Saturday, September 03, 2005

Lord Jim in New Orleans: Local Government?

Local Governance | Matthew J. Peterson

David Brooks' column yesterday (POST ABOVE) was dead right—when one sees the shocking images on TV of the "predominantly black and poor" trapped and suffering, it is clear to all that "[t]he political disturbances are still to come." When, as now, there is a rising sense of anger in the air, the blame game is never far behind. The MainStream Media is already questioning the feds and the President rather than putting the hard questions to those actually responsible on the ground in New Orleans.

The MSM feels justifiable anger about the awful scenes the country has witnessed, but the usual righteous indignation they like to cloak themselves in is usually directed at the wrong targets. Ted Koppel slammed the deathly calm director of FEMA in a live interview last night, but as Powerline points out no one can tell us how, exactly, the feds are to blame. (See also Michelle Malkin here). Nevertheless, I'm sure over the next few weeks the MSM will let us know about every conceivable way in which the actions of FEMA and the President could be construed as a mistake.

Let us not make the same error—whether due to incomptence, circumstances beyond its control, or a combination of both, the city government of New Orleans has utterly failed its residents.

Did no one working for the city or state foresee the problems that would arise at the Superdome? Why and when were the people there abandoned by city officials? The same goes for the now infamous convention center. If city officials told people to go to the convention center for days, how did they just forget about all the people they walked away from? Did anyone from the city or state think about something so obvious as evacuating hospitals? Are all these reports about the breakdown of the city's police force true? If so, why did so many officers desert the city or even take part in the looting?

How, exactly, were the city and the government co-ordinating things together? Was the city working with the state at all? We have seen frequent and justifiably emotional pleas for help from the governor of Lousiana and the mayor of New Orleans, but it is hard to see how they have led or what they have organized over the last few hellish days. Everywhere one turns one sees shockingly ignoble acts of absolutely astounding incompetence. State and local governments simply failed to maintain the rule of law. Of course, the mayor and governor are under severe stress, but the reason we have government at all—the reason we elect leaders is to lead, especially in times of crisis.

Who was running things before the feds came? Who was in charge and how did the chain of command work? FEMA officials didn't even know that thousands of people were in the convention center until sometime yesterday—which leads one to believe that they must not have been told by whatever centralized command and control structure the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana had set up in the area (or did the city and state even set up such a structure?). It sure seems like disorganized and fragmented state and city officials and agencies communicated with the feds about as well as they did with New Orleans' poor.

Before anyone starts blaming Washington D.C., one has to wonder about the local and state officials co-ordinating the evacuation. Were thousands of people left in harms way because a bunch of "Lord Jims" abandoned their posts, shamefully leaving the poor and the sick in the midst of a disaster zone?

Maybe not—maybe circumstances were beyond their control—but this is the question that must be answered before we start blaming anyone in the District of Columbia. Given the sorry state of weakened local governments across the nation, one can guess what the answer will likely be.

Terry Ebbert, the chief of Homeland Security for the city, complained that FEMA did not set up a command and control center fast enough—what isn't clear is whether or not Ebbert and the rest of the relevant state and local authorities had such a center in place or even a workable plan to evacuate their own city. (See this for more on Ebbert.)

Meanwhile, in a recent interview, the mayor of New Orleans had harsh words for President Bush and the Iraq war even as he praised the leadership of Army Lt. General Russel Honore, about whom he said:

...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.

This sounds like a man understandably overwhelmed by his circumstances. Yet his attitude is troubling: "they" ought to "give" authority to the Army to get the job done? Aren't "they" there to help the man who is supposed to be in charge—the mayor? He also admitted he didn't know much about what the governor was up to, and then said:

"I don't know whether it's the governor's problem, or it's the president's problem, but somebody...the two of them...[needs to] figure this out right now."

What about himself—doesn't he think he should be involved too? Once again, he exempts himself from leadership and puts the burden on the shoulders of the governor and the president—one wonders to what extent he thinks "it's the mayor's problem." It sure sounds like the mayor wants to cede responsiblity—how has he directed the resources he has now? From the looks of things, not very well, and although its obvious that everything possible that could go wrong did go wrong, one still wonders.

There are obviously many mitigating factors in the midst of a natural disaster of this size and intensity, and no one should start seriously pointing fingers until all the people in danger are brought to safety—yet the mayor of New Orleans and Terry Ebbert have some explaining to do even as they point towards the feds.

To what extent the federal government has failed anyone remains to be seen, but it ought to be clear to the world that the City of New Orleans and the state of Lousiana was not in any way prepared for Katrina. There is no also doubt that for whatever reason, understandable or not, state and local government failed to govern, abandoning thousands of impoverished people to fend for themselves. Further, state and local government officials were unable to keep the rule of law in the City of New Orleans, and it is likely for this reason more than any other that rescue operations have been so painfully slow.


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