The Flood and The Recriminations, Part I

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.

(Emphasis added).
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.

14 thoughts on “The Flood and The Recriminations, Part I”

  1. You don’t seem at all curious as to why it took so many days to get any kind of relief supplies into New Orleans. For such an intelligent and thoughtful person, I find this rather disappointing. There were failures everywhere, it appears. Maybe my view of things will even out a little more with time, but I don’t find anything nearly as heart-breaking and disgraceful as the fact that all those people sat there for days with little to no food, water or medicine and barely an acknowledgement from FEMA or the rest of the federal gov’t. What if everything that could have reasonably been accomplished to fortify the city had been, but the levees still broke? Would people have been relieved and/or rescued any faster? This is the sort of thing that makes me think it should be the primary question. We just don’t allow our people to suffer like this… or at least we don’t normally, and we never should again.
    It’s also possible that my political leanings lead me to focus on this area. Is it possible that yours lead you to focus on others?

  2. This is “Part I”. I thought I was clear that that is on the list as well, and I’ll get there when time permits. But I don’t think you can sensibly discuss the issue of the speed of the federal response without first addressing how all those people got there, and got there without adequate provisions, in the first place.

  3. True, and I was incorrect when I said you didn’t seem “at all curious”. My sincerest apologies.
    I just think about it separately, I guess. Because it’s the kind of thing that we should have always been prepared for. For instance, if someone blew a hole in a dam somewhere (God forbid) we would have a very similar issue. Except in a different location. It’s not just a New Orleans question.
    We absoultely have to understand everything that happened. And we have some tough decisions when it comes to rebuilding (or, more importantly, what not to rebuild) that we can’t really address completely until we do understand it all.

  4. You’ve given sufficient information about the Levees, including the latest post about the lawsuits preventing buildup of the levees. Kudos. You’ve made a good argument but I guess that’s what Harvard-trained lawyers do, right?
    But I’m curious how you’ll do the same in defending the Administration’s lack of response in deploying help to N.O., including the head of FEMA waiting 5 hours until after the end of Katrina to ask for Federal help.
    One only needs to look at the differences in responses between the Hurricanes that hit Florida and Katrina. You never saw Florida residents w/o food or water for 4 days and elderly dying in wheelchairs while waiting for help. “W” would never leave his brother Jeb out to dry, but screw the Democrat Governor and Mayor in La, right?

  5. I think a large part of the reason for the early blame game was that lots of people were watching events unfold and would have liked to do something to help, but outside of donating money, they’re didn’t seem to be anything to do, so people were frustrated and looking for people to lash out at. And it is certainly true that Brown, Chertoff, and (to a lesser extent) Bush didn’t help themselves with what they were saying in the middle of last week.
    Also, there’s a difference between getting the White House’s side of the story out and lying that Gov. Blanco never declared a state of emergency.

  6. More good news for the Bush administration that some parts of America are similar to 3rd world countries and that infant mortality has been increasing since 2000, when Shrub took office:
    Despite spending more money per capita than any country in the world, we have the same infant mortality as Malaysia.
    But hey, as long as we’re winning “the struggle against extremism,” the Bush Administration’s new term for the “war on terror.”

  7. One more quote and I’m done for the night:
    “The U.S. is the only wealthy country with no universal health care system.”
    Can’t wait for the responses and for parts 2 and 3 of “The Flood and the Recriminations”!
    I’ve got to have something to look forward now that the Mets have decided to roll over and are now outta the Wild Card. Never the mind the Cy Youngish pitchers they’ve faced the past 2 weeks. They’ve been close enough in almost every game to win it.

  8. Seems to be little fact checking on the part of some people.
    Check out the Red Cross Site for one
    Fingers are easy to point, Facts must be found ….
    Check it out .. between the 27th and 29th, 40 Coast Guard Vessels were moved into the Gulf.
    Red Cross supplies were moved to within 30 miles of where the storm was expected to hit (would not want them in New Orleans, they would be harmed by the storm)
    FEMA has no Supplies and does not call up the National Guard. FEMA coordinates with Relief agencies like the Red Cross and the Governor calls up the National Guard and requests DOD assistance.,1096,0_682_4524,00.html
    Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?
    Acess to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.
    The state Homeland Security Department had requested–and continues to request–that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.
    The Red Cross has been meeting the needs of thousands of New Orleans residents in some 90 shelters throughout the state of Louisiana and elsewhere since before landfall. All told, the Red Cross is today operating 149 shelters for almost 93,000 residents.
    The Red Cross shares the nation?s anguish over the worsening situation inside the city. We will continue to work under the direction of the military, state and local authorities and to focus all our efforts on our lifesaving mission of feeding and sheltering.
    The Red Cross does not conduct search and rescue operations. We are an organization of civilian volunteers and cannot get relief aid into any location until the local authorities say it is safe and provide us with security and access.
    The original plan was to evacuate all the residents of New Orleans to safe places outside the city. With the hurricane bearing down, the city government decided to open a shelter of last resort in the Superdome downtown. We applaud this decision and believe it saved a significant number of lives.
    As the remaining people are evacuated from New Orleans, the most appropriate role for the Red Cross is to provide a safe place for people to stay and to see that their emergency needs are met. We are fully staffed and equipped to handle these individuals once they are evacuated.

  9. FYI Pat Curley at Brainster’s Blog has an interesting and well-documented analysis of whether emergency planning officials anticipated breaches in the levees or merely that flood waters might overtop the levees.

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