Blogs > HNN > The New Orleans Disaster: Our Leadership in Action

Sep 2, 2005 5:18 pm

The New Orleans Disaster: Our Leadership in Action

Excuse my tone (or don’t), but I can’t forbear from sharing some of my favorite soundbites from our political leadership on the New Orleans disaster. Here is our commander in chief sharing his thoughts , or as many thoughts as he can manage to muster and put into prepositional speech, about the cause of the disaster:
In an interview Thursday on"Good Morning America," President Bush said,"I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." He added,"Now we're having to deal with it, and will."

Some lapses may have occurred because of budget cuts. For example, Mr. Tolbert, the former FEMA official, said that"funding dried up" for follow-up to the 2004 Hurricane Pam exercise, cutting off work on plans to shelter thousands of survivors.
As for the next obvious question—why didn’t anyone anticipate the breach of the levees?—don’t expect George W. Bush either to ask or to answer it. And don’t expect the posing or answering of such questions to be any part of what the president means by “dealing” with the disaster. A wager: the one respect in which Bush is obliged to “deal” with the disaster is the one respect in which he won’t. Neither thought nor leadership are in the man's repertoire--or vocabulary.

President Bush, surveying the carnage of what was once New Orleans, tells us that the disaster relief effort has been “unacceptable.” Here is a question: Tell us, Mr. President, was it acceptable not to have spent enough money to prevent things from getting to this point? Did anyone “anticipate” the results of doing that?

Don’t expect our cognitively overburdened President to “deal” with those questions, either. As he so gallantly told Bob Woodward (in Bush at War), one of the “interesting” things about being president is that he doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone. It’s so much easier to play the drama-queen about the “unacceptability” of the rescue effort at the eleventh hour. As for his leadership when it might have mattered, just read this article and weep a bit.

When you're done, dry your tears and reflect on the wisdom of New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, a man who, in point of perspicacity, is clearly a match for our President. Here he is in a rambling and incoherent interview with New Orleans radio station WWL-AM--one that makes George Bush seem like Cicero by comparison:

And they don't have a clue what's going on down here. They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn -- excuse my French everybody in America, but I am pissed.
Oh--he’s pissed. Really. Maybe he should start wondering how we feel, knowing that the City of New Orleans rested in his manifestly incompetent hands. As for getting a “clue,” does it occur to him that thinking through the logistics of an evacuation was partly his responsibility?

No, it doesn’t occur to him at all; what occurs to him is that having defaulted on his responsibility, he sees the golden opportunity to make demands and divert attention elsewhere.
NAGIN: I said,"I need everything."

Now, I will tell you this -- and I give the president some credit on this -- he sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done, and his name is [Lt.] Gen. [Russel] Honore.

And he came off the doggone chopper, and he started cussing and people started moving. And he's getting some stuff done.

They ought to give that guy -- if they don't want to give it to me, give him full authority to get the job done, and we can save some people.

WWL: What do you need right now to get control of this situation?

NAGIN: I need reinforcements, I need troops, man. I need 500 buses, man. We ain't talking about -- you know, one of the briefings we had, they were talking about getting public school bus drivers to come down here and bus people out here.

I'm like,"You got to be kidding me. This is a national disaster. Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans."

That's -- they're thinking small, man. And this is a major, major, major deal. And I can't emphasize it enough, man. This is crazy.
Translation: “The disaster that resulted from my lack of foresight requires that we now establish a totalitarian government in which the military is given plenipotentiary control to run everything, and the government simply seizes whatever it claims to need, and directs it to whatever use it deems appropriate at the spur of the moment.” Thus speaks the voice of self-proclaimed sanity.

It’s a true clash of titans when Negin collides headlong with Bush in moral combat:
WWL: Do you believe that the president is seeing this, holding a news conference on it but can't do anything until [Louisiana Gov.] Kathleen Blanco requested him to do it? And do you know whether or not she has made that request?

