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What Competence Looks Like

August 30, 2012

By Friday, August 26, 2005, computer models were showing Hurricane Katrina shifting to the west, raising the substantial possibility of a direct hit on New Orleans. That morning, Hurricane Katrina strengthened to a category 3 storm.  On Saturday, August 27, the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for Louisiana.  The Coast Guard readied its personnel, and rescue aircraft based in Texas and Florida began operations.  President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency in areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

On August 28 and 29, National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield warned President Bush that storm surges might overtop the New Orleans flood walls.  The National Weather Service advised that the hurricane damage could be so devastating as to render the New Orleans area “uninhabitable for weeks” after Katrina.  Storm surges as high as 28 feet were predicted, resulting in “major flooding” of the city.

By Sunday morning, August 28, Katrina was a category 5 hurricane.  “Last resort” shelters were set up for people who had not been able to leave New Orleans.  One of those shelters was the New Orleans Superdome.  Although a large majority of New Orleans residents safely evacuated before the storm hit, as many as 20 percent remained – largely those without access to cars.  At least 20,000 of them huddled in the Superdome.  Concern was that New Orleans would take a direct hit from the highest level of hurricane.

Katrina weakened to category 3 and did not hit New Orleans directly – it made landfall on Monday, August 29, in the Plaquemines Parish, 60 miles southeast of New Orleans, far out on the Mississippi River delta.  Initial reactions included expressions of relief that New Orleans had dodged the bullet.  But heavy rain and storm surges raised the level of Lake Pontchartrain, a large body of water to the north of New Orleans.  Levees protecting Greater New Orleans were breached in 53 places, pumps failed, and flooding was catastrophic.

As early as 11 p.m. on August 29, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had described a “significant” loss of life in his city.  By Wednesday, August 31, 80 percent of New Orleans was under water as deep as 15 feet.

Rescue operations were complicated by power outages, communications failures, and inter-jurisdictional disputes among local, state and federal authorities.  Rescue operations were also impaired by a lack of federal appreciation of the scope of the disaster.  On September 2, President Bush famously complimented his FEMA Director, Michael Brown, for doing “a heck of a job.”  But the scope of the disaster was plain to pretty much everyone else – on the same day, Kanye West equally famously complained that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Hurricane Katrina was no surprise – everyone knew it was coming in plenty of time to prepare.  But 1,464 died.  Property damage was unprecedented.  Drinking water and electricity were not fully restored for weeks.  Flood waters were not completely cleared from New Orleans until October.  New Orleans has not fully recovered to this day.

After Katrina, the United States Army Corps of Engineers invested $14.5 billion in rebuilding New Orleans’ flood defense perimeter.

Hurricane Isaac took aim on New Orleans this week.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency on Sunday, August 26, 2012.  On Saturday, President Barack Obama ordered federal resources to the area.  (Jindal wrote to Obama later that day to complain that federal aid was inadequate.)

Isaac came ashore as a borderline category 1 hurricane, with a storm surge of about 10 feet.  The storm was unusually wide, and it moved very slowly – as little as six miles per hour – so it dumped huge amounts of rain on southeastern Louisiana.  Not one of the rebuilt levees or flood walls was breached.  There were considerable power outages, but there is no calamity – the pumping stations now have power back-ups.  As of this writing, the New York Times reports one confirmed death – a tow truck driver who was killed in Mississippi when a tree fell across his cab.

Conservatives don’t have much use for most of the federal government.  Ronald Reagan believed that government is the problem, not the solution.  When you don’t think an agency is very important, you staff it with patronage appointees, you don’t devote resources to it, and you don’t give it much attention, oversight, or accountability.  President Bush didn’t think FEMA was very important, so he put Michael Brown in charge of it.  Brown came to FEMA from the International Arabian Horse Association, which he had left under a cloud of conflict of interest allegations.

Liberals believe that the federal government is important and, if it is appropriately funded and competently administered, it can indeed be part of the solution.  Neither liberals nor conservatives can prevent hurricanes, but well-run federal government agencies can protect Americans from their effects.  The State of Louisiana simply could not have come up with $14.5 billion to upgrade the New Orleans flood defense system.  The federal government is essential for projects of that magnitude.  A well-run Army Corps of Engineers was essential for executing the New Orleans upgrade project.

Infrastructure is quintessentially appropriate for federal-level programs.  A modern economy requires massive investment in transportation, communications, electronic, technological and information infrastructure – from interstate highways to the information superhighway, from sustainable power sources to a post-industrial power grid.  Neither the private sector nor the states have the capacity to develop, construct and maintain a modern, globally competitive infrastructure.  The federal government is essential.

When you are picking  people to be in charge of an essential function, you should always pick people who think that function is important.

One Comment
  1. Scott Mason permalink

    Too bad your commentary has to be limited to the federal levels of government.



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