September 5, 2005

Welcome to your legacy, Mr. President

By: James N. Markels

The old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Such is the case if disaster strikes when you’re unprepared. Now, with New Orleans damaged far worse than New York City after 9/11, Americans are left wondering exactly who has to be in charge in order to keep these disasters from happening. And they are looking, fairly or unfairly, at President Bush.

Bush had my sympathies after the Twin Towers fell, and I was glad that the American people rallied around him instead of pointing fingers. Unlike many of my fellow libertarians, I was not inclined to rail against things like the PATRIOT Act because I understood Bush’s dilemma. America could forgive one deadly lapse, but not another. If another 9/11 happened on his watch, his fate and his legacy would be sealed as The President Who Could Not Stop Terrorist Attacks. Nothing else would matter. The worst thing he could do was to not do enough. So he had to go too far, because too much was safer than not enough.

But what needed? After 9/11, there were two things made absolutely clear: Our understanding of the terrorist threat was deficient, and our ability to react to disasters was lacking. Confident that Bush had gotten the message, Americans watched as the Department of Homeland Security was created to help streamline intelligence gathering and facilitate responses. This was supposed to make America safer.

But then came Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and amongst the bodies floating in plain view of people crying for food and water and help we see that, four years after 9/11, this administration has not made America better able to respond to tragedy.

What makes this worse is that officials had known for years that New Orleans was a weak spot in our disaster-prevention infrastructure. People knew that the levee systems were unlikely to hold up against a major hurricane strike. Of all the most likely disaster scenarios for us to face, New Orleans being turned into a big lake was tops. And yet, when it happened, the government was not ready.

It is true that some things did go right. The vast majority of those in the area were told to evacuate and were able to do so. Those too poor to leave who wanted to get out of their homes found refuge in the Superdome. Many of the levees held up.

But much more went wrong. The levees that did give way allowed the city to be flooded and uninhabitable for months. Refugees at the Superdome were left wanting for supplies and support, people dying of heat exhaustion, and stranded on the roofs of their homes. Lawlessness took to the streets. It was days before help finally came. Long, excruciating days.

Not all of this is the fault of the federal government. When the feds tried to consolidate authority after the magnitude of the disaster became clear, Louisiana’s governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, stunningly refused. Many of the levees were the product of local political turf wars rather than a coordinated effort to protect the city, the construction and maintenance thereof being territorial prizes between local officials. And the mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, has been rightly criticized for failing to respond to the looming hurricane fast enough, and not using available public buses to evacuate the people who instead were left in the Superdome. Nobody is coming out looking good here.

But after 9/11, it seems that the weight of the blame must be assigned to the federal government, and to President Bush. Knowing that New Orleans was a disaster in the making, there was no excuse for many of these snafus to have been ironed out ahead of time. The Department of Homeland Security should have a plan that can be put in force within hours of a tragedy to coordinate command from the top down and enable aid and security to be anywhere in the United States within 24 hours. As we know now, it doesn’t. Four years after 9/11 and it seems like we’re not better prepared than before.

For now, though, the worst is over. The Superdome has been evacuated, the military is re-establishing order, and soon the long process of cleaning and rebuilding New Orleans will begin. I know that this great city will return, probably better than ever, but its re-emergence will not be part of Bush’s legacy. If there was one thing he was supposed to get right after 9/11 it was to give America the tools with which to deal with disasters, and that he has failed to do. Now many who have supported Bush are wondering whether his other decisions, such as the war in Iraq, were wise as well. Unfairly or not, Bush will be defined by the destruction of New Orleans.

James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for Brainwash.

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