- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

No one wants to see local, state and federal officers at cross purposes as they work to save who and what are left in New Orleans. But that’s what appeared to be happening yesterday. The answer to the question of who’s in charge at this late date leaves all three levels of government at fault, and the mayor seems to be the chief instigator, issuing orders that city workers refuse to follow.

Late Tuesday night, Mayor C. Ray Nagin ordered the immediate evacuation of the remaining population of New Orleans, but his Police Department told him they couldn’t, not yet. “If I pull my people out to do mandatory evacuations, a lot of people will die,” Police Superintendent Eddie Compass told CNN yesterday afternoon. A deputy said the forced evacuation would begin “in the next couple of days,” presumably to buy rescue time and manpower to save the 5,000 to 10,000 civilians still in New Orleans.

The National Guard also refused — not least because Mr. Nagin has no authority to order Guardsmen to do anything. Mr. Nagin’s order on Tuesday was directed to police, firefighters, the National Guard and “any branch of the U.S. military” in the city to “compel the evacuation of all persons… regardless of whether such persons are on private property or do not desire to leave.” The National Guard is under the command of Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, not of the mayor. Citing the chain of command from Mrs. Blanco, the Guard pointedly declined unless the governor issued the order.

An official of the U.S. Army Northern Command, Lt. Gen. Joseph Inge, said that federal military forces would not be involved in “a law enforcement issue,” that his troops instead “will continue to search and rescue. We will support the evacuation of survivors. We will transport and distribute relief supplies: ice, food, water and, of course medical supplies.” But it would not participate in Mr. Nagin’s mandatory evacuation order unless expressly ordered to do so by the governor.

In short, the unfolding mess in New Orleans will be a seminal case study for disaster-preparedness planners. By law, the National Guard is under the governor’s authority but Mr. Nagin has the power to order an evacuation. Mrs. Blanco, for her part, said yesterday afternoon that she has made a decision to delay the decision on whether to evacuate immediately. So for now, there will be no immediate evacuation.

Lines of authority are bound to get tangled when three levels of government, all jealous of their prerogatives, are trying to help. But this chaos is unacceptable, and is valuable only as a bitter lesson that must never again be repeated.

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