The New Orleans catastrophe is inexplicable.
FEMA’s slow response is a mystery.
Never before has federal funding for work by the US Corps of Engineers on the New Orleans levees and for the congressionally authorized Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA) been curtailed in the face of dire expert warnings of the consequence.
The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA knew days in advance that Hurricane Katrina was threatening the Gulf coast of the US. Yet, the normal advance preparations were not undertaken.
At the request of the Louisiana governor, President Bush declared a federal emergency for Louisiana on Saturday August 27 prior to Katrina’s arrival in New Orleans on the following Monday. The declaration specifically authorized FEMA "to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency." However, FEMA took no action until 3 days after the hurricane, delaying the arrival of effective help until 5 days after 80% of New Orleans was under water.
Compare this inexplicable delay with the rapid response to the Florida hurricanes last year.
Cynics note that Florida’s governor is President Bush’s brother, a Republican being groomed for a run for president, while the Louisiana governor and New Orleans mayor are expendable Democrats. However, the New Orleans disaster is too great to be attributed solely to crass party politics.
Funding for the New Orleans levees and for SELA were drastically curtailed despite experts’ protests and warnings, including the hurricane simulation project (Hurricane Pam) conducted in July 2004 when 270 experts spent eight days assessing the impact of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans. The simulation predicted that state and local officials would be overwhelmed, that flood waters would overcome the levees and cover most of the city, that more than one million people would be uprooted for a year or longer, and that deaths would number in the tens of thousands.
The report reads: "The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness (LOEP) believe that the gravity of the situation calls for an extraordinary level of advance planning to improve government readiness to respond effectively to such an event."
Despite these expert warnings, the Bush administration made the decision to redirect the funding for hurricane protection to the "war against terrorism." As Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune (June 8, 2004): "It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq."
As the decisions to deny funding for the Corps of Engineers’ levee projects and SELA and the delayed federal response to Katrina are inexplicable, the Bush administration, realizing its criminal negligence, quickly took steps to blame state and local officials.
A senior Bush administration official planted on the Washington Post the disinformation that FEMA could not act because the Louisiana governor had not declared a state of emergency. Hours after printing this disinformation, a red-faced Washington Post issued a retraction, which reads: "A Sept. 4 article on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina incorrectly said that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) had not declared a state of emergency. She declared an emergency on Aug. 26."
Nevertheless, the disinformation was widely spread by Brit Hume and other Bush shills who operate out of Fox News (sic), and it continues to be spread via rightwing talk radio and pro-Bush Internet sites. Fox News (sic) host Bill O’Reilly spread similar disinformation. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff added to the disinformation against Gov. Blanco. Most Republicans cling tightly to the orchestrated disinformation as it coddles their state of denial about the failure of leadership in the White House.
One cause of the Bush administrations’ catastrophic failure is obvious: its single-minded focus on its "war on terror." In order to justify its invasion of Iraq (which has gone badly both for the US and Iraqis) and the nullification of our essential civil liberties, such as habeas corpus, that are the foundation of our political and social order, the Bush administration has made terrorists into a greater threat than cold warriors were able to make the Soviet Union. The over-hyped threat of terrorism has become a greater threat than terrorists themselves.
Readers have insisted to me that Bush administration incompetence, even at the level of criminal negligence, cannot explain the New Orleans disaster. They insist there must have been willful intent as the disaster is too large and was too predictable to be the result of mere incompetence.
Readers cite the following circumstantial evidence in behalf of their views:
The response of federal emergency management was delayed until survivors desperate for food and water (and some for a drug fix) began looting. In keeping with James Q. Wilson’s "broken window" analogy, looting for survival quickly spread into general lawlessness on the part of some elements.
The lawlessness provided cover for the federal government to violate the Posse Comitatus Act and send in regular military troops to police civilian populations. (Both the New York Times on September 8 and the Washington Post on September 4 and September 11 report that federal or active duty troops are being used along with National Guard and police.)
Lawlessness, the eruption of which was guaranteed by delayed relief, provides cover both for martial law, which suspends constitutional protections, and for the confiscation of legally owned private firearms in violation of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. Everyone has by now seen the images of troops and police breaking into New Orleans homes and pointing weapons in the faces of residents. US military even described survivors as "insurgents." (At time of writing news reports are confused whether martial law exists in New Orleans. Some reports have the mayor declaring martial law; others report that the state has declared its version of martial law. Most constitutional experts believe martial law requires an act of Congress or a presidential order or both.)
Many readers see a concocted militarization of civil society. They insist that these new precedents, together with the recent federal appeals court ruling that the White House has the power to seize American citizens and to hold them indefinitely on mere suspicion or accusation without charges or presentation of evidence against them, mean the overthrow of liberty and accountable government in the United States.
These suspicions are widely held. They demand careful investigation both by Congress and the news media. If there are valid grounds for the suspicions, our remaining liberties are at risk. Even if the suspicions are groundless, they are highly corrosive of many Americans’ belief in their system of government.
All Americans should be distressed that federal judges increasingly defer to powers, asserted by the executive branch, which nullify constitutional rights in the interest of some "higher" cause, such as the "war on terror." This is a certain path to tyranny. Once gained, unaccountable powers become permanent and can be used against whomever by future administrations. Are Republicans content for such powers to be in the hands of a President Hillary Clinton?
Whether or not there are grounds for suspicion of the extraordinary federal failure in New Orleans, it is certain that federal bureaucracies will take advantage of the situation to grab more powers in behalf of their own agendas.
Private parties already are doing so. The New Orleans power elite sees in the recent US Supreme Court Kelo decision, which permits the use of eminent domain to serve private interests, a chance to rebuild New Orleans in their own image.
In the September 8 Wall Street Journal, Christopher Cooper ("Old Line Families Plot the Future") quotes members of the power elite, who admit they are mapping out a new city that will not restore the old order: "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," says James Reiss. "I’m not just speaking for myself here. The way we’ve been living is not going to happen again."
The Journal’s report brings to light that the "teeming (black) underclass," which guarantees Democratic control of New Orleans, is one part of the old order that is not slated for renewal. In other words, federal failure in New Orleans plus Kelo equals ethnic cleansing of a large historic American city.
With 40 members of the New Orleans power elite having seized the opportunity to meet in Dallas on September 9 "to begin mapping out a future for the city," you can bet federal agencies will use the same opportunity to grab heightened powers. The rights that protect US citizens from government power are rapidly disappearing if not already lost. This is the real crisis faced by the vast majority of Americans who are not a part of the power elite.
In the end not even the power elite will be safe. Hitler exterminated his own Brownshirts before he went to work on the Jews, and Stalin exterminated the Bolshevik heros of the Russian Revolution. Once power is unaccountable, it becomes the possession of the most ruthless. Loyal party membership protected neither the Brownshirts nor the Bolsheviks. And it will not protect Bush’s Republican apologists.
Dr. Roberts [send him mail] is John M. Olin Fellow at the Institute for Political Economy and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal, former contributing editor for National Review, and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.