I understand a great number of people on both sides of the political spectrum think FEMA has not reacted fast enough, but there is just a large degree of stuff out there that is turning out to be inacccurate, an incomplete portrayal of events, or, in some cases, just plain nonsense. Here are some examples:
1.) Fresh off of vacation, Andrew Sullivan is recharged, raring to go, and has apparently left his fact-checker back at Provincetown. As one of the first prominent bloggers to sieze upon the ‘funds were cut/levee failure’ ( “Yes, some would even blame Bush and the war for a hurricane. But blaming Bush and the war for the poor state of New Orleans’ levees is a legitimate argument. And it could be a crushing one”), Andrew has yet to make a correction or retraction of that charge. And it has been disproven, pretty definitively in my estimation, to include Mike Parker (a former Republican Mississippi congressman who headed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from October 2001 until March 2002, whose previous comments were used to ‘prove’ this meme), stating on Hardball as I write this (much to the shock and horror of Chris Matthews) that the President could not have done anything to stop this levee failure. This issue was also put to bed pretty definitively on 60 Minutes by Al Naomi, the individual responsible for managing the levees:
Al Naomi is the man who manages them for the Army Corps of Engineers. He was probably the first to understand what was about to happen to New Orleans.
“Flood walls are unforgiving. They’re either there or they’re not,” Naomi says.
The walls were designed in 1965 to withstand a Category 3 storm. Category 4 Katrina pushed her surge over the top.
“It just was overtopped and the water started pouring over the support for the flood wall, failed and it just pushed out and toppled over and that was it,” Naomi explains.
Naomi was at a loss when asked how this engineering disaster could have been prevented.
“You see there was not sufficient money or time to do anything about this,” Naomi says. “If someone had said, ‘O.K. here is a billion dollars, stop this failure from happening for a Category 4,’ it couldn’t have been done in time. I’d of had to start 20 years ago to where I feel today I would’ve been safe from a Category 4 storm like Katrina.
“Sure it should have been done 20 years ago but what can we do about that? You have to recognize before we had Category 3 protection we didn’t have anything.”
Andrew’s latest gaffe involves the same rush to judgement- a combination of knowing the facts before they are presented, a simple misunderstanding of how certain agencies and departments function, and a gut instinct that President Bush has just done something wrong. Andrew, yesterday:
The military was prepared to help before Katrina hit, according to NorthCom’s Lt Commander. All they needed was a presidential go-ahead. They didn’t get one.
A pretty damning charge- there were assets in place, waiting to rescue people and provide aid, and the President just dithered and did nothing.
Except it is completely false. This allegation comes from a wishful reading of a briefing by Northcom official Lt. Commander Paul Kelly, in which he stated the following:
“We had the USS Bataan sailing almost behind the hurricane so once the hurricane made landfall, its search and rescue helicopters could be available almost immediately So, we had things ready.
“The only caveat is: we have to wait until the president authorizes us to do so. The laws of the United States say that the military can’t just act in this fashion; we have to wait for the president to give us permission.”
Kevin Drum also siezed upon this, and stated:
So why didn’t the president issue the orders?
He did, and Jeff Goldtsein ably demonstrated this yesterday in a lengthy post (and if you aren’t reading Jeff every day, I don’t understand why you even bother reading blogs. He is one of the best out there). But the meme took hold, it was rinsed and repeated ad nauseum throughout the blogosphere, and took on an air of fact. So much so, that Lt. Commander Kelly took it upon himself to email Kevin Drum and make a correction:
USNORTHCOM was prepositioned for response to the hurricane, but as per the National Response Plan, we support the lead federal agency in disaster relief — in this case, FEMA. The simple description of the process is the state requests federal assistance from FEMA which in turn may request assistance from the military upon approval by the president or Secretary of Defense. Having worked the hurricanes from last year as well as Dennis this year, we knew that FEMA would make requests of the military — primarily in the areas of transportation, communications, logistics, and medicine. Thus we began staging such assets and waited for the storm to hit.
The biggest hurdles to responding to the storm were the storm itself — couldn’t begin really helping until it passed — and damage assessment — figuring out which roads were passable, where communications and power were out, etc. Military helos began damage assessment and SAR on Tuesday. Thus we had permission to operate as soon as it was possible. We even brought in night SAR helos to continue the mission on Tuesday night.
The President and Secretary of Defense did authorize us to act right away and are not to blame on this end. Yes, we have to wait for authorization, but it was given in a timely manner.
Lt. Commander Kelly understood how ugly this charge was, and even commented to those in the Washington Monthly’s comments section who said the new clarification was forced or pressured:
My response was not pressured from above. It was purely for clarification. I easily saw how my comments were misunderstood and wanted to do right by the readers of this site. I have yet to see what the boss has to say.
The boss probably doesn’ have anything to say, because the boss, like Kelly, has better things to do. But in the rush to point fingers, it is not surprising that stuff like this is popping up, particularly among the ‘know-nothing left,’ as Andrew himself labelled some of the people pushing this meme when dismissing their opinions