I just finished reading the Times lengthy front page narrative account of the Katrina response debacle. And if I had to sum up the story it would be one of overwhelmed and often frantic local officials asking for every sort of assistance available from federal authorities, but sometimes not being completely sure precisely what they needed or the exact way to ask for it. On the other side you have the feds taking a consciously passive, reactive stance, and often displaying an oddly legalistic and bean-counterish attitude when asked for specific kinds of support.
There was a bit more on the topic of Friday’s Times article about the back-and-forth over whether to invoke the Insurrection Act and send combat troops into the city to restore order. But the more I hear about it, the more it seems like a diversion from the main issues.
The White House appeared to get distracted on to this all-or-nothing question of whether to send regular Army combat troops (not soldiers trained as military police or for civilian policing missions) into an American city to restore order in a legal framework of combatting a domestic insurrection. This actually would have been a pretty big deal, on a lot of different levels, and quite probably overkill — even in such a desperate situation. But this really wasn’t the most pressing issue. The real issues at that moment were getting buses into the city to ship out evacuees, getting National Guard troops more quickly into location, airlifting in relief aid, making use of the USS Bataan sitting right offshore, etc.
As I’ve said earlier, I’m still not sure I have a precise hold on the factual and legal issues in play on this federalization issue. Nor do I have any real confidence that the administration sources behind these articles are providing a straight story. But, again, the point seems largely a diversion from a bunch of more basic interventions that could have taken place but didn’t.
Indeed, what’s most shocking is not any particular mistake that was made but how often federal officials were left to brainstorm or hash out on-the-fly just what the federal government’s responsibilities were, how to coordinate federal, state and local relief efforts, or even simply who was in charge.
Reading those passages of the article, there’s one conclusion I think any fair-minded person would have to come to. And that is that in the four years to the day since 9/11, the administration appears to have done little if any effective planning for how to mobilize a national response to a catastrophic event on American soil.
And given all the history that has passed before us over these last four years, that verdict is devastating.