Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Pot Calls Kettle Black

Former FEMA director Mike Brown appeared before a Congressional committee investigating the "slow" response to Hurricane Katrina, and he had a few choice words for Louisiana officials.

"My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional," Brown told a special congressional panel set up by House Republican leaders to investigate the catastrophe.

Brown also admitted that he made mistakes in responding to the disaster. One mistake, Brown observed, was not holding more media briefings; the other was his inability to get Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to "sit down, get over their differences and work together."

Brown's criticism may strike some as a case of the pot calling the kettle black. But as details of the Katrina response emerge, it seems clear that FEMA met many of its timelines for delivering assistance. As Brown--and others--have pointed out, FEMA is not a first-response agency. FEMA is supposed to arrive in the stricken areas within 72-96 hours after the disaster, and coordinate a wide range of government assistance. However, given the scope of suffering and devastation caused by Katrina, one can make the case that Brown should have asked for military assistance sooner, and done a better job of keeping President Bush and the American public informed.

But I will give Brown credit for speaking the truth about Louisiana officials. Much of the suffering in New Orleans was a direct result of local incompetence on the part of Blanco, Nagin, and others. Any inquiry into the response to Hurricane Katrina must examine culpability at all levels, including state and local government.

Congressional Democrats largely boycotted the hearings. They want an independent, 9-11 style commission, preferably one that will focus exclusively on the federal response, while giving Louisiana officials a pass. One Democrat who did attend the hearing was New Orleans Congressman William Jefferson, who comandeered two National Guard vehicles and a helicopter to check on his home immediately after the storm. Jefferson expressed shock that Brown would lay the blame on Louisiana officials. I guess Jefferson is upset that those guard vehicles and the helicopter weren't placed at his disposal before the storm.

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