DITHERING DURING THE FLOOD….One of the mysteries of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is why George Bush and his aides dithered so long about sending active duty military troops to New Orleans. The New York Times, for example, reported that administration officials, “weighing legalities and logistics, proceeded at a deliberate pace.” This dithering apparently lasted for at least two days ? and possibly three or four ? at the height of the crisis.

Today, Knight Ridder weighs in with more on this:

Two days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, President Bush went on national television to announce a massive federal rescue and relief effort.

But orders to move didn’t reach key active military units for another three days.

Once they received them, it took just eight hours for 3,600 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., to be on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi with vital search-and-rescue helicopters.

So the military was ready to go. All they needed were orders. But what about all those legal issues, like Posse Comitatus and the Insurrection Act?

In a 1996 Pentagon report, the Department of Defense acknowledged its large role in major disasters. Between 1992 and 1996, the Pentagon provided support in 18 disasters and developed five training manuals on how to work with FEMA and civilians in natural disasters.

…. “To say I’ve suddenly discovered the military needs to be involved is like saying wheels should be round instead of square,” said Michael Greenberger, a law professor and the director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security.

…. Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, who served under President Clinton, believes that the Bush administration is mistaken if it thinks there are impediments to using the military for non-policing help in a disaster.

“When we were there and FEMA was intact, the military was a resource to us,” said Witt. “We pulled them in very quickly. I don’t know what rule he (Bush) talked about….We used military assets a lot.”

Jamie Gorelick, the deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration who also was a member of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terror attacks, said clear legal guidelines have been in place for using the military on U.S. soil since at least 1996, when the Justice Department was planning for the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

“It’s not like people hadn’t thought about this,” Gorelick said. “This is not new. We’ve had riots. We’ve had floods. We’ve had the loss of police control over communities.

“I’m puzzled as to what happened here,” she said.

This is why you need experienced disaster professionals running an agency like FEMA: they know what needs to be done, they know what advice to give and when to give it, and they know how to get the federal machinery moving in a hurry. It’s also why you don’t appoint old college friends to run FEMA and why you don’t replace the top ranks of the agency with political operatives. I wonder if Bush has finally learned that lesson?

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