Friday, September 02, 2005

A perfect storm

From both ends of the political spectrum come indictments of the government's failure to respond to the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans. First, from Paul Krugman:

I don't think this is a simple tale of incompetence. The reason the military wasn't rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn't get adequate armor.

At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.

Yesterday Mr. Bush made an utterly fantastic claim: that nobody expected the breach of the levees. In fact, there had been repeated warnings about exactly that risk.

So America, once famous for its can-do attitude, now has a can't-do government that makes excuses instead of doing its job. And while it makes those excuses, Americans are dying.

And from the right comes Jonah Goldberg, with a more generalized complaint about the corruption of the nation's political class:

The choice isn't between a lean, fiscally responsible, Republican budget and a porcine Democratic budget which included money for first responders. The Republican Congress has proven to be just about as disgusting in its spending as a Democratic Congress might have been. Sure, perhaps Democrats would have spent a bit more, but Republicans are supposed to be against bloated government and the stealing of tax dollars for personal projects and missions. So whatever pennies we've hypothetically saved with Republicans, their hypocrisy and betrayal of principle more than compensates. ...

...we were supposed to be preparing --at the national level -- for a major terrorist attack for the last four years. I just don't see much evidence of that preparation. Congress re-assembled lickity-split to deal with Terri Schiavo -- a decision that didn't and does not bother me the way it bothers some. But however you define the issues involved in that case, in terms of real human suffering they are very hard to stack-up against what's happened in New Orleans. Congress should have convened yesterday and rescinded the highway bill. It should have broken-open the farm bill like a piƱata and reallocated the monies therein.

For supporters of the war, this spectacle is going to be particularly hard to accomodate because it is in the interests of the political classes to keep their pork and it is in the interests of the antiwar left to frame this as a choice between Baghdad and New Orleans. That should not be the choice. The choice should be between the highway bill, ag subsidies and the like. The Don Young Highway should at least be renamed to the "Go Suck Eggs New Orleans Highway."

I don't think there's anything to add, do you?


Blogger fake name said...

I've come to rue the day Krugman was summoned to afflict my party with his meaningless nostrums.

At the risk of "outing myself," as JP would put it, let's just say that I might be one of the only people in this Yankee city with very long familial and personal ties to the Crescent City.

I lived there for a good many years, and I'm currently missing family include my aunt, several cousins and some other sorts of relations that likely wouldn't pass scrutiny north of Dixie.

I also regret the likely weeks of funerals I'm going to attend to honor the friends, colleagues, classmates and lovers most likely dead or dying because they had the misfortune of becoming doctors, nurses, maritime lawyers, journalists and cops.

Or, in sum, the people who stuck around to be sunk, shot or burned.

Despite these heavy times personally, I can't fathom the stupidity of men like Krugman. The problems with NO go back a very long time, to the very founding of the ville on a strip of swamp no higher than 5 feet about sea level.

The levee system always was expected to be inadequate during a very large storm. Certainly Katrina was one of those feared megastorms, the leviathans of cloud and lightning none of us wanted to imageine much less confront rationally through good government practices and public works contracts.

My old digs in Uptown flooded during a sprinkle. My neighbors told me yesterday after they got out that their roofs are washed in lake water. My childhood Garden District abode is gone the way of the Saints.

Down the drain. Eventually.

For those who read the great environmental reporting in the Times-Picayune, a key series in 2002 popularized what many of us already knew -- the city wasn't built for, nor prepared for, a major tropical storm. We would, eventually, wash out to sea.

This was true during the Clinton administration (when I voted for Nader, realizing that Bill already had LA locked up) just as surely as it was when Jefferson Davis briefly called the shots.

What's often unremarked today is that the T-P found blame equally with every administration, not just the Bushies.

NO is a messy, corrupt and violent place, but the people are invariably polite and a sense of fairness pervades street decorum. That's why talk about Air Force personnel playing basketball in Biloxi is so stupid.

