It's almost awe-inspiring to see the level of energy and coordination the Bush White House can bring to bear in a genuine crisis. Not hurricane Katrina, of course, but the political crisis they now find rising around them.
As we noted yesterday, the storyline and the outlines of the attack are now clear: pin the blame for the debacle on state and local authorities.
So, let's get all the facts out on the table now. And let's not be afraid to let them all fall where they may. There's no need to make saints of Gov. Blanco or Mayor Nagin. In such a storm of error as this, it would not surprise me if they made a number of them too. But the reason you have a federal government and particularly a FEMA in cases like this is that it is in the nature of local and state authorities to be at least partly overwhelmed in disasters of this magnitude. Read what Ed Kilgore wrote a couple days ago at TPMCafe ...
Anyone who's been involved in a disaster response episode will tell you the first few days are characterized by absolute chaos. Basic logistics are fouled up; communications systems are paralyzed; a thousand urgent needs must be triaged; a vast welter of well-meaning but tunnel-visioned federal, state and local agencies, plus private charitable organizations and volunteers, rush in; local elected officials are forced in front of cameras to inform and reassure the affected population. Somebody has to be in charge of the chaos, and that's FEMA's job.
This is just one of the many reasons why the White House's main excuse -- that the locals didn't tell us what to do -- is such a grim joke.
But let me, just for starters, focus in on one specific case. Administration officials gave a series of blind quotes for an article that appeared in today's Washington Post
One passage reads as follows ...
Louisiana did not reach out to a multi-state mutual aid compact for assistance until Wednesday, three state and federal officials said. As of Saturday, Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said.
I don't have the details yet <$Ad$> on the first point about the multi-state mutual aid compact. The state authorities seem to be saying that there was little point in making the request since the nearby states were also hit by Katrina. Indeed, this article
says that Blanco accepted an offer of National Guard troops from New Mexico on Sunday, but that the paperwork didn't arrive from Washington until Thursday.
But let's focus in on the second point. Had Blanco still not declared a state of emergency as late as yesterday?
On the state of Louisiana website you can find this letter
Gov. Blanco sent to President Bush on August 28th, that was last Sunday, just on the eve of the hurricane's landfall. (Here's the PDF
and here is a text transcription
.) Basically the letter is a laundry list of requests for aid and assistance from the federal government, invoking various laws, and so forth.
Some of the key passages include ...
Under the provisions of [the relevant federal law], I request that you declare an emergency for the State of Louisiana due to Hurricane Katrina for the time period beginning August 26, 2005, and continuing ... In response to the situation I have taken appropriate action under State law and directed the execution of the State Emergency Plan on August 26, 2005 in accordance with Section 501 (a) of the Stafford Act. A State of Emergency has been issued for the State in order to support the evacuations of the coastal areas in accordance with our State Evacuation Plan ... Pursuant to 44 CFR Â§ 206.35, 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, and that supplementary Federal assistance is necessary to save lives, protect property, public health, and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster ...
The referenced state declaration of emergency was apparently declared on August 26th, that is, the Friday before landfall.
There's also this Statement
on Federal Emergency Assistance for Louisiana, which appears on the White House website dated August 27th, which begins: "The President today declared an emergency exists in the State of Louisiana and ordered Federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts in the parishes located in the path of Hurricane Katrina beginning on August 26, 2005, and continuing."
Key excerpts include ...
The President's action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population, and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures, authorized under Title V of the Stafford Act, to save lives, protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe ... Specifically, FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.
Now, it seems to me there are three points that make sense to raise with all this data.
The first is the importance of keeping an eye on the big picture and that is the fact that this whole conversation we're having now is not about substance, but procedural niceties
, excuses which is it is beyond shameful for an American president to invoke in such a circumstance. We don't live in the 19th century. All you really needed was a subscription to basic cable to know almost all of the relevant details (at least relevant to know what sort of assistance was needed) about what was happening late last week. The president and his advisors want to duck responsibility by claiming, in so many words, that the Louisiana authorities didn't fill out the right forms. So what they're trying to pull is something like a DMV nightmare on steroids.
Second, as long as the White House wants to play this game, there are various invocations of federal statutes in this proclamations. And we'd need a lawyer with relevant experience to pick apart whether the right sections and powers were invoked.
Third -- and this is key -- even on its own terms, the White House's claims seem false on their face. The plain English of this documents shows that states of emergency had been declared on both the state and federal level before the hurricane hit and that at the state's request the president had given FEMA plenary powers to "identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency."