- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

A team of Indiana firefighters, volunteering to help rescue victims of Katrina, went to Atlanta, where Federal Emergency Management Agency staff told them their job was to hand out fliers and to attend a multihour course on sexual harassment and equal employment opportunity.

This is, astonishingly, standard FEMA operating procedure. And in other parts of the federal government: Former CIA agent Robert Baer writes in his recent book how in Central Asia he asked headquarters to send someone who spoke Afghan languages, and Langley offered a four-member sexual harassment team, instead. These are perhaps things to keep in mind when it comes time to assess the response to Katrina. Government is a clumsy instrument.

Even so, it is possible to spot some clear mistakes. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin should have ordered an evacuation on the Saturday, not the Sunday, before the hurricane, which, as predicted, came on Monday. Mr. Nagin made an even greater mistake by not following the city’s emergency plan and using the 200-plus school buses to evacuate the elderly, infirm and infants who had no other way of getting out of the city.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s state department of homeland security should not have blocked the Red Cross from bringing water, food and sanitary facilities to the people in the Superdome. I don’t doubt Mr. Nagin and Mrs. Blanco wanted to do what was best for their city and state, and I would not want the responsibility they had. But, alas, they made mistakes.

As for President George W. Bush, he probably should have left Crawford, Texas, a day earlier, and he might well have made a mistake appointing Michael Brown, a man with little previous experience in emergency management, as head of FEMA. In a little-noticed move last week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff named Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who has such experience, to be Mr. Brown’s deputy and to be in charge of all recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast. Reading between the lines, it looks as if Mr. Bush, despite his usual loyalty, recognized his mistake, bypassed Mr. Brown and put in a man who knows how to do the job.

But it’s a bum rap to say Mr. Bush left New Orleans unprepared for the flood. New Orleans has been engineered to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, as the result of decisions by many federal, state and local administrations over many years; Katrina was a Category 4. But the Army Corps of Engineers hasn’t been shortchanging Louisiana.

As Michael Grunwald wrote in The Washington Post last week, “Over the five years of President Bush’s administration, Louisiana has received far more money for Corps civil works projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion; California was a distant second with less than $1.4 billion, even though its population is more than 7 times as large. Much of that Louisiana money was spent to try to keep low-lying New Orleans dry. But hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to unrelated water projects demanded by the state’s congressional delegation and approved by the corps, often after economic analyses that turned out to be inaccurate.”

So there have been mistakes all round, some by single individuals in moments of crisis, some by many people over the course of many years.

But we should resist the notion we can come up with some organizational solution that can prevent every mistake. Today, as we look back on World War II, we tend to think everything worked smoothly. But that wasn’t the case.

Rick Atkinson’s “An Army at Dawn” shows U.S. commanders made many blunders in the 1942-43 North Africa campaign. There were constant complaints about bottlenecks and snafus in defense production, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the organizational chart several times.

In 2002, everyone agreed FEMA should be put under Homeland Security; now, people say it should be taken out.

Fortunately, we don’t depend just on government. Millions of citizens have contributed $500 million, thousands are taking Katrina evacuees into their homes and schools and churches, and private companies are hurrying free supplies to those in need. Government will never be perfect, but fortunately America is more than just government.

Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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