Thursday, March 02, 2006

Tale of the Tape

The AP is positively breathless over its latest "expose," of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. AP reporters obtained videotapes and transcripts of meetings between President Bush and senior Homeland Security officials in the days and hours before the storm. According to the AP, the tapes show that Mr. Bush and his aides were warned about a potential levee breach, and the possibility that refugees would overwhelm relief workers at the Superdome.

Mr. Bush appears "confident" in the tape, says the AP, and his aides appear "relaxed." This description is clearly intended to create the impression that the White House knew what was coming, but failed to act. Not surprisingly, Democratic politicians have jumped on the wire service story, saying that it highlights the need for a new Congressional investigation.

But there are critical elements of context missing from the AP story. How was the President supposed to act? The image of the Commander in Chief running around like a chicken with its head chopped off is not the behavior we expect of a President--and it certainly wouldn't inspire confidence in senior aides and other officials who would make key decisions in the hours that followed. A panicked President would have sent exactly the wrong signal, and perhaps led to an even more disjointed response, as a sense of dread and fear spread throughout the ranks.

And another thing: with Katrina less than 48 hours from landfall, what was Mr. Bush supposed to do about a levee problem that had been building for 40 years. Levee failure was certainly a possibility to be discussed before Katrina, just as it was a possibility for any major hurricane threatening south Louisiana. But the idea of strengthening the levee system was ignored by seven consecutive administrations, and in some cases, money earmarked for levee improvements was actually diverted to other projects.

Disgraced former FEMA Director Mike Brown claims the tapes vindicate him. Were it so. I have a friend who works at the agency, and participated in key meetings leading up to the storm. During one planning session, he tells me, Brown's "guidance" consisted of a single phrase: "do what you need to do." How impressive. While I believe that Brown has been scapegoated (somewhat unfairly) for the government's failures after the storm, it's also clear that he had no business running a national-level disaster relief coordination agency.

But the real missing element from the AP story is, of course, the local response. To my knowledge, the AP hasn't requested tapes or transcripts of local meetings on the Katrina situation. As we know, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco were models of incompetency during the disaster, unable to make evacuation decisions (until it was literally too late), or even order the use of those infamous school buses to move residents out of harm's way.

To be sure, the feds had their failings during Katrina. But the AP account is a jaundiced and one-sided view, designed to reignite a Democratic push for more investigations of the federal response--while blissfully ignoring colossal failures at the state and local level.

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