BUSH AND KATRINA….For what it’s worth, I’d like to make absolutely clear why I hold George Bush accountable for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. First, though, here’s what I don’t blame him for.
I don’t blame him for being on vacation when Katrina made landfall. I don’t blame him for a certain amount of chaos in the initial response ? that’s inevitable no matter how good your plan is. I don’t blame him for rolling FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security. I don’t blame him for focusing more on terrorism than on natural disasters. That was a natural reaction to 9/11.
Nor do I think that Bush doesn’t care about natural disasters. It’s not as if he sat down one day and decided that hurricanes were no longer worth worrying about.
Obviously Bush deserves criticism for his listless lack of leadership and life-as-usual politicking in the first three days after Katrina hit. Beyond that, though, what happened was the result of a long series of decisions, all flowing out of Bush’s natural conservative governing instincts, that added up to make Katrina more damaging than it had to be and at the same time eroded our ability to react to its aftermath. These decisions were deliberate and disastrous, and that’s why I think Bush deserves a large part of the blame for what happened.
Because I think this is the most important part of the story, I’m going to reprint a chronology I originally posted last week. It tells the story of what happened over the past four and a half years of George Bush’s presidency that led to the events of last week:
January 2001: Bush appoints Joe Allbaugh, a crony from Texas, as head of FEMA. Allbaugh has no previous experience in disaster management.
April 2001: Budget Director Mitch Daniels announces the Bush administration’s goal of privatizing much of FEMA’s work. In May, Allbaugh confirms that FEMA will be downsized: “Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program….” he said. “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.”
2001: FEMA designates a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three “likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country.”
December 2002: After less than two years at FEMA, Allbaugh announces he is leaving to start up a consulting firm that advises companies seeking to do business in Iraq. He is succeeded by his deputy and former college friend, Michael Brown, who has no previous experience in disaster management and was fired from his previous job for mismanagement.
March 2003: FEMA is downgraded from a cabinet level position and folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is refocused on fighting acts of terrorism.
2003: Under its new organization chart within DHS, FEMA’s preparation and planning functions are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA will henceforth focus only on response and recovery.
Summer 2004: FEMA denies Louisiana’s pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. Says Jefferson Parish flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue: “You would think we would get maximum consideration….This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it.”
June 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed. Jefferson Parish emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri comments: “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay.”
June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cut by a record $71.2 million. One of the hardest-hit areas is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which was created after the May 1995 flood to improve drainage in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes.
August 2005: While New Orleans is undergoing a slow motion catastrophe, Bush mugs for the cameras, cuts a cake for John McCain, plays the guitar for Mark Wills, delivers an address about V-J day, and continues with his vacation. When he finally gets around to acknowledging the scope of the unfolding disaster, he delivers only a photo op on Air Force One and a flat, defensive, laundry list speech in the Rose Garden.
So: A crony with no relevant experience was installed as head of FEMA. Mitigation budgets for New Orleans were slashed even though it was known to be one of the top three risks in the country. FEMA was deliberately downsized as part of the Bush administration’s conservative agenda to reduce the role of government. After DHS was created, FEMA’s preparation and planning functions were taken away.
Actions have consequences. No one could predict that a hurricane the size of Katrina would hit this year, but the slow federal response when it did happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at the expense of operational competence. It’s the Bush administration in a nutshell.