The AP has published the latest of its "investigative" reports on the slow response to Hurricane Katrina, based on videos and transcripts of teleconferences between federal, state and local leaders.
Reading today's installment, the slant of the AP article remains clear: the feds were fatally slow in responding to the worsening situation in New Orleans, while state and local officials largely get a pass. Obligingly, the wire service includes quotes from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, charging the the White House "misled" the American people about what it knew of the disaster, and calling for more Congressional investigations.
But perhaps unwittingly, the AP also manages to highlight local incompetence during those critical hours in the Crescent City. In an early afternoon conference call with federal officials, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco reports that "We heard a report, unconfirmed we think, that we have not breached the levee." In fact, the National Weather Service had received a report of a levee break more than three hours earlier, an issued a flash flood warning for affected areas.
That raises and obvious question: with concerns about possible levee breaks, why didn't Blanco and New Orleans Ray Nagin do more to assess the situation, since most of the first responders on scene belonged to state and local agencies? By the time of that conference call, the worst of the storm had passed, so the mayor and the governor can't use the excuse that conditions prohibited law enforcement or National Guard personnel from surveying the levee system. In fact, we know that Lousiana Army National Guard personnel were later dispatched to ferry Congressman William Jefferson on a mission to check on his mansion--an effort that required a 2 1/2 ton truck and a helicopter. As for Nagin's police force, we now know that many went AWOL during the crisis, while others were apparently sizing up looting opportunities.
Make no mistake: there was gross incompetence at all levels of the government bureaucracy during the Katrina disaster. But the slant of the AP makes it clear that the wire service--and its reporters--assign most of the blame at the federal level. It's also worth remembering that, according to FEMA's charter, the assistance it coordinates/provides doesn't begin to flow until 72-96 hours after the disaster. On that fateful afternoon in New Orleans, the job of assessment and local response was largely a state and local function. And the tapes show that neither the governor nor the mayor were up to the task. The AP still owes us an investigative series on bureaucratic incompetence in Baton Rouge and New Orleans before, during and after the storm. Don't hold your breath.