CNN reports, in uncharacteristically blunt terms on Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff’s efforts to exonerate his agency.
Defending the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff argued Saturday that government planners did not predict such a disaster ever could occur.
But in fact, government officials, scientists and journalists have warned of such a scenario for years. … He called the disaster “breathtaking in its surprise.” But engineers say the levees preventing this below-sea-level city from being turned into a swamp were built to withstand only Category 3 hurricanes. And officials have warned for years that a Category 4 could cause the levees to fail.
They don’t let up, either:
[Chertoff] added: “There will be plenty of time to go back and say we should hypothesize evermore apocalyptic combinations of catastrophes. Be that as it may, I’m telling you … the planners … were confronted with a second wave that they did not have built into the plan” … But New Orleans, state and federal officials have long painted a very different picture.
Good for them. Chertoff is simply misleading the public when he says the disaster was not forseeable. This sort of reporting connects back to the political questions that will become more prominent as—one hopes—the Federal and local authorities continue to get things under control and figure out ways of humanely managing the needs of thousands of displaced Americans.
In a bitter post last night, Jim Henley said that, like September 11th, so far the disaster has “chiefly served to confirm people in their previously held views.”
Liberals proclaim it proof of the need for a robust federal government … conservatives find themselves confirmed in their belief in the overriding importance of social order vigorously enforced, and libertarians regard the disaster and its aftermath as an exemplary failure of government. … Environmentalists amaze themselves with the realization that Katrina proves we need cars with better gas mileage and religious nuts of all persuasions discern the hand of God … Hooray! Everyone wins! Again!
There’s a lot to this, I suppose, just as the 9/11 attacks let everyone explain Why the Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics. But maybe Jim is being too cynical. We should be able to separate the question of how to avoid this kind of nightmare in the future from the narrower, more immediate acknowledgment that there was a huge organizational failure. The former might end up being a debate of the sort Jim describes, but many political debates are like that. Agreement on the latter ought to be straightforward. Yet widespread and forthright agreement about it still seems like an achievement given the state of the American public sphere. Sure, FEMA and Chertoff are claiming there was nothing they could have done, and some loyal footsoldiers are saying that, appearances notwithstanding, “New Orleans and its residents owe the President a profound debt of gratitude.” But the dominant reaction across the political spectrum is that this was a gigantic, avoidable clusterfuck, and the reporting from the likes of CNN and Fox (of all places) forthrightly confirms this.
Disagreement about what the Administration could or should have foreseen about the September 11th attacks and the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq was politicized from the get-go, and most of it has been played by the media in the “he said/she said” format we all know and loathe. But there’s evidence that this time, the starting point for the debate will be the correct one—namely, that a disaster like this was clearly foreseen and should have been handled much better, full stop. Where you go from there is, inevitably, going to be tinged by the tendency to think “this event confirms my politics,” and so maybe Jim is right to roll his eyes. But even to have this as a starting point still seems better than nothing. I think I really need to believe this. Frankly, if the Administration can successfully sell people on the idea that that the President’s actions were prompt and appropriate, that federal and state government agencies did what they could, and that the fault was not in themselves but in their stars (or maybe a few low-ranking FEMA bad apples) … well, I don’t know what to say.