My Cardboard Box

Katrina, Gulf Oil Spill, and the Limitations of Government

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The pundits are swattting around the idea that this is President Obama’s “Katrina”.  I understand the sentiment, but it’s basically wrong; an apples-to-oranges thing.

While I still hold a grudge against Peggy Noonan for her swooning over any dope with an Ivy League degree, she got it right when she wrote:

When you ask a government far away in Washington to handle everything, it will handle nothing well.

As part of my job,  I went through some FEMA disaster-response courses.  Don’t laugh – there is such a thing.  And if you look closely enough, there is a process to disaster response, and one that was there long before Katrina.  It relies on a basic, traditional, and seemingly outmoded American idea: try to keep things local.

The idea is to push things to the lowest possible level. The local government knows what types of disasters it could face and has faced in the past.    California, it’s earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides (after the wildfires), and the fortunately-infrequent riot.  Along the Mississippi, it’s floods.  In Kansas, it’s tornadoes.  And so forth.  the local government should know what is needed to organize-for , plan, prepare, communicate,  and attempt to deal with a disaster.  In fact, you could say it has a responsibility (another outmoded idea) to its citizens to do so.  If the local government, for whatever reason, can’t do it or it’s beyond its capabilities, it asks the next higher-up government for help . And so on.  The idea is that when it reaches FEMA, all other avenues have been exhausted. It doesn’t mean that FEMA is out of the loop. Usually there’ll be a FEMA rep monitoring, with the the local, county,  and state disaster response agencies up the chain keeping FEMA informed.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Clauswitz and Murphy said otherwise.

What happened with Katrina? The process failed. It forgot to calculate human venality into the equation.  Corruption and incompetence, from the levee boards, to the City of New Orleans (big surprise, right?) to Baton Rouge, to the Army Corps of Engineers.  Political opportunism, built on the backs of the victims, and going right up the same sordid chain to the Louisiana governor’s office, with the national media happily joining the Morbid-Mardi Gras parade.  And for the most part, there stood Uncle Sugar like some slightly befuddled social-welfare clerk, waiting for the right form to cross the desk so he could do something.

Yes, President Bush and the head of FEMA got blamed. Rightly so. That old cantankerous bastard Harry Truman’s  “buck stops here” saying is true.  As we used to say: it doesn’t matter if the ship’s captain was in the head (bathroom) when the ship ran aground or the missile struck – he’s still at fault.

Same for the current oil spill. It’s likely human venality is a factor.  Except there is no local-county-state-federal response procedure. Louisiana’s state waters end at three miles from shore.  BP’s rig was approximately 50 miles off the coast when the incident occurred on April 20. Seems that would  fall into Washington’s purview.  Curiously, while the media was rather quick to work on the human-venality element,  it’s taken a month or so for them to ask  “What is, where is, the federal government’s response?”

They still haven’t out and out asked the other,  “Harry Truman”, question.  At least not as aggressively as they did his predecessor.


Written by PappyBro

May 28, 2010 at 18:50

Posted in Media, Politix

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