September 10, 2005 [LINK]

The politics of disaster

Based on what we now know, there is little doubt that the government's response to the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina was far from satisfactory. The question is, Which government? The decision to send the ineffective FEMA Director Michael Brown back to his desk in Washington was appropriate, and it seems that his tenure there is precarious at best. If it turns out that President Bush chose him for that vital but often-ignored post without duly weighing his qualifications (other than political work), then Bush will bear part of the responsibility for the tragedy being compounded. Congress will almost certainly proceed with a formal 9/11 style inquiry, but unlike that holocaust nearly four years ago, this time the nation is deeply divided into two warring factions that distrust each other. The gratuitous sniping at President Bush by Jesse Jackson was par for the course, but it was was quite unfair of the normally sensible Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu to accuse Bush of wasting time on photo-ops, something that Bush has consistently striven to avoid throughout his presidency. Indeed, one could fault Bush for not doing enough photo-ops in this tragedy, but given the times we live in, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. What about local officials? In the National Review Online, Michael Novak paints a bleak picture of New Orleans as a corrupt, anti-entrepreneurial welfare-dependent relic of the Old South. In other words, a paradise for Democrats. Donald Luskin points out the irony that environmentalists blocked some flood control projects around New Orleans. He also notes that the Democrats are already using the Katrina disaster for their fund raising efforts with an open letter by the always-polemical Sen. Charles Schumer; see Yahoo News. It must be deeply distressing to the displaced people of Louisiana and Mississippi that politicians in Washington are so quick to capitalize on their misery. In Friday's Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer launches a blistering salvo of common sense, refuting alleged links to global warming or lack of funding, and listing the people most at fault, in order of most to least culpability:

  1. Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans
  2. Governor Kathleen Blanco
  3. Michael Brown, the head of FEMA
  4. President Bush
  5. Congress
  6. The American people

Why the American people? "They have made it impossible for any politician to make any responsible energy policy over the past 30 years..." Indeed, I could hardly believe all the whining about gasoline price hikes last week, as though the devastation to the Gulf Coast petroleum and gas infrastructure would not be expected to curtail supplies. Massive ignorance of the economic facts of life... This tragedy illustrates one of the disadvantages of our vaunted federal system, in which state authority and national government authority are separate but often overlap, making occasional friction all but inevitable. Louisiana's governor is empowered to activate National Guard units, but was slow to do so last week, and then resisted when President Bush asserted control over those forces to hasten their deployment. There will be plenty of time to assess blame for needless deaths after the immediate relief operations have been completed. At least until then, we should all focus our efforts on working together and try to avoid jumping to conclusions about who screwed up. We should also exercise sharp vigilance over how the $52 billion emergency relief aid appropriation is spent.