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Playing the Blame Game

By       Message Ken Sanders     Permalink
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In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the national embarrassment that passed for a response to the death and destruction in the Gulf Coast, there has been ample finger-pointing and blame-shifting by politicos and pundits. Cutely coined "the blame game" by the White House, the essential dispute is whether the federal government or the state and local governments bear responsibility for the macabre circus that rolled into the Gulf Coast on Katrina's heels.

While all levels of government bear differing degrees of responsibility for the post-Katrina boondoggle that has so dominated TV screens and newspapers since the hurricane first touched ground in the Gulf Coast, only one level bears primary legal responsibility. That level is the federal government, particularly the Bush administration's FEMA.

On August 26, 2005, more than two days before Katrina made landfall in the Gulf Coast, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco formally requested that President Bush declare an emergency for the State of Louisiana. In her request, Gov. Blanco included "all the southeastern parishes including the New Orleans Metropolitan area." In making her request, pursuant to the Code of Federal Regulations, Gov. Blanco declared, "I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and affected local governments." That is, Gov. Blanco acknowledged even before Katrina made landfall that Louisiana's state and local government agencies were incapable of adequately responding to Katrina.

On August 27, President Bush declared an emergency for the State of Louisiana, effective August 26. Under federal regulations, "[a]fter an emergency declaration by the President, all Federal agencies, voluntary organizations, and State and local governments providing assistance shall operate under the coordination of the Federal Coordinating Officer." (emphasis added) As director of FEMA, Michael Brown named William Lokey as the Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) for recovery operations in Louisiana.

In other words, as of President Bush's emergency declaration on August 27, even before Katrina made landfall, all relief efforts in Louisiana were under the legal authority and control of the federal government. The same was true in Alabama and Mississippi following Bush's emergency declarations for those states on August 28. All three states were legally subordinated to the federal government.

(Notably, Bush's emergency declaration of August 27 did not include either Jefferson or Orleans parish. Both parishes make up the New Orleans Metropolitan area, as specifically included in Gov. Blanco's emergency request. Technically, therefore, Bush inexplicably excluded the entire New Orleans Metropolitan area from federal emergency assistance.)

Having assumed control over emergency and relief operations throughout the Gulf Coast, the Bush administration, by and through the respective FCOs for each state, was legally obligated to determine the types of assistance most urgently needed; establish field offices to coordinate and monitor assistance programs and disseminate information; coordinate the administration of relief by federal, state, and local agencies, and those of the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other volunteer organizations; and to make sure that all federal agencies carry out their respective disaster assistance functions.
It failed to timely fulfill any of its obligations.

For instance, Bill Lokey, the FCO in Louisiana responsible for determining the types of assistance most urgently needed, told the press on August 30, "I don't want to alarm everybody that, you know, New Orleans is filling up like a bowl. That's just not happening." That, however, was precisely what was happening and had been happening for nearly a day following the breach of the 17th Street Canal levee on August 29. Similarly, on September 1, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged that he had no knowledge of the thousands of people holed up in the New Orleans Convention Center without food or water. Later that night, FEMA director Michael Brown admitted that he and his agency only became aware of the situation at the Convention Center hours before. People in New Orleans had begun evacuating to the Convention Center on August 27. They were prepared to remain there for no more than three days, until August 30. FEMA didn't become aware of their presence until a full two days later.

In other words, the Bush administration failed to fulfill the most fundamental of its legal obligations - determine the types of assistance most urgently needed.
Additionally, Lokey, Chertoff, Brown, and the rest of the Bush appointees responsible for coordinating emergency and relief operations throughout Louisiana, failed to do anything resembling coordination. Worse, they directly impeded and prevented coordination. For instance, on August 29, the day Katrina made landfall, Brown told fire and rescue departments from outside the affected states not to send in trucks or emergency workers. The following day, FEMA barred volunteer firefighters from entering New Orleans. On September 1, FEMA ordered California swift-water rescue crews to cease operations despite the fact that the crews had rescued hundreds of people in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. On September 6, FEMA squandered the resources and skills of hundreds of volunteer firefighters from around the country by subjecting them to classes on the history of FEMA and the laws of sexual harassment. Unused, the firefighters were left to play cards and sit around in an Atlanta hotel awaiting orders.

Following Katrina's landfall, Walter Maestri, head of the Emergency Management Center in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, began asking for relief on August 30 from FEMA, the National Guard, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Maestri requested the water, ice, and food FEMA claimed to have pre-positioned in anticipation of Katrina. In addition, Maestri requested mobile medical units and mobile morgues. Maestri was assured that everything he requested would be available within 12 to 36 hours. Unfortunately, FEMA's inept coordination of relief operations resulted in the ice and water being sent to the wrong places. When FEMA did send the water and ice to the needy areas of the Gulf Coast, it failed to have anyone there to distribute the supplies. As a result, the ice and water were simply taken off the trucks by those fortunate enough to be there when they arrived. In other cases, pallets of ice were left to melt on loading docks.
In the meantime, people throughout the Gulf Coast needlessly suffered and died.

Furthermore, long before Katrina hit, the Bush administration severely limited the State of Louisiana's ability to respond to the ensuing disaster. When the Louisiana Army National Guard called up its troops on August 27 in anticipation of Katrina, it had only 4,000 of its 7,000 troops available. The other 3,000 were deployed in Iraq. With the troops in Iraq were most of the Louisiana Guard's heavy equipment, such as watercraft, high-water vehicles, and generators. Deprived of its full complement of Guardsmen and nearly all of its equipment, the State of Louisiana was essentially at the mercy of outside assistance from the federal government.

Were there failures at the state and local levels? Of course. More could have been done by state and local governments to ensure that the Gulf Coast was more completely evacuated. More could have been done to ensure that there was more food and water available to people while they awaited the arrival of federal agencies. Nevertheless, despite their inadequate resources, the state and local governments of Louisiana, for example, did successfully evacuate most of the New Orleans Metropolitan area, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. It is estimated that Louisiana evacuated nearly one million people, out of a population of 1.3 million, from the New Orleans area. On the other hand, the state and local governments of Louisiana told tens of thousands of New Orleanians to take refuge in the Superdome and Convention Center, without ensuring they would be safe and would have food and water. The consequences were horrific.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that the Bush administration bore the primary legal responsibility for the emergency and relief operations throughout the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. It assumed that responsibility with Bush's declarations of emergencies in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Having assumed legal responsibility for what occurred, or failed to occur, in Katrina's aftermath, the Bush administration is in no position to try and lay its blame on others. Particularly when those others are the victims of the Bush administration's negligence.


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Ken Sanders is a lawyer and writer in Tucson, Arizona. His publishing credits include Op Ed News, Z Magazine, Democratic Underground, Dissident Voice, and Common Dreams. More of his writing can be found on his weblog at (more...)

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