Thursday, September 08, 2005

White House Shifts Blame

"White House Shifts Blame to State and Local Officials" - that was the page 1 headline in Sunday's Washington Post, and it was a classic example of headline that is not supported by the body of the article. I kept waiting to read the line where Bush is quoted as saying - "Don't look at me, the local guys screwed up." I didn't find it.

"Bush administration officials blamed state and local authorities for what leaders at all levels have called a failure of the country's emergency management."

"Behind the scenes, a power struggle emerged, as federal officials tried to wrest authority from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D). Shortly before midnight Friday, the Bush administration sent her a proposed legal memorandum asking her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans, a source within the state's emergency operations center said Saturday. The administration sought unified control over all local police and state National Guard units reporting to the governor. Louisiana officials rejected the request after talks throughout the night, concerned that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law. Some officials in the state suspected a political motive behind the request. "Quite frankly, if they'd been able to pull of taking it away from the locals, they then could have blamed everything on the locals," said the source, who does not have the authority to speak publicly."

So what do we learn from this paragraph? That the locals were afraid that if they did not maintain responsibility for certain aspects of the evacuation that are within its jurisdictional control, and the administration took over all aspects, everything could be blamed on the locals. My guess is that the source of that last quote does not have authority to speak publicly for very good reason. Now clearly by this point - Friday - there have been many screw-ups, the most egregious of which occurred at the state and local level (i.e. a thousand school buses sitting in a parking lot, no call for evacuation until Sunday even after the White House was pushing for it on Saturday, disallowing the Red Cross from supplying food and water to the Superdome due to concerns about incentivizing too many people to go there, etc.). So so far we have the speculation on the part of some Louisiana politician or political underling (and none of them have ever been on the take) that the White House was trying to get some control over the situation, not so that things might run more smoothly, but instead only because they want to blame the locals for prior screw ups.

"Louisiana did not reach out to a multi-state mutual aid compact for assistance until Wednesday, three state and federal officials said. As of Saturday, Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said."

Shouldn't this be the headline? Louisiana politicians have been sitting on their asses. Instead we get a headline, never fully supported, that Bush has been blaming them with the implicit inference, again not supported by anything within the article, that the blame truly lies with Bush.

"Blanco made two moves Saturday that protected her independence from the federal government: She created a philanthropic fund for the state's victims and hired James Lee Witt, FEMA director in the Clinton administration, to advise her on the relief effort."

Shouldn't the intrepid team of reporters be asking why it is such a priority on Saturday to be spending time making moves to "protect" her independence from the federal government? Does James Lee Witt command the resources that the feds command to get the job done? By Saturday, probably 50 percent of the people in this country had given money to philanthropic organizations for the relief effort; is it necessary for the governor to be spending her time setting up a redundant philanthropic fund while people are still trapped in the city?

"Bush, who has been criticized, even by supporters, for the delayed response to the disaster, used his weekly radio address to put responsibility for the failure on lower levels of government. The magnitude of the crisis "has created tremendous problems that have strained state and local capabilities," he said. "The result is that many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans. And that is unacceptable."

Now I ask you, how can the Bush quote be so determinitively interpreted as putting responsibility for the failure on lower levels of government? To say that the lower levels do not have the capacity to achieve the objective, it would seem to me, is an admission that federal help is absolutely required; and by essentially admitting that, it becomes an issue whether such help was offered in time. He did not say that the locals have the capabilities but mismanaged them. So a more reasonable interpretation would be that he has partially exonerated the locals - even if you had made all the right calls (which they didn't by a long shot), there'd still be a crisis and the feds would still be needed.

If the Feds screwed up, and I believe they did, the screw-up came in not recognizing soon enough that the governor and the mayor of New Orleans were incompetent hacks. The President was probably overly sensitive in letting these guys exercise the authority over the situation that the law permits them; not an unreasonable position for a former governor who believes in federalism, nor for a guy who had Rudy on the ground in the last major national crisis. If they had been competent, it seems to me that the issue of when Bush moved (probably a day late) would not have mattered, because Bush would have been asked by them to move much sooner, and many more people would have been evacuated if the city had followed its own evacuation plans.


Blogger Professor Vic said...

First, at least some portion of that Washington Post article was incorrect. The quote "As of Saturday, Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said." was so off that the Post issued a retraction the next day. Not sure if that meant that the Post misquoted someone or whether that official told such a lie that the Post was embarrassed to have printed it.

My opinion on this is that there is plenty of blame to go around. I will not spend a single moment defending the planning and execution of the locals. However, as bad as the local response was, the federal response was equally terrible. Furthermore, none of the local officials said things like "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," or "I pledge to help Trent Lott rebuild." Compound that with "Nobody expected the breach of the levies," everybody knew of the possibility and federal plans were being drawn up earlier in the summer about just such an occurrence or "I didn't know there were people at the Convention Center" after every American had been watching the conditions at the Convention Center on CNN.

So I have two questions for my conservative friends on the blog. First, exactly what does someone have to do in this administration to get fired? I mean I totally understand the desire to hire cronies, but doesn't Bush have any cronies who competent?

