When Incompetence Rules

One of the most basic things we've learned from the flooding of New Orleans is that a generation of politicians ideologically hostile to government's very existence aren't going to handle the basic jobs for which we rely on government.

There is no telling how many people died unnecessarily because of the delay of critical food, water, and medical help and the establishment of some minimal level of security. It might run into the thousands—people killed not by the hurricane but by the ineptness of government's response. Bush administration cronies are trying to shift the blame to local and state (Democratic) leaders, but it is the federal government that has the lead responsibility for triaging natural disasters. And as all the world could see, the Bush team failed. Miserably.

They failed because for years they've been treating the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) like a political football, appointing unqualified Bush pals to leadership positions and whittling away at the budget. Resources were diverted to terrorism prevention and the war in Iraq; the result was, among other things, that 35 percent of Louisiana's National Guard was in Iraq.

Stories are now emerging of the callousness and hostility officials displayed once they did get on-site. There is no way around it: The quality of the relief effort and the attitude of officials toward victims would have been very different if they had not been mostly poor and black. Survivors who looked to "shelter" sites at the Superdome and convention center for relief were subjected to conditions not fit for animals—days spent in squalor, desperately waiting for perpetually promised food and water.

This was on full view for the rest of America and the world, and, for once, mainstream media have not been shy about criticizing this administration. They could scarcely avoid it, because the shortcomings of the official response were so obvious. It remains hard to believe that citizens of the wealthiest country in the history of the world could so quickly be thrown into a desperate struggle for survival.

Critics who have responded to the ideological extremism and cronyism of the Bush administration have failed to highlight an equally disturbing trait—that of staggering incompetence. Now, we all know. Efforts to spin this as a local failure notwithstanding, it's hard to see how George Bush will ever live down his response to Katrina. His epic cluelessness—"Nobody ever anticipated a breach of the levees"—was accompanied by a lethal delay in responding to the disaster. I don't think Bush ever wrapped his mind around the idea that there could be so many people who were too poor to have the means to evacuate the city as a Category 5 hurricane approached. Bush let those people down, and a lot of them died unnecessarily.

Now comes the hard work of managing the dispersal of more than a million people from greater New Orleans, people who are landing in a strange city, whether housed by relatives, friends, strangers, or official shelters; people without jobs, money, or the lives they once had. After the universal outcry over the failed initial response, keep a careful eye on how the Bush administration manages this diaspora. If its record is any indication, look for a lot of promises, a good deal of profiteering by corporations friendly to the administration, and very little help that actually reaches the people who need it.

For years, conservatives have tried to argue that social functions of government can be fulfilled by volunteerism and the nongovernmental sector. The outpouring of generosity from ordinary Americans in the wake of Katrina has been staggering, but only the government has the resources to deal with the displacement of so many people and the rebuilding of what was once a major American city. In its other major social disaster, the war in Iraq, the Bush administration has managed to reduce most ordinary Iraqis to a quality of life far worse than they endured under Saddam Hussein. The often poor and black survivors of New Orleans must not be left to a similar fate.

With clueless FEMA chief Michael Brown gone, it might seem that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the White House can escape accountability for this mess, too. But Bush's failure to respond adequately to Katrina will continue to haunt him, because it's consistent with how he has governed for five years: The wealthy are enriched by government; everyone else is left to fend for themselves. In New Orleans, we saw what happened when that philosophy met reality head-on. People will remember this time how many lives were lost or ruined, and they will remember who could have made a difference but didn't.


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