Do you know what it means to miss FEMA in New Orleans .. is all the criticism right … or left?

Sep 6th, 2005 | By | Category: USA Today

Those who know the disaster management literature say that there are typically many bitter complaints about initial government responses to major natural disasters. Raw politics get mixed up in such things as well. A Washington Post-ABC poll has reported that 46% of Americans approved of President George W. Bush’s “performance after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast,” while 47 per cent were dissatisfied. Yet some criticisms in Katrina’s case are more unsettling than usual. One TV critic has observed: “What was stunning in the coverage was the accidental illumination of the dramatic dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots.” The New Orleans Times-Picayune has also “called for the firing of every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency” [FEMA for short], which “failed to rescue thousands of citizens stranded by Katrina.” And behind this lies a deeper sad story, for which the Bush administration in Washington cannot evade some deep ultimate responsibility

The FEMA that Bill Clinton and James Lee Witt built …

Whatever else may or may not be true, there does seem to be strong evidence that the US Federal Emergency Management Agency – which is supposed to be the country’s lead organization in managing major natural disasters – was at best slow off the mark in dealing with Hurricane Katrina’s unprecedented damage to the already well-known hazardous site of New Orleans. (Even President Bush has allowed that the initial response was not what it should have been.)

The story behind this has all too many sad ironies. Back in 1992 Washington’s perceived maladroit handling of Hurricane Andrew, the most destructive of its breed until Katrina in 2005, played a role in the defeat of the first George H.W. Bush administration. And the incoming President William Jefferson Clinton wisely resolved that he would never be caught at the short end of this particular stick himself.

Early on in his presidency in 1993 Clinton appointed his state government colleague James Lee Witt, an innovative director of emergency management in Arkansas, as the new head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mr. Witt’s mandate was to aggressively reform the rather chaotic organization of the day – which had arisen like Topsy, in response to the increasing frequency and magnitude of natural disasters in the 1980s. The mission was to create a state-of-the-art disaster management agency, ready to respond quickly and effectively to whatever horrendous natural and other disasters struck in any part of the United States.

James Lee Witt was an almost evangelistic figure. And over the next several years he at least succeeded to an extent that remains remarkable in the recent annals of North American public administration. His new FEMA became a showpiece for what convictions the Clinton administration had about the positive role of government. Fresh disasters inevitably did strike. And James Lee Witt’s FEMA increasingly did acquire a reputation as a public organization you could more or less count on when the chips were down.

(In Canada, to take one small case in point, when the provincial government of Ontario decided to review complaints about its role in the locally unprecedented northeast Ice Storm of 1998, to help prepare for the future, it was widely advised to get in touch with FEMA in the USA. These were the people who knew what to do about disaster management and how to do it best.)

As a sign of the Clinton administration’s continuing support, James Lee Witt as FEMA director finally became a member of the Clinton cabinet – the first federal emergency management director to be taken so seriously. Disasters continued to increase in frequency and magnitude. Washington at this point believed that this was an important challenge for the American people. And it was building a state-of-the-art government organization to get the job done.

FEMA’s sad demise under the George W. Bush administration …

In two recent columns Professor Paul Krugman at the New York Times has sketched the subsequent downhill slide in Bill Cinton’s and James Lee Witt’s FEMA. And, however much of a strident left-wing liberal Krugman may or may not be, those who know the disaster management literature also say that he hits some important nails on the head.

To start with, in 2001 the incoming new President George W. Bush replaced James Lee Witt as FEMA director with Joseph Allbaugh – director of the Bush 2000 election campaign. (Mr. Witt himself was an old crony of Bill Clinton’s. But he had some tested real-world experience with emergency management. Mr. Allbaugh was just “a close political confidant” of Mr. Bush.)

As Professor Krugman puts it: “the undermining of FEMA began as soon as President Bush took office.” The new administration did not value Clinton’s pro-government showpiece: “Mr. Allbaugh quickly began trying to scale back some of FEMA’s preparedness programs.”

Then: “You might have expected the administration to reconsider its hostility to emergency preparedness after 9/11 – after all, emergency management is as important in the aftermath of a terrorist attack as it is following a natural disaster … But the downgrading of FEMA continued, with the appointment of Michael Brown as Mr. Allbaugh’s successor.”

