Sunday, September 04, 2005

Politics and Disaster Make for Deadly Bedfellows

When the bodies are pulled from the waters that were once was the city of New Orleans and the long process of reconstruction is finally started, questions will still remain as to the performance of those in whom the citizens of New Orleans and Louisiana placed their trust.

This revealing story from the Washington Post paints a picture, not only of the unfolding human tragedy, but the petty politics that may well have exacerbated it. While the headline trumpets "White House Shifts Blame to State and Local Officials", the story itself tells a far different story:
Behind the scenes, a power struggle emerged, as federal officials tried to
wrest authority from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux 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 off 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.

A senior administration official said that Bush has clear legal authority to federalize National Guard units to quell civil disturbances under the Insurrection Act and will continue to try to unify the chains of command that are split among the president, the Louisiana governor and the New Orleans mayor.

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.

"The federal government stands ready to work with state and local officials to secure New Orleans and the state of Louisiana," White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said. "The president will not let any form of bureaucracy get in the way of protecting the citizens of Louisiana."

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, Federal Emergency Management Agency director in the
Clinton administration, to advise her on the relief effort.

It's not as though this disaster is a surprise, quite to the contrary. It has been the Sword of Damocles, hanging over the collective head of New Orleans, literally for centuries and it was common knowledge to everyone who lived thcategory catagory 5 Katrina bore down on a direct path for the city, virtually assuring it's destruction, the Governor and state officials were concerned about the political motives of the Bush administration? At the very least, the administration had a plan that may well have saved many lives, whether there was a "political motive" behind it or not.

Now, the administration that urged a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans on Friday, some 48 hours before Katrina hit, is being criticized for "slow action" by the very same people who rejected his offer of assistance?

The physical destruction of New Orleans, given its circumstances and the terrible fury of Katrina, was unavoidable. The still unfolding human tragedy is something that, in my opinion, could well have been at least mitigated had the Governor shown more concern for the citizens of Louisiana and less concern for political appearances.

This is a story that should be watched very closely in the months to come. As the waters recede in the Big Easy to reveal the horror of what has transpired there, the people will demand answers. Those answers, like what lies beneath the putrid floodwaters, will not be pretty.

UPDATE: Don Singleton has written a very extensive post, complete with numerous links on the above subject. His conclusion?

It seems pretty clear that Blanco was doing everything possible to avoid asking for the help that the President is now being blamed for not providing immediately after Katrina struck.

Since 1878 Posse Comitatus has prevented the the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines from operating on US soil. An exception is made for National Guard troops under the control of state governors, and I believe the governors can request military support (such as National Guard troops from other states), but they must explicitly request them.

Does anyone want the President of the United States [Democrat or Republican]
to decide to deploy active duty military, reserves, or National Guard from other
states without the specific request and approval of the Governor of that state?

Indeed, I do not.

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