Be Angry, Be Very Angry
Published on Sunday, September 11, 2005 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
Be Angry, Be Very Angry

Three lost days.

For three long, terrifying days, as August turned into September, government failed the residents of New Orleans; failed the tax-paying citizens of this nation who expect that the entities in charge, from the White House on down to City Hall, will carry out their constitutional duties to "insure domestic tranquillity" and "promote the general welfare" - requirements they failed utterly to meet in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

This fatal failure should be evidence that it is time for an attitude adjustment in Washington. If just a few heads roll, it won't be enough, because the problem is far more than incompetent, uncaring, slow-to-awaken, negligent appointees. It's the "starve the beast" philosophy that has hollowed out important government agencies. Hurricane Katrina should make the Republicans who control the White House and Congress ashamed of themselves.

From the top down

The failure was at all levels, but it was especially egregious at the top. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is supposed to ride to the rescue in catastrophes, especially if local governments mess up and founder in despair.

No doubt the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana were not up to the job of managing the worst U.S. natural disaster since the San Francisco earthquake. Mayor Ray Nagin, for example, ordered a mandatory evacuation just before the storm hit but didn't send buses for those without cars. Still, many would've stayed behind anyway.

But local officials were left absolutely in the lurch by FEMA. Gov. Kathleen Blanco asked the president to declare a federal state of emergency on Saturday, Aug. 27, when Katrina was still out at sea. The White House that day authorized FEMA to "mobilize and provide at its discretion ... resources necessary to alleviate the impacts." So far so good.

The hurricane hit land on Sunday and began its rampage though the Gulf Coast. But it wasn't until Monday that FEMA chief Michael Brown asked his superiors at the Department of Homeland Security to send 1,000 employees to the region - and gave them two days to arrive.

One could argue that there were six lost days, those between the Saturday declaration of a state of emergency and the following Friday, when the National Guard actually restored order in New Orleans. But to be fair, most Americans - and folks in New Orleans - thought the sultry city had dodged a bullet when the hurricane failed to make a direct hit. The realization that levees were giving way and the city was doomed didn't come until Tuesday. That's the day the Times-Picayune newspaper evacuated its downtown building, and it's the day that TV-watching Americans began to grasp the enormity of the catastrophe they saw unfolding.

If ordinary people could see what was happening, how could the emergency experts in Washington be so oblivious?

On Wednesday, the Superdome, home to tens of thousands of evacuees, became dangerous. No air conditioning, no working sanitary facilities, not enough food and water. The Convention Center was worse. There, where 10,000 more evacuees had been sent by police, there was no government-supplied food and water, nobody in charge, and anarchy reigned. By Thursday, looters were taking what they could from stores as corpses floated in the street.

Americans saw; FEMA didn't

And Americans could see on their televisions that their government was AWOL. Terry Ebbert, the director of homeland security for New Orleans, said Thursday, "This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims but we can't bail out the City of New Orleans."

At about the same time, Brown, the clueless FEMA head, told CNN that he had only just learned that there were evacuees in the Convention Center. This was Thursday afternoon, by which time every television watcher in America knew there were thousands of people at the Convention Center and that they had no food or water and that people were dying for lack of medical care.

It wasn't until Friday that the vaunted American can-do spirit put an end to three days of governmental failure. Enough troops were mobilized, enough food was delivered to end the anarchy. Since then, we've begun to see the kind of behavior we expect from government: rescuing survivors, reuniting families, supplying needs, giving desperate people reason to hope again.

But here are just two of the awful things that happened while government slumbered:

The Convention Center. This facility is on high ground and was dry after the flood. It's just off the Crescent City Connection, a bridge that also was dry. The road over the bridge, Route 90, was used by the press to get in and out of the flooded city. By a circuitous route, journalists were able to get to the airport and to sources of food and gasoline. Entertainer Harry Connick Jr., was able to drive into the city over the bridge. FEMA could have done that, too, a network correspondent who was on the scene told Newsday. But it didn't. Not until Friday did government food finally come.

What was it like inside? Well, here's what Dr. Greg Henderson told TIME magazine after he arrived at the Convention Center on Friday: "They're stacking the dead on the second floor. People are having seizures in the hallway. People with open running sores, every imaginable disease and disorder, all kinds of psychiatric problems... "

St. Rita's. This small nursing home in St. Bernard parish, just east of New Orleans, had about 60 residents when the hurricane approached. For some reason, administrators did not evacuate and a last-minute rescue effort removed only about half of the patients. The rest of them died.

Imagine the scene: 32 bedridden elderly folks, up on the top floor awaiting help, expecting help. Picture the water rushing in, splashing against the legs of the beds, soaking the mattresses, rising, rising. The patients must have realized they were not going to be rescued. They must have called out. Probably they prayed. Probably the sound of rosary beads was heard as the water rose. And then 32 helpless people drowned in their beds.

This is America? How can the people we trusted to handle emergencies let things like this happen? It mustn't, ever again. Some necessary steps:

Hearings. Power brokers in Washington are falling over each other calling for hearings to discover what went wrong. Hearings are needed; preferably by a bipartisan panel, on the model of the 9/11 commission, which has authority to probe what went wrong at all levels, government and civilian.

Accountability. People who failed should be fired; people who acted heroically should be honored.

Planning for tomorrow. All areas vulnerable to natural tragedy - earthquake, tornado, flood - need to update their emergency plans in light of Katrina. Concern about terrorist attacks appears to have back-burnered such efforts. Long Island's elected officials have already agreed to meet for a joint emergency planning session. Good.

Abandon the "starve the beast" approach to government in Washington. The agencies that are supposed to serve the public should be adequately funded- not shrunk to invite failure - and headed by people of experience and integrity. FEMA's chief had political connections, not expertise, and he was relieved of Gulf Coast duties on Friday.

And how about restoring some compassion to government? Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who hopes to become head of the House Homeland Security Committee, said, "I woke up the other day and said, wow, if I'm chairman and something like this happens, is it on my hands?" The answer is yes, and he added that he'd hate to live the rest of his life "thinking these deaths were on my hands."

That tone sounds about right to us. As America goes forward from this tragedy, let it learn the lesson that government is about more than taxes and defense. It's about providing for the general welfare. It's about competence. It's about compassion.

© 2005 Newsday, Inc.