Nearly half a year after federally built levees crumpled around New Orleans, the Bush Administration is facing a new storm of its own making. In recent weeks it has proved itself as incapable of managing the Congressional inquiries into its post-Katrina actions as it was of managing the hurricane response itself. But there’s one difference: In this new storm, at least, one gets the impression that Team Bush is doing its very best.
Here’s one way you can tell they’re trying: Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman is on message. If you want to discern the White House’s talking points, it always pays to check out Coleman, and the Katrina hearings are no exception. On February 10 Coleman dutifully sprayed verbal buckshot at both Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, before narrowing in on the day’s star witness: former Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown. And so two political hacks–one elected, one appointed–turned on each other. Coleman entreated Brown to “put a mirror in front of your face” and “confess your own sins.” But Brown, perhaps realizing that his designated role as fall guy won’t give him much of a boost in his new private-sector career–disaster consulting–refused to play along.
Brown has no defense. He had advanced his appearance before the committee by telling the New York Times that the “real story” is the faulty structure of FEMA, a once-sturdy agency that collapsed when George W. Bush folded it into Homeland Security in 2003. The Administration capped its restructuring by naming inexperienced pals to top positions, with Brown as Exhibit A (Brown skipped this point in his testimony). At the time, Brown crowed that his agency was “FEMA on steroids,” as first reported by Jon Elliston in a 2004 investigation. Now, in front of the committee, Brown blamed the “disconnect” between FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security for the agency’s inability to function when faced with an actual emergency.
But Coleman refused to give up. “You didn’t provide the leadership,” he assailed. “Even with structural infirmities, strong leadership can overcome that. And clearly that wasn’t the case here.” Coleman got that one right, albeit unintentionally. The destruction of New Orleans and the still-climbing official death toll, which now stands at more than 1,300, is the direct consequence of weak leadership from the top–the White House. The flawed federal levee system and the botched response resulted in this country’s most deadly man-made disaster. The waters have long since receded, but, despite occasional vague murmurs of affection from Bush, New Orleans is still struggling to function as a modern American city. Nobody’s confessing anything here. The travesty deserves an independent investigation and full participation from the White House. Instead, it received Republican-led inquiries and no direct access to the President.
Yet even the compromised investigation is unearthing startling facts about how this country responds to an urban catastrophe. In testimony and in details emerging from hundreds of thousands of documents, the scenes are of an Administration and its agencies that, when disaster strikes, stumble over one another in ways that would be high slapstick, if only it were a movie. E-mails, phone calls and even eyewitness accounts alerted the White House as early as Monday, August 29, that people were stranded and waters were rising–but it didn’t deter Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff from flying to Atlanta to hash over the threat of avian flu, or Bush from flying to the side of country singer Mark Willis to get his picture taken while hashing out some guitar vamps. Words like “disconnected” and “disengaged” dominate the Congressional findings. This disconnect preceded the storm, when the nation’s response plan wasn’t followed. It occurred during the storm and in its aftermath, when New Orleans citizens clutched starving babies and screamed at CNN cameras. And it continues to this day.
For New Orleanians, Bush delivered a clear sign that he remains disengaged when he nixed–without offering a viable alternative–the Baker bill, an ambitious plan to purchase and restore ruined homes, and then faulted Louisiana for not coming up with a plan. Then there was the State of the Union address, devoid of even a moment of silence for the men, women and children who died on the streets and in their attics. The only mention of what happened in New Orleans came in four sentences toward the speech’s end–in a segment about compassion. It’s not about compassion. It’s about justice. Americans must realize that we are all responsible for rebuilding New Orleans and funding Category 5 hurricane protection, including coastal restoration. This will require a national effort, led by the President. But so far, this President doesn’t appear to be up to the job. “One thing that I have found is a strong correlation between effective leadership and effective response,” said Republican Senate homeland security committee chair Susan Collins with candor. “Unfortunately, I have also found the converse to be true.” House investigators were even more direct, stating that “earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response.”
Details are still emerging from the inquiries. But we already know enough to know that we need an independent investigation; that Chertoff, the President’s top adviser on national disasters, should immediately be relieved of his duties; and that Bush and Dick Cheney should be compelled to testify. As New Orleans labors to rebuild its hospitals, its courts, its neighborhoods, its cultural life, its schools, its streets, its businesses, its homes, its public transportation, its police force, its environment and everything else that makes a city a city, it deserves restitution. A half-year after the storm, not one New Orleanian should be without a home because of a President who failed to protect a city and hesitated to save its citizens.