Second, suppose DC (or Philly or NYC or wherever you're from) is hit with a major disaster that you and your family cannot avoid. Do you want Brown coordinating the rescue effort to save you?

6:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And we can now look at the actual facts involved from the DOD website. See, the best part about the supporters for the Bush admin is that they happend to leave out most of the facts when they are in fact available on the government websites. You will see that the actual requests related to this situation are different than what is posted on the blog. Unless General Honore' is lying on the DOD website, the original date of the governor requests for contact and implementation was the Saturday prior to landfall. Believe what you wish but the timeline put together here uses both independent newspapers are well as the White House and DOD websites. Someone is lying somewhere.....

7:10 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

Yeah, Bush doesn't ever seem to fire anyone, and I think that is a serious mistake. George Tenet should still have a footprint on his @ss from being kicked so hard out the door on 9/12, but instead he has a medal of honor.

I really don't think there is equal blame to be spread. The city's evacuation plans call for 72 hours; and they wait until it's a day away to politely ask people to evacuate. They then ignore all of their own plans for evacuating the poor and infirm, and leave all of their buses in a lot to be flooded. Those are easier things to get right as opposed to how to deal with a security situation in post-hurricane evacuation efforts where gang members who have looted gun shops are taking shots at helicoptors, and half of the local police force has quit.

7:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Again, please stick with actual facts instead of opinion. All of the timelines involved, quoting directly from Gov't websites, show different facts. The spinmeisters can't bury this one.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

OK Anonymous, I've read the timeline. I also read the letter from Blanco to the President. This is the Enclosure A from the letter, which specifies the assistance requested by Blanco:


Estimated requirements for other Federal agency programs:
• Department of Social Services (DSS): Opening (3) Special Need Shelters (SNS) and establishing (3) on Standby. Costs estimated at $500,000 per week for each in operation.

• Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH): Opening (3) Shelters and establishing (3) on Standby. Costs estimated at $500,000 per week for each in operation.
• Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (OHSEP): Providing generators and support staff for SNS and Public Shelters. Costs estimated to range from $250,000-$500,000 to support (6) Shelter generator operations.
• Louisiana State Police (LSP): Costs to support evacuations - $300,000 for a non-direct landfall.
• Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (WLF): Costs to support evacuations - $200,000 for a non-direct landfall.
• Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD): Costs to support evacuations - $2,000,000 for a non-direct landfall.

Totals: $ 9,000,000

Bottom line - she wanted $9 million and some people to man some shelters; she did not request any mobilization of National Guard troops, etc. etc. Manning shelters, though clearly needed, does not help the people trapped in the city. The letter reflects no anticipation of that happening, and that turned out to be the largest crisis.

As for whether I am sticking to facts or just expressing opinions, I was primarily commenting on a piece of journalism that propurts to stick to facts when instead it merely expresses an opinion. I don't pretend to not have opinions.

The timeline also shows that the order for evacuation happened Sunday morning, two days later than what was called for in the city's own plans, as I said in my post. So I obviously got that fact correct, and that's kind of a biggie, wouldn't you say?

7:42 AM  
Blogger Professor Vic said...

I would only add that it really doesn't matter whether the local and state officials are more or less incompetent than the federal officials. Emergency officials on every level utterly failed. Whether state officials deserve an F- versus just an F for the feds really doesn't mean much. Not really worth debating.

It's a bit like arguing which one of us did better in graduate school in Macroeconomics. I think you did better, but you still averaged about a 14% on your exams. Defending your performance by comparing it to mine hardly puts you in line for the Nobel.

So I will happily withdraw my original claim of "equally terrible" for an acceptance on the part of my Republican colleagues of the term "terrible" being applied to the Republican administration's federal response.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

If your recollection is correct, than I need to go back to Prescott and lobby for a higher grade.

But don't you think there is a sequential aspect to this that needs to be considered? I.e. if you effectively evacuate the city, than what is there for the feds to screw up? No one is claiming the feds were responsible for evacuation. I agree they screwed up, perhaps as much as the locals when considered on the basis of comparing the decisions made to the best that could have been made, but the cost of the comparative screw-ups is very different. If the feds did everything correctly, my bet is that the result would have only been marginally better with respect to lives saved. Not so for the evacuation.

11:15 AM  
Blogger pbryon said...

Do you REALLY think the evacuation was screwed up that much? Evacuation of the infirm from hospitals and nursing homes most certainly could have been done much better, but many of the healthy citizens wouldn't have evacuated if the bus pulled up to their door.

You're pinning an awful lot of blame on the locals for the evacuation which went, for the most part, pretty well all things considered.

12:00 PM  
Anonymous John W said...

Just so you know -- since we are talking about facts and whatnot -- at least this time, Anonymous is not me.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Screwups everywhere in dealing with a disaster that everyone involved knew would happen some day and had no real plans in place to deal with it. I hate to see what happens when the invetible Califorina earthquake hits. Enough said.

4:29 AM  

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