What were the specialities of these men and women? If they're jet fighter pilots, what sort of training or special skills do they have to bring to bear in a hurricane? What will an air traffic controller do without air traffic to control? Or mechanics? Is repairing a jet engine all that similar to fixing a levee the next state over?

It's asinine to attack these people and their commanders. They might be do more harm than good in the devastation if they're not the right people for the job.

NO and Mississippi need infantry, engineers, water filtration experts and other military tradesmen. They don't need a bunch of clerks, radiomen or jet jockies.

Second, the "National Guard" is just that. The federal taxpayer doles out for the training, the equipment and the bases. Nearly every penny of a depot's budget is paid by the feds.

If the feds say you go to Iraq, you go. There is no special writ that keeps troops behind. Their first role is national defense, not driving trucks during a disaster. They're not the personal playthings of governors, but part of the national architecture of defense. They're trained to fight first, save later.

If you argue that they never should have been sent to Iraq, fair enough. But would this be true of every National Guard unit? Should the Pentagon excuse states in the hurricane belt from going to war? OK, the U.S. now loses every reserve unit from Texas to the Carolinas for the duration of the war because, once every decade or so, somebody gets a big rain.

When the soldiers in PA do two rotations in the 'Raq instead of one because Texas won't go fight, the moonbats will howl Bush is doing it to keep his home staters safe.

Tornado season is soon approaching for the Plains and Mid-West. Better recall the men from Milwaukee to Topeka. They don't have anything pressing to do in Baghdad. We might get a twister!

T-P, which one should read often, certainly did point out that ACE (which has a large presence in Pittsburgh, too) was spending less on contracts to revamp levees.

But the reality, as many of us discussed years ago, was that it really wouldn't matter in a high category storm. If the backsurge is above 20 ft, the 12-ft Industrial Levee isn't going to help you. And even though damned things were sinking, the real problem wasn't that they weren't as tall as they used to be but that the storm waters knifed underneath large sections of them, washing out the cement from beneath them.

There was very little that could have been done about that. The best scenario, we were told several years ago, would be the feds building a second series of levees inside the core of downtown, part of the Garden District, Quarter, down to the south quays.

But I'm not sure the American taxpayer would have appreciated the billions of dollars that would have cost, and more than 60 percent of the city's housing stock still would've been swept away.

Jefferson had the same problem.

Either Krugman is too stupid to realize, or he's too disingenuous to mention it, but it would cost nearly a year of warfighting in Iraq to increase the height and stability of two rings of levees, plus rebuilding the pumping system.

A lot of newscasters don't seem to understand this. Every drop of water that falls in NO must be pumped out. Sometimes the pumps don't work all that well during showers, much less typhoons.

Because I work with DC policymakers often, I agree, however, with Krugman's concerns about scuttling FEMA. Bear in mind, however, that Bush has accelerated a policy first formulated for the agency by Clinton's people in the wake of Andrew.

Unfortunately, Krugman has a nice bullet here, but he misfires by starting off on some meaningless tanget about shared sacrifices and "lack" of armor for troops (a charge, by the way, that the independent DoD GAO has largely refuted, not once but twice).

What Goldberg picked up on is exactly what Clinton noticed: There is a great deal of bloat and graft involved in all major disaster-relief enterprises.

FEMA had to be reorganized. Bush was trying to do that, but I didn't much care for the way he did it. Putting it into DHS isn't going to solve the problems created over generations by an inefficient, static agency in search of good ideas.

Don't even get me started on the wasteful policy consequences that stem from FEMA flood insurance and taxpayer bailouts therein.

Bush has failed us on FEMA (although I don't think the agency is any worse than it was during Andrew; in fact, it's high mark might have come during the 2004 Florida storm season). But so did Clinton. And so did Bush pere before that.

Reagan never much cared for it, except for the fire fighting part, and that's only because he wanted Interior to use 'em to save wood for clearcutting.

As a former denizen of a city that no longer exists, might I impart the wisdom of any journalist encountering a strange place for the first time? Think locally.

