A failure of leadership, planning

The Katrina Catastrophe

September 07, 2005|By Brad Lyman

PRESIDENT BUSH, in virtually the same breath, declared the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina "unacceptable" and praised Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Once again, the discontinuity between what Americans witness on television and the words uttered by their leaders is staggering. Does Mr. Bush plan to award Mr. Brown the Medal of Freedom as he did to discredited CIA Director George J. Tenet?

America is afflicted with too many face-saving politicians and too few leaders.

After 9/11, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani stepped up to instill hope and vision in the midst of chaos. One can imagine a President Giuliani dropping the 82nd Airborne Division into New Orleans. Americans would have cheered our soldiers as pallets of food and water were delivered by huge helicopters and dropped by parachute.

Instead, President Bush peered out of Air Force One as he returned from vacation while Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco warned crowds of desperate Americans that Iraq war veterans would shoot them for seeking food and water in flooded stores.

The leadership void was accompanied by bureaucratic incompetence. The jury-rigged Department of Homeland Security has been exposed as a fraud, FEMA continues its reputation as a hidebound bureaucracy and local emergency planning is a sham.

It has been nearly four years since emergency responders died in the World Trade Centers because of poor communication systems. Can we excuse New Orleans leaders for failing to provide a disaster-proof system to communicate the desperate needs of people at the New Orleans Convention Center, in hospitals and on bits of high ground where people congregated?

Katrina's victims became weaker and more vulnerable as federal, state and local officials used precious media time to point fingers at one another. Too often, the blame fell on the victims who "chose" not to walk 100 miles out of Katrina's unpredictable path.

Despite widespread knowledge of New Orleans' vulnerability, there was no legitimate evacuation plan, no emergency communications, no reserve supplies, no back-up medical services, etc., etc., etc. Americans accept that hurricanes kill, but they are enraged that people continued to die long after Katrina spent itself in Canada. Four years and billions of dollars after 9/11, Katrina exposed emergency planning and execution that border on malfeasance.

Investigative committees and presidential commissions will be carefully scheduled to avoid election cycles, but ultimately they will whisper what is painfully obvious - the only organization capable of responding to a catastrophic hurricane, enemy attack or earthquake is our military. We have provided no other American institution with the huge quantities of supplies, robust communications and transport systems and, if need be, the ability to impose order. Americans should expect quick deployment of this capability in the event of catastrophe.

Often, the National Guard is sufficient. But when the Guardsmen's communities are destroyed or they are deployed half a world away, the standing military must respond. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is restructuring our military, but if the Army cannot deliver significant quantities of food and water on short notice, the Pentagon must cancel those sweetheart Halliburton provisioning contracts and revitalize the Quartermaster Corps.

If the nearest aircraft carrier and hospital ship to be deployed to New Orleans are from the Chesapeake Bay, the base closure commission must add homeland relief to its criteria.

If the nation must wage war and occupy nations around the globe, let us establish a foreign legion rather than cannibalize our National Guard.

Americans must no longer tolerate the photo opportunities and press conferences at which incompetent bureaucrats and self-serving politicians bathe themselves in the reflected glory of dedicated first responders and heroic soldiers. Investigations and indictments can come in due course, but before the next tropical depression forms in the Atlantic or a fault line shifts in the Pacific, all Americans should demand an audit of their federal, state and community emergency evacuation and disaster relief plans.

Brad Lyman is a professor of sociology at Baltimore City Community College.

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