In this case: “Mr. Brown had no obvious qualifications, other than having been Mr. Allbaugh’s college roommate. But Mr. Brown was made deputy director of FEMA; The Boston Herald reports that he was forced out of his previous job, overseeing horse shows. And when Mr. Allbaugh left, Mr. Brown became the agency’s director. The raw cronyism of that appointment showed the contempt the administration felt for the agency,” and ate away at “staff morale.”

So, Professor Krugman asks: “Did the Bush administration destroy FEMA’s effectiveness? The administration has, by all accounts, treated the emergency management agency like an unwanted stepchild, leading to a mass exodus of experienced professionals.”

Finally: “Last year James Lee Witt, who won bipartisan praise for his leadership of the agency during the Clinton years, said at a Congressional hearing: I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded. I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared.'”

Homeland security and military force …

As Professor Krugman also notes: “Several recent news analyses on FEMA’s sorry state have attributed the agency’s decline to its inclusion in the Department of Homeland Security, whose prime concern is terrorism, not natural disasters.”

The much more telling point, as Krugman urges himself, is that wherever FEMA landed after 9/11, it remained in its own right “an unwanted stepchild,” suffering from “a mass exodus of experienced professionals.”

(And the ultimate force here, in Krugman’s words, was the Bush administration’s “ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn’t forthcoming?”)

Even so, the TV news on Hurricane Katrina has intermittently shown the triumvirate of the president, the head of homeland security, and the FEMA director, standing awkwardly together. Just watching them in your living room, it seems easy to imagine that too many cooks at the very top may have played some big enough part in the initial slow response.

(And once again it is hard not wonder how anyone with real experience of day to-day government down on the ground could ever have imagined that such a stupendously massive federal bureaucracy as the Orwellian-sounding Department of Homeland Security made practical sense? But that is another sad and ironic story, no doubt.)

In any case, by the Labour Day weekend it did appear that FEMA and its various urgent disaster management services had arrived in New Orleans in full force at last. But what the TV seems to be telling us now is that, more than anything else, it has been the massive parallel injection of US military forces into New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast region that may have started to bring a very difficult situation under some tolerable control.

As far as the triumvirate of the president, the head of homeland security, and the FEMA director goes, it is apparently none of the above that is now managing the federal disaster response to Hurricane Katrina. It is the local military commander, “Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, a Louisiana native” whose “son is serving with the Louisiana National Guard in Iraq.”

However welcome this may be in all the immediate troubles, it does reinforce the impression that the military is the only government organization the Bush administration really does like to use. (And this could stand as yet another sobering thought, if it didn’t also seem that the administration does not have all that much respect for the “boots on the ground” either. Which could help explain why recruiting for the US forces has lately been such a struggle too?)

David Brooks’s coming shift in the political mood of America …

Probably the most stunning recent news to emerge from the endless TV coverage is that Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans region could finally be responsible for as many as 10,000 deaths. This would be some four times larger than the 9/11 death toll. And if anything like this proves true in the end, it would seem a quite massive new political fact.

Lest you imagine that all this is just some vast left-wing political exaggeration, consider another two recent New York Times columns, by every liberal’s favourite reasonable conservative, David Brooks. In the midst of some apparent distress, Mr. Brooks agrees with the American Scene blogger Ross Douthat that “Katrina was the anti-9/11.”

More exactly (and coming, as it were, at the “bursting point”of a series of increasingly unsettling American big events of one sort or another): “Katrina means that the political culture, already sour and bloody-minded in many quarters, will shift … There is going to be some sort of big bang as people respond to the cumulative blows of bad events and try to fundamentally change the way things are.”

Maybe, Mr. Brooks goes on, “there will be a progressive resurgence. Maybe we are entering an age of hardheaded law and order. (Rudy Giuliani, an unlikely G.O.P. nominee a few months ago, could now win in a walk.) Maybe there will be call for McCainist patriotism and nonpartisan independence.” In any case, “the political culture is about to undergo some big change.”