We joke about it, but NO is the most corrupt political machine in the U.S. I could cite examples, but what's the point? You I'm right. You know that the poor people of NO have been ill-served for many generations by the most cynical, incompetent, skimming class of shucksters and mugwumps since Tammany.

In fact, there isn't a small amount of civic pride in this. We used to chortle when police officers were indicted for killing each other in drug deals gone bad. Or the fact that officer recruits had to buy their own guns AND bullets because the city fund for that disappeared. Or that police cruisers had ad hoc radios paid for by the cops themselves.

Don't even get me started on the cost of greasing the wheels of justice, obtaining a downtown parking permit or reserving an apartment near the street car instead of close to the canal.

When disaster came, the primary job of the corrupt but preening mayor should have been to mobilize the ill-paid and untrained cops, the winnowed ranks of dispirited professional firemen, paramedics and bus drivers to (1) get everyone out; and (2) get everyone out even when they refuse to go.

Everyone knew this would prove somewhat impossible. The city is poor. Most people don't have sedans to ferry them down I-10 (which might explain the constant
carjackings uptown), much less the money to pay for motels beyond the bayou.

More important, the city's large underworld of killers, thieves and junkies weren't just going to pick up and leave. They looked forward to looting. It's what we do. We're good at it.

Pittsburghers make fetid cabbage and flour wraps and wave yellow towels.

We shoot.

There weren't enough vehicles to evacuate everyone. There also weren't enough police to keep order or the werewithal to deploy them quickly or prudently.

Looting ensued. Go figure. The city nearly tips into looting on Saturday nights.

The year I left town, two people were killed on my block. Two unsolved murders -- one a carjacking, another a prostitute pushed out of an abandoned mansion's window.

A real southern gothic way to go, but still not exactly a great model of civic life.

The neighborhood's favorite joke was to watch the ice cream truck with no kids around it, just crackheads running after the music, greasy dollars in hand.

NO is America's poorest, most violent and depressed joint, a simmering shooting gallery with raffish politicians that make Mayor Murphy look like an august Venetian Doge.

As much as I dislike him, you can't blame Bush for that.

Some things, you see, don't have to do with national politics. Sometimes even the most Jobian tragedy is purely local.

6:58 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

First, let me say that I hope everything turns out for the best with your family.

I don't have time to respond adequately. And frankly I don't dispute most of what you say. I think people do need to be asking hard questions of state and local officials about why there wasn't a concerted effort to evacuate the city. NO's history of well-documented corruption aside, the larger national question is whether other American cities, post-9/11, have evacuation plans, and why NO didn't have one or didn't put it into effect. Shouldn't the feds be pushing cities to do this, and if possible providing some money for it too?

The big problem with Bush is that his response to this tragedy--which neither the war in Iraq nor his poor environmental record caused, admittedly--seems typical of the manner in which his administration has tackled many problems: half-assed. I don't expect him to be Clinton, able to turn on the tears at a moment's notice, but a little empathy might be nice. I used to think this whole vacation thing was overblown, but why did he take his nice sweet time sauntering back across the country? It's all too reminescent of his failure, albeit for security reasons, to return to Washington immediately after Sept. 11. Americans need to feel that their president has their back, and despite all his swagger and tough talk, I don't feel that way with him anymore.

Let's consider the impact this is having on our oil supply. Now this country was addicted to cheap oil long before Bush was elected--before he was born--but his administration's insistence on telling Americans that they can continue on with their same gas-guzzling lifestyle, as if the war on terror might never effect our ability to import oil from the Middle East, or as if the Saudis might never reach the day when they can no longer tap their oil resorvoirs, is downright irresponsible and has left the nation ill-prepared to deal with a crisis when it comes. The president's plea last night for Americans to only use the gas they need was downright laughable.

It is unfair, perhaps, to use the hurricane as a cudgel to attack the president for Iraq. But it is a reminder that this president led us into an unnecessary war with no apparent way to win it, and he's refused to acknowledge the consequences.

7:35 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I meant "no apparent plan" to win it.

7:36 PM


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