NAGIN: I have no idea what they're doing. But I will tell you this: You know, God is looking down on all this, and if they are not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price.
Thanks for dragging God into the equation: God's eyes were watching us, but where were his hands? Anyway, excuse me, Mr. Mayor, but: Who didn’t do everything in his power to save those people in the preceding years when there was a chance to think things through? Who had no idea what he was doing, or what he is doing, or what he should have been doing, or what might have happened, or how to deal with any of it? And who exactly ought to “pay the price”? When you get a chance, glance at a mirror.

The government we deserve? A good question. I'd hate to think so.

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More Comments:

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Sorry, I've been away from the Internet for a few days, so excuse my absence. I've got a long post on federalism, New Orleans and responsibility coming within the next day or so. I may have to break it up into several posts.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/6/2005

Actually, one of may reasons that my wife would not want to live along the Gulf Coast is Hurricanes. (I simply can't stand that climate.)

More seriously, home ownership has made me more cognizant of natural risks. (My desire to see a tornado just once dropped precipitously.) I wonder, and I say this with sympathy and not disdain, if it is pretty natural for people who don't own a house (condo, whatever)to have a bit less of a "weather eye?"

Carrie-Ann Biondi Khan - 9/5/2005

I stand duly teased about my personal risk-averseness in this regard :o) Like any other trait, though, it is a matter of degree, and I am not advocating crippling caution. However, my personal level of risk-taking with respect to my residence is really beside the point here.

The more important points that I was highlighting have to do with:

(1) individuals being willing to think more carefully about and to take more responsibility for their choices, particularly when the possible outcomes are reasonably foreseen; and

(2) public discussion occurring that yields a more clear and principled basis for who (individuals, local gov, state gov, federal gov) should be taking any (and, if any, how much) responsibility for which functions.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/5/2005

While I grant that New Orleans rates fairly high on the list of cities with known dangers, the evasion of such things is harder than you suggest.

Avoid Earthquakes? Well don't live anywhere near the New Madrid faultline (Missouri bootheel}. It doesn't move often but when it does it packs a wallop, and buildings in the heartland don't tend to be Earthquake proof.

Avoid tornadoes? Better not live anywhere near the great plains, southeast, or Ohio Valley.

Avoid floods? Be sure you check out where the thousand year flood plains are. Some of those fools in Grand Forks ND have rebuilt in it.

OK I'm laying it on a bit thick. And I would not suggest to someone to utterly ignore the dangers in a given area. But you seem to be suggesting that we, both individually and governmentally, should live our lives according to insurance actuarial tables. I think that sort of decision making poses its own problems.

Carrie-Ann Biondi Khan - 9/4/2005

Oops . . . I meant "tornado alley" rather than "hurricane alley," but you get the idea. Neither having the funds to keep re-building when my place gets destroyed (and certainly not the temperment that would enjoy that sort of "challenge") nor willing to contribute to that sort of moral hazard problem, I avoid living in such disaster-prone areas.

Carrie-Ann Biondi Khan - 9/3/2005

There is an
op-ed by John Tierney that nicely captures some of the topics you have been posting about recently concerning the New Orleans debacle and federalism. Also throw into the mix some privatization, incentives to take on individual responsibility, and a little common sense . . . and you've got Tierney's well put thoughts on the matter.

While I feel terrible for the impoverished people who were unable to evacuate and are now feeling some of the worst effects of the decades-long botched handling of hurricane/flooding preparation, I wonder why anyone whould choose to live in an area like New Orleans (or prone-to-flooding Florida coastlines, or "hurricane alley," or on beachfront properties, etc.). Call me risk-averse in this regard . . .

Nagin, you rightfully point out, should have taken his share of the responsibility as mayor of New Orleans for planning, evacuation, etc. His sloughing off of his responsibility was made a lot easier by the expectation that FEMA should have looked out for his flock--a passing of the buck up the federalism line. Another passing of the buck is done by those citizens who think "I can live wherever I feel like it, no matter how likely the chances of disaster, and expect that the government will bail me out." This is yet another instance where a massive failure of being clear about what level of government is appropriate for what function and about what is properly a public or private matter has led to tragedy paid for in the currency of destroyed and ruined lives.