Wednesday, September 07, 2005

No time for turf wars

Opinion: No time for turf wars
People at all levels of government will have to answer for what they did and didn’t do in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has earned scorching criticism for its day-late-and-billions-short response to the ghastly crisis in New Orleans. And maybe it was only a matter of time before officials at FEMA and its parent organization, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, began looking for others to blame.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently maintained that the hurricane destroyed state and local governments’ ability to respond to emergencies, and he blamed that breakdown for the calamity that has overtaken New Orleans. Other federal officials say Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s reluctance to share command of the state’s National Guard troops with Washington has hampered the rescue effort by sowing confusion about who is in charge.

But accusing other government agencies of protecting turf is an awfully convenient dodge, a way of running from the stink of death that enveloped parts of the city over the past week. And if Blanco is gun-shy about giving more power over New Orleans’ recovery to the likes of FEMA Director Michael Brown, whose previous employer was the International Arabian Horse Association, can anyone fault her?

Let’s be clear: Officials in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana are hardly blameless in this tragedy. Official preparations for the storm centered on an evacuation plan designed to hasten the flow of private vehicles out of the city. This system worked well, and many more lives would have been lost without it. But as is now obvious, the plan did not take sufficient account of those who would not or could not evacuate on their own.

No federal presence was evident as the storm in the Gulf gathered strength and chugged toward us. If Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin thought in the days before landfall that the federal government wasn’t pulling its weight, they should have said so loudly and frankly.

In Louisiana, public officials constantly tiptoe around one another’s fragile egos and delicate sensibilities.

Once New Orleans was in ruins, of course, Nagin called upon the Bush administration to stop holding press conferences and start saving lives. On national television Sunday, Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard accused FEMA of turning back Wal-Mart trucks containing drinking water and nixing the Coast Guard’s plans to provide diesel fuel. Broussard went so far as to accuse the federal bureaucracy of murder.

None of this means Louisiana can handle the post-hurricane crisis alone. Quite the contrary; the tragedy of Katrina would be too much for any one state to bear, much less a state as poor and vulnerable as ours. FEMA and other federal agencies responded quickly and effectively to past catastrophes, and this one should have been no different.

For that reason, it was a relief when Blanco hired James Lee Witt, who enhanced FEMA’s reputation when he headed the agency during the Clinton administration, to advise her on the reconstruction process. No one will benefit if the local, state and federal agencies responsible for responding to disasters end up tripping over each other. Clear lines of command might well speed up the recovery, and putting someone of Witt’s expertise in charge of the process ought to help.

Inevitably, there already have been calls in Congress for an independent commission to examine the relief effort. Such a study might help emergencymanagement agencies in the future figure out how not to respond to a catastrophic hurricane.

But an independent commission won’t address what ought to be everyone’s immediate priority: getting New Orleanians to safety and getting the reconstruction under way. New Orleans needs the unified, able, dynamic leadership that FEMA officials so far have been unable to offer. The need for a cooperative spirit among leaders of the metro area has been talked about for years. That has happened in fits and starts in the past. Now, though, everyone has to come together to work for the good of the entire community.


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