Failure's Many Fathers
I thought news coverage of Katrina was exceptionally good under difficult circumstances. The sight of TV reporters conducting snarling interviews with incompetent officials was more ambiguous. "The Rebellion of the Talking Heads" was the headline on Jack Shafer's good media column on Slate. The officials fully earned the snarls, but TV reporters aren't hired to be the voice of an outraged nation. Interviews with stonewalling politicians should be done the way Brian Williams did them on NBC, by showing the officials up with polite and persistent questions they wouldn't or couldn't answer. "I don't think the formula for the press to recover its lost credibility is getting up on a soapbox and making speeches," said Robert Zelnick, chairman of the journalism department at Boston University.
Recriminations started early, and commentary quickly broke along partisan lines. The howls that racism was the reason everything failed in New Orleans were predictable and unhelpful (Jesse Jackson and Howard Dean were among the most dubious voices here). A black resident of Seattle said: "The only reason I can think of why these people have been left to suffer is because they are almost all black." Well, I can think of other reasons. How about New Orleans's long history of incompetence and corruption? It's a disgrace that so many poor and black citizens were abandoned. But the city's black mayor, Ray Nagin, and other emergency officials prepared messages for a DVD (not yet released) telling residents that if a major hurricane struck, the city could not afford to evacuate the 134,000 people who lacked transportation. So those with no cars, no resources, and no place to go were left behind, while a fleet of some 150 school buses, which might have carried thousands to safety in a single trip, sat idle. One excuse was that running buses out of the city would not be practical in an emergency. But a young black man, who probably deserves a medal, commandeered a bus, picked up fleeing residents one by one, and drove them all to the Houston Astrodome. Apparently he had not been told that busing wouldn't work.
New Orleans is responsible for the primary failure and the social breakdown that occurred. The state performed miserably, too. Though politicians have complained about budget cuts for the Army Corps of Engineers and state projects in particular, the Washington Post reported that Louisiana has received $1.9 billion for Corps civil works over the past five years, far more than any other state. But hundreds of millions of that went for pork-barrel projects, some highly questionable, having nothing to do with protecting New Orleans. Still, state and city foul-ups don't get President Bush and the Federal Emergency Management Agency off the hook. In a strong piece in the New York Press, Tim Marchman laid out the details of the city's poverty, corruption, historically crooked police force, and long record of refusing to confront its vulnerability to a massive hurricane. Marchman wrote: "This is the city federal officials now claim they thought would take care of itself if it were struck by a hurricane carrying the force of a full-scale nuclear attack."
"Brownie's" job. President Bush arrived late, apparently without any general storehouse of knowledge about the culture of the city and the small likelihood that it would be able to cope on its own. The lack of attention to visual communication was excruciating in Louisiana and Mississippi, including the guitar-playing and the long on-camera briefing of Bush standing mute as an official explained things to him. Americans don't need to see Bush being briefed, said William Schneider, the CNN commentator. They want leadership. It was a chance for Bush to issue convincing Rudy Giuliani-like assurances and exhortations. What we got was an embarrassing pleasantry about rebuilding Trent Lott's house, a who-would-have-known excuse, and a claim that "Brownie" was doing a good job.
But Brownie, FEMA Director Michael Brown, was doing a poor job. Partisan Democrats laid the criticism on thick, but even Republicans and conservatives are dismayed or simply terrified that so limited a man is in charge of dealing with the aftermath of a major terrorist attack. The decision to relieve Brown as head of the federal Katrina relief effort is one of those dismaying, halfway measures that don't work. If Brown's failure to cope with the current disaster is reason to remove him from his Gulf Coast duties, why isn't it cause to cashier him outright? Brown is not up to handling a terrorist attack. Bush should just replace him and take a good, long look at the way FEMA is run.
This story appears in the September 19, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.