Sunday, February 12, 2006

Laying blame for No Man's Land

The Washington Post says the House's "Katrina Report Spreads Blame", but reading the description, it's clear that the blame falls squarely on senior political appointees in the Bush administration, especially the most senior elected official – President Bush:
The report said the single biggest federal failure was not anticipating the consequences of the storm. Disaster planners had rated the flooding of New Orleans as the nation's most feared scenario, testing it under a catastrophic disaster preparedness program in 2004.

About 56 hours before Katrina made landfall, the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center cited an "extremely high probability" that New Orleans would be flooded and tens of thousands of residents killed.
This is not a failure to anticipate the consequences. People anticipated the problem. The failure occurred somewhere between the people anticipating trouble and the people with the power to do something:

Given those warnings, the report notes Bush's televised statement on Sept. 1 that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," and concludes: "Comments such as those . . . do not appear to be consistent with the advice and counsel one would expect to have been provided by a senior disaster professional."
This is a very nice way to phrase it, and that isn't surprising, given that the report was written by 11 Republicans in the House. Blame is spread of course, but only within the uppermost levels of the administration:

As the president's principal disaster adviser, Chertoff poorly executed many decisions, including declaring Katrina an "incident of national significance" -- the highest designation under the national emergency response plan and convening an interagency board of experienced strategic advisers on Aug. 30 instead of Aug. 27; designating an untrained Brown to take charge of the disaster; and failing to invoke a federal plan that would have pushed federal help to overwhelmed state and local officials rather than waiting for them to request it.
The report cites many of the same failures of communication and incompatible chains of command which lead to unnecessary deaths in the World Trade Center, and the slow, contradictory responses on 9/11:

The report portrays [DHS Secretary] Chertoff… as detached from events. … he switched on the government's emergency response systems "late, ineffectively or not at all," delaying the flow of federal troops and materiel by as much as three days.

The White House did not fully engage the president or "substantiate, analyze and act on the information at its disposal," failing to confirm the collapse of New Orleans's levee system on Aug. 29, the day of Katrina's landfall, which led to catastrophic flooding of the city of 500,000 people.

On the ground, Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown, who has since resigned, FEMA field commanders and the U.S. military's commanding general set up rival chains of command. The Coast Guard, which alone rescued nearly half of 75,000 people stranded in New Orleans, flew nine helicopters and two airplanes over the city that first day, but eyewitness reconnaissance did not reach official Washington before midnight.
Trent Duffy, White House Spokesmodel
The 9/11 Commission has given the government an 'F' for its efforts to realign to the realities of the post-9/11 world. We've trashed the separation of powers and duly passed laws. We've justified torture and secret prisons. But we haven't made sure that first responders can communicate effectively in a crisis, nor have we made sure that information from a disaster can move from the field and into the hands of decision makers at the highest levels.
Trent Duffy, White House spokesmodel, explains:

"The president is less interested in yesterday, and more interested with today and tomorrow," he said, "so that we can be better prepared for next time."
Fafblog couldn't explain it better.

Discussing yesterday's failure involves admitting error before you move forward. Focussing on today and tomorrow while ignoring yesterday lets us move blindly forward in a way that looks bold but actually doesn't make things any better. Let's call this "boldiness," a close relative to "truthiness," also an apt description of the product of the administration's briefing room.

Update: I didn't invent the term boldiness, I acquired it through the liberal scientist hivemind.