepted, but the federal paperwork needed to move the troops didn't get processed until the following Thursday, the Associated Press reported. By Tuesday, Louisiana had received help from Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas; how they got into the state without FEMA finding out has yet to be disclosed. By the weekend, nearly half the states had sent Guard members to the coast. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle took the extraordinary step of declaring a disaster outside his state to activate his Guard before the feds got in gear.
The Katrina response showed the Bush administration for the hollow operation it is. Four years after terrorists laid low the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, more than a million Americans were displaced from the Gulf Coast and 100,000 were imperiled by rising waters in New Orleans without adequate food, water or sanitary facilities at officially designated rescue centers, but the president remained oblivious and out of pocket and the military stood by without orders. So the 82nd Airborne remained safely in barracks at Fort Bragg, N.C., search-and-rescue helicopters sat idle on the USS Bataan anchored offshore and airmen relaxed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., in lieu of orders to assist disaster relief across the road from the base. Two Navy helicopter pilots who responded to an emergency call from New Orleans while returning from a supply flight to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi on Aug. 30 were punished by their commander despite their rescuing 110 flood victims. It wasn't their mission, the commander explained.
Taking a page from O.J. Simpson's playbook, Bush announced he would conduct his own investigation of what happened on the Gulf Coast ... not that anything went wrong, mind you, except, as GOP surrogates charged, for the state and local officials who, according to the White House, failed to plan for a Category 4 hurricane.
Republican congressional leaders were not willing to cede the oversight role entirely to the White House. Instead they proposed a bipartisan congressional coverup. But Democrats, burned by coverups and opportunistic Republicans since 9/11, called for an independent commission to conduct the post-mortem into the preparedness for national emergencies.
Republican congressional leaders cannot be trusted to investigate a Republican White House. Democrats should insist on a transparent and independent probe -- not a "blame game," but the strict accountability Bush demanded when he arrived in the White House four and a half years ago.
Democrats should also use the experience of this debacle to remind Americans that the federal government is supposed to protect people who cannot protect themselves. -- JMC
Right-wingers are demanding a "fair, up or down vote on Judge Roberts" and others of Bush's judicial nominees. We'd take those calls seriously if Republicans in the Senate had not routinely blocked Bill Clinton's choices for appellate courts.
Colleague Nathan Newman says Democrats should demand term limits for Supreme Court justices before they approve any of Bush's picks for the court. If John Roberts is confirmed for the court, he could easily sit there for 30 years or more.
"The current system creates an incentive to appoint younger lawyers with less experience to the Supreme Court, bypassing those with more experience," Newman writes at nathannewman.org. "This is the exact right time to have a discussion about judicial term limits and would highlight Bush's goals of controlling the courts long after he's gone from office."
We agree that lifetime appointments sustain oligarchy in a democratic society. We think a term of 10 years or so, which would require a constitutional amendment, would insulate justices from politics but allow the public to remove jurists who have overstayed their welcome.