Contemplating different disasters, counting on the same government

When all the water is pumped from New Orleans, all the debris is cleared from the Gulf Coast, and all the various commissions try to determine who was at fault in the Katrina debacle, it will probably turn out that there is more than just "Brownie" to blame.

Brownie, of course, is Mike Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - or rather that's the nickname President Bush sunnily bestowed upon him in what will surely be remembered as a historically bad photo-op, the Friday after the hurricane hit. "Brownie you're doing a heck of a job," the president said. He wasn't, of course, as most people watching their TVs knew. And by the following Friday Mr. Brown was sent away from the Gulf Coast and back up here to where recrimination never sleeps.

The truth is FEMA botched the response to Katrina in ways startling to those following the storm's aftermath - from the refugees in the New Orleans Convention Center that no one seemed to know about to the failure to release 20,000 trailers to help the homeless in Mississippi.

But the problems revealed in the last two weeks are much deeper and more troubling than one man or one agency's shortcomings.

On Sunday the nation marked the four-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Those four years have included the creation of a government department to handle security threats and the spending of billions of dollars to keep the country safe. And in that time, people in the federal government - from the president on down - have stressed that another terrorist attack isn't a question of if, but when.

One has to wonder if they were listening to their own warnings.

Even if you want to believe the initial line from the federal government on Katrina that "nobody saw this coming," some of the failures in handling the storm's aftermath had little to do with broken levees or storm surges.

How is it that a week after the hurricane, as relief centers around the country sat waiting, evacuations were essentially put on hold while the government figured out where to send people? How is it that a plane full of refugees expected in Charleston, S.C., where a shelter was prepared, wound up in Charleston, W.Va? How is it that the Houston Astrodome was originally slated to hold 25,000 refugees, but wound up being full after about 15,000?

While you ponder those questions for a moment, consider the real issue. How is it that four years after Sept. 11, 2001, when the public has been warned about things like dirty bombs and suitcase nukes, acts of violence that could prompt mass evacuations, the federal government had no realistic plan for New Orleans?

All the complaints about how the evacuation order came too late in Louisiana, some of which may be valid, miss the larger point. A terrorist attack would offer even less time to respond - and could easily cause a larger, faster, more panicked mass outflow from a city center. Imagine what the evacuation of Manhattan's 1.5 million souls would look like. For that matter, imagine the same scenario in Washington - people around here have, and they fear a replay of the Katrina response.

There are a couple of obvious "war on terror" questions that bubble up from Katrina's misguided efforts. Logistically, doesn't it make sense to have regional evacuation plans for different areas of the nation? If something happens in Miami we do X, if something happens in Chicago we do Y? Is someone working on that since we've been told "the terrorists could strike anywhere"? And from the dollar perspective, even if all that money spent on "securing the homeland" was spent well (no $200 hammer or conferences in tropical climes), did the government pour too much of it into prevention and too little into response preparedness? How much more will we need to spend now?

Those financial questions are big ones, overriding the issues of planning, because if the funding isn't there, the planning won't mean much. All of which means it may be time to reconsider this government's belief that tax cuts are an answer to every question that arises.

Valuing small government is one thing. Keeping bureaucracy contained and manageable should always be the goal. But no matter how much "waste" you want to cut from the nation's departments and bureaus and agencies, it's situations like the Katrina disaster in which government has to work.

The weekend after the storm, the Costco near the Pentagon was, as always, packed, and bottled water was front and center near the entrance. More than a few customers loaded crates on carts. As one man picked up a box he muttered, "You can't count on the government to do anything anymore."

For the time being, that is the legacy of Katrina. It's unacceptable and it has to change.

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly column for the Monitor.

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