Like a lot of people on the Right, I was appalled last week at the rush of people on the Left seeking to blame anything and everything related to Hurricane Katrina on President Bush, even at the height of the disaster when partisan point-scoring should have been the last thing on anyone’s mind. We saw at work two classic features of a left-wing swarm: (1) the belief that you can win an argument by being the angriest guy in the room, and (2) the effort, as we’ve seen so often in the past, to nail down the perception of events before the truth has a chance to lace on its boots.
Now, we see the same people reacting in shock and horror at the thought that the White House might try to get its side of the story out. Go figure.
It is, for the most part, still too early to reach any kind of definitive judgment about where the blame lies and what things can’t fairly be blamed on anyone. If you don’t believe me, think back to September 11, and all the times over the first few weeks after the attacks that we had to revise the things we thought we knew. (See Matt Welch here – updated here and here, via here – and McQ here on the slew of initial reports, especially regarding violence at the Superdome, that may have been overstated or outright wrong).
That being said, obviously, the effort to hold off on the fight over “who lost New Orleans” is one that can’t be won. (There don’t seem to be similar questions for the rest of Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama, none of which faced the same catastrophic breakdown of government services, nor are there questions about how New Orleans handled the hurricane itself, so much as the ensuing flooding). And in the long term, recriminations and finger-pointing will be a necessary and healthy part of the process; without that, nobody gets held accountable, and nothing gets changed. So, in the spirit of preliminary assessments, I offer my own framework for thinking about the issue. As usual, I’m trying to frame the questions; I don’t pretend to have answers to all of them.
I. Primary Issues
There are four primary questions that need to be answered in the wake of the flood that devastated New Orleans: why did the city flood, why were so many people trapped in the flood, why were they without basic supplies, and why did it take so long to get supplies, evacuation and law enforcement to the people trapped in the flood?
A. Why Did New Orleans Flood?
The initial question is why the levees were breached. In part, as far as I can tell, this was a result of a long-ago decision made at multiple levels of government not to reinforce the levees beyond the strength needed to survive a Category 3 hurricane; Katrina was a Category 4 or 5 (depending on when you measure it). On the other hand, Katrina didn’t score a direct hit on the city. The question of why the specific sections of the levees gave out is mainly an engineering question, and thus one that will take some time and patient investigation to figure out.
Aside from “why” is the question of “who”. Apparently, the construction and maintenance of the levees had been principally a federal responsibility since the Army Corps of Engineers, in what was apparently one of its signature early successes, took over the job as part of the War of 1812 (in which the Battle of New Orleans was a key engagement), and – in a development that should be familiar to observers of federal agencies – never relinquished that role. However, it appears that much of the work is carried out by local contractors, and it’s unclear to me what role the state and local governments play in implementing federally funded projects. Tom Maguire predicts that before this is over we will see the relevant local contractor investigated for corruption or other improprieties.
Some commentators have fairly asked why, as a policy matter, funding and execution of projects protecting one city in one state should be a federal responsibility, and specifically why – if Louisiana officials actually believed that the levee maintenance project was dangerously underfunded – they didn’t step in with funds of their own. These are good questions in the abstract, and they do point to some local responsibility for getting serious on the issue, but in the real world, if the feds have been funding something for 190 years, it’s presumptively a federal responsibility unless there is a clear statement by the Administration that the state will now be on its own.
The Bush Administration has come under fire for cutting the funding in recent years for the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, an initiative begun in 1995. It’s deeply ironic, of course, that an administration that has shown so little willingness to fight to cut spending would end up in hot water for actually succeeding in the task. Still, while there may have been pork in this project – one pre-Katrina account quotes project manager Al Naomi saying that “When (former Rep.) Bob Livingston (R-Metairie) was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, we didn’t have a monetary problem. Our problem was how do we spend all the money we were getting” – even most conservatives would agree that preventing catastrophic floods should not be one of the first places you look to cut the budget (As Mark Steyn observed, “why did the porkmeisters of the national legislature and national executive branch slash a request by the Army Corps of Engineers for $105 million for additional flood protection measures there down to just over $40 million, at the same time they approved a $230 million bridge to an uninhabited Alaskan island?”). Unless there’s a real good explanation from Bush as to why these funds were cut (and if there was, I suspect we’d have heard it by now), he’s going to deserve the criticism he gets on this.
Of course, just because Bush cut funding on the project doesn’t mean that those cuts actually contributed to the breaches that flooded the city. In fact, at least one of the major levee breaches was in a concrete section that had just been upgraded. Democratic critics conceded that the funding cuts didn’t cause the floods. And there is reason to believe that a genuine fix for the levees would have been decades away anyway.
And the Bush Administration wasn’t alone in questioning levee-maintenance projects. The New York Times repeatedly criticized the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee-building and maintenance plans on environmental grounds and called for funding cuts, and environmental groups stopped an earlier, more comprehensive project with a 1977 lawsuit. So, Bush may have some strange bedfellows in the dock on this issue.
UPDATE: Instapundit points to an article in this morning’s Washington Post fingering Louisiana Senators and Congressmen for diverting hundreds of millions of dollars from flood control to other water projects in Louisiana. Louisiana Democrat John Breaux’s words may be an epitaph for a generation of Louisiana’s political class:
“We thought all the projects were important — not just levees,” Breaux said. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but navigation projects were critical to our economic survival.”
And a perspective-giving excerpt:
Louisiana’s politicians have requested much more money for New Orleans hurricane protection than the Bush administration has proposed or Congress has provided. In the last budget bill, Louisiana’s delegation requested $27.1 million for shoring up levees around Lake Pontchartrain, the full amount the Corps had declared as its “project capability.” Bush suggested $3.9 million, and Congress agreed to spend $5.7 million.
Administration officials also dramatically scaled back a long-term project to restore Louisiana’s disappearing coastal marshes, which once provided a measure of natural hurricane protection for New Orleans. They ordered the Corps to stop work on a $14 billion plan, and devise a $2 billion plan instead.
But overall, the Bush administration’s funding requests for the key New Orleans flood-control projects for the past five years were slightly higher than the Clinton administration’s for its past five years. Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the chief of the Corps, has said that in any event, more money would not have prevented the drowning of the city, since its levees were designed to protect against a Category 3 storm, and the levees that failed were already completed projects.
SECOND UPDATE: John Berlau at NRO has a closer look at environmental lawsuits, including one in 1996, obstructing the building and maintenance of the levee system. Also, Rich Lowry notes a 2004 federal indictment of Louisiana officials for “obstruction of an audit of the use of federal funds for flood mitigation activities throughout Louisiana.”
THIRD UPDATE: Looks like Louisiana’s state and local governments didn’t make levee building and maintenance much of a priority, to the point that “local and state officials did not use federal money that was available for levee improvements or coastal reinforcement and often did not secure local matching funds that would have generated even more federal funding.” (Via QandO . . . really, I think I’m gonna end up linking to everything McQ has written on this in the past week; you should be over at the QandO site for all the latest on Katrina and the recriminations).
TO FOLLOW: The other three primary issues, the secondary questions, and the red herrings.