Meanwhile, the key big question at the moment seems to be what all this will mean for the second George W. Bush administration, which still has more than three years in office. It is not easy to imagine that it will be paying any great attention to the lessons Paul Krugman has drawn from “Do you know what it means to miss FEMA in New Orleans.” (And there is still the opinion poll which suggests that while 47% of Americans are dissatisfied with the president’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, 46% are not.)

But, say what you like about Mr. Krugman, the lessons he draws will no doubt continue to pack some serious punch: “Experts say that the first 72 hours after a natural disaster are the crucial window during which prompt action can save many lives. Yet action after Katrina was anything but prompt.” The Bush administration’s attitude towards FEMA from the time it first stepped into office in 2001, “reflects a general hostility to the role of government as a force for good. And Americans living along the Gulf Coast have now reaped the consequences of that hostility.”

The George W. Bush team in Washington, Mr. Krugman concludes, “has always tried to treat 9/11 purely as a lesson about good versus evil. But disasters must be coped with, even if they aren’t caused by evildoers. Now we have another deadly lesson in why we need an effective government, and why dedicated public servants deserve our respect. Will we listen?”

August 30-September 5: USA TODAY: WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS … in brief historical perspective …

What can you say about the utterly appalling disaster that has befallen New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina 2005? Except to commiserate deeply with the literally hundreds of thousands of people affected, many of whom are still by all reports suffering in highly visceral ways (and more than a few of whom are apparently already dead)?

Other places along the US Gulf coast have also been stunningly damaged. But you inevitably focus on “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” Whatever its future may be now, it has been an unusual and legendary American place. And even a very short sketch of its history, quickly gleaned from mixed Internet resources, suggests strangely relevant food for current thought.

In the very beginning: “New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French as La Nouvelle-Orlans, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.” It was originally “part of the French Louisiana colony.” And a “community of French fur trappers and traders had existed along the bayou (in what is now the middle of New Orleans) for at least a decade before the official founding of the city.”

Right at the start, “Bienville recorded in his diary that the average height of the land on which he proposed to erect a settlement was 10 feet above sea level. But less than a year after the founding of the city the Mississippi overflowed its banks, and New Orleans was flooded to a depth of from six to twelve inches. Bienville … put the inhabitants to work digging a drainage ditch in the rear of the town and erecting a low dike along the river front … Thus began the great system of levees …”

The old La Nouvelle-Orlans

The particular human settlement concept that has a lot to do with the unusually appalling New Orleans disaster of 2005 put down further roots early on in Bienville’s French colonial outpost, in the original Mississippi valley of native North America:

“In 1723, the earthen levee thrown up to protect the city against the river was deemed inadequate; by 1727 the levee’s thickness had been doubled and extended for eighteen hundred yards in front of the settlement. Buildings were put up more rapidly following the hurricane of 1722. A large warehouse was completed in 1724 and the town could boast of a hundred cabins and two or three more sumptuous dwellings. Most of the dwellings were placed close to the river…”

The French regime also apparently laid the groundwork for New Orleans’ later unique cultural contributions in its subsequent American history: “The city’s reputation as a social center dates to the administration of pleasure-loving Marquis de Vaudreuil (1743-53). The residents copied his elegant manners and lavish entertaining, to the extent they could, and pretty soon, New Orleans became noted both for its bawdiness as a river town and for its gaiety as cultural center … ‘”

(And at least we people who live way up north nowadays are also inevitably interested to learn that, as explained in Canadian historian W.J. Eccles’s France in America, the “governor of Louisiana … Pierre de Rigaud, marquis de Vaudreuil” was “Canadian-born.”)

New Orleans as a strange fish in the early United States

With the important international Treaty of Paris in 1763 the French territories in Canada went to Britain. France’s “Louisiana territories were ceded to Spain in 1763 but were returned to France in 1803.” And then, most decisively for the future: “France almost immediately sold the colony to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

“New Orleans differed greatly from the rest of the young United States in its Old World cultural relationships. The Creole culture was Catholic and French-speaking rather than Protestant and English-speaking …

“The colony’s culture was enriched not only from Europe but from Africa as well. As early as 1721 enslaved West Africans totaled 30% of the population of New Orleans, and by the end of the 1700s people of varied African descent, both free and slave, made up more than half the city’s population. Many arrived via the Caribbean and brought with them West Indian cultural traditions …

“A more liberal outlook on life prevailed, with an appreciation of good food, wine, music, and dancing … Governor William Claiborne, the first American-appointed governor of the territory of Louisiana, reportedly commented that New Orleanians were ungovernable because of their preoccupation with dancing.”

New Orleans as the birthplace of America’s classical music

A place preoccupied by dancing (and dancing is of course often quite sexually suggestive as well) is necessarily also going to be preoccupied by music.

Thus New Orleans’ greatest contribution to modern America almost certainly turns around its reputation as the birthplace of jazz – one of modern America’s greatest contributions to the wider culture of the world today. And along with its gaiety as a cultural center and liberal outlook on life, the bawdy river town that gave birth to the blues always seems to have been a notably rough and tough place too. (More like the Mediterranean seaport of Marseille in France, say, than the more scrupulously civilized Paris.)

Louis Armstrong – the legendary trumpet player who took jazz to its first artistic peaks – was born in an obscure part of New Orleans known as the Alley in 1901. As he later explained in his autobiography: “Mayann [Louis’s mother] told me that the night I was born there was a great big shooting scrape in the Alley and the two guys killed each other. It was the Fourth of July, a big holiday in New Orleans, when almost anything can happen. Pretty near everybody celebrates with pistols, shot guns, or any other weapon that’s handy.”

Somewhere on the US TV of the past several years – probably the Ken Burns Jazz series on PBS – the great Louis Armstrong also made clear that he had been concerned to ensure his musical career finally got him out of New Orleans. If he does somehow know about what has been happening to his hometown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, from his current residence up the stairway to the stars, you have a feeling that he is probably not too surprised.

Technological hubris? … the ultimate fate of A. Baldwin Wood’s modern levee engineering

New Orleans itself was affected by the wider vast technological optimism of the increasingly dynamic new United States of America that came out of the Civil War, and then finally burst supreme into the 20th century.

“Until the early 20th century” building in the city “was largely limited to the slightly higher ground along old natural river levees and bayous, since much of the rest of the land was swampy and subject to frequent flooding.” The 18th century “earthen levee” technology that Bienville had introduced, it seems, could cope with some of the severe natural hazards of the place as a site for human settlement. But it could not overcome mother nature altogether.

Then: “In the 1910s engineer and inventor A. Baldwin Wood enacted his ambitious plan to drain the city, including large pumps of his own design which are still used … Wood’s pumps and drainage allowed the city to expand greatly in area. However, pumping of groundwater from underneath the city has resulted in subsidence. This has greatly increased the flood risk, should the levees be breached … “

In the United States, as elsewhere, natural disasters of all descriptions have been increasing over the past few decades now. Being what it is, the USA has developed an increasingly impressive cadre of disaster management experts. And they have apparently been sounding alarm bells about A. Baldwin Wood’s early 20th century levee system in New Orleans for some time.

As the press has now reported, e.g. as long as four years ago Mark Fischetti, a contributing editor at Scientific America, wrote an article called “Drowning New Orleans,” that is “hauntingly prophetic about what actually transpired this past week.” New Orleans, Fischetti said then “is a disaster waiting to happen … Only a massive reengineering of southeastern Louisiana can save the city.”

The trouble is of course that until the predicted disaster actually happens most of all of us just don’t pay much attention to what people like Mark Fischetti say. For one thing, there are already more than enough things to spend public money on, without worrying about natural disasters that have not yet and (who can really say?) may never actually happen.

Already there are also those asking another inevitable and perhaps related question. Is the kind of even more “massive reengineering of southeastern Louisiana” that will almost certainly be required to rebuild the present devastated city of New Orleans finally going to be worth its almost certain massive cost?

For the near future the much more urgent and important task is of course to somehow deal effectively and promptly with the wreckage of human lives that Hurricane Katrina 2005 has more than a little unexpectedly strewn across the US Gulf coast. And if the reports on TV are to be even half-believed, it seems that this is not going to be easy at all. The city they nowadays call the Big Easy, you could say, has suddenly got a lot more difficult. (On top of everything else that has been going on in the year or even just the summer of 2005 – including the rising gasoline prices that Hurricane Katrina has just pushed up some more.)

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