FEMA mess didn't miss Mississippi

October 12, 2005|By ROBERT S. MCELVAINE

CLINTON, MISS. -- In the weeks since Hurricane Katrina struck, Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor and former Republican national chairman, has been dividing his time between dealing with the disaster and spinning a myth. He has received more assistance from the Bush administration in the latter endeavor than in the former. Much of importance about the political future of the United States is riding on whether the public accepts this fiction as fact.

At the end of a Primetime program two weeks after the storm, Ted Koppel summarized the Mississippi Myth and showed that he had bought it: "We have focused tonight exclusively on New Orleans, because the system seemed to work in Mississippi."

One reason why the Katrina catastrophe has not done for President Bush what the terrorist attacks did four years ago is that, this time, there was no external enemy against which to unite the American people and direct their anger. Instead, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Mr. Bush himself became the "them." Their response was to try to shift blame to Democratic officials in Louisiana.

But since Katrina ravaged Mississippi as well as Louisiana, the crisis presents something akin to a controlled experiment to determine with whom the preponderance of the responsibility for the negligence in the response rests.

Because Mr. Barbour is a Republican, the Bush team was not in a political position to shift blame to the state government in Mississippi. Mr. Barbour, moreover, fancies himself a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. He plainly sees Katrina as an opportunity for him to build a Rudy Giuliani-like reputation for crisis leadership.

Throughout the calamity, Mr. Barbour has not been willing to criticize the Bush administration or the federal relief efforts. On the contrary, he has set himself up as the head cheerleader for Mr. Bush and FEMA. He repeatedly has dismissed all criticism of the federal response to the catastrophe.

"That's all cooked up by the news media and a few enemies of George Bush," he contends. "The federal government has been fabulous in our state."

One definition of "fabulous" in my dictionary is: "resembling a fable, absurd." If that was what Mr. Barbour meant, his statement was accurate.

Michael Brown, who is still on the FEMA payroll as a consultant, echoes the Barbour-Bush line that the system worked in Mississippi. He claims that he had no problems in this state. Let's not mince words: That is a lie.

In fact, as any number of Mississippians in the heavily Republican region flattened by Katrina will attest, FEMA was every bit as incompetent in Mississippi as it was in Louisiana. "You can try to throw as much as you can on the backs of Louisianians," the conservative Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi told Mr. Brown at a House committee hearing, "but I'm a witness as to what happened in Mississippi. You folks fell on your face."

Most prominent Mississippi Republicans have not concurred with Mr. Barbour's rosy assessment of the federal disaster efforts. Sen. Trent Lott flatly stated that Mississippians "are disenchanted" with the federal response in their state.

By nine days after the storm, Mr. Lott had concluded that FEMA wasn't up to the job. "We're just going around them," the former Senate Republican leader said. When the Harrison County sheriff told Mr. Lott that FEMA was diverting supplies, Mr. Lott's response was to the point: "If anyone from FEMA tries to confiscate anything, arrest them."

Republican Rep. Charles W. Pickering Jr. has severely criticized FEMA on several counts.

Mr. Barbour's disingenuous assessment notwithstanding, the system plainly did not work in Mississippi. What actually happened in Mississippi under a supposedly competent and efficient Republican governor was so similar to what happened in Louisiana that it constitutes compelling evidence that, while there were also obvious breakdowns at the local and state levels, the basic failure was at the federal level.

The truth is that in this crisis Mississippi is the non-exception that proves the federal rulers wrong.

Robert S. McElvaine, who teaches history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., is the author of Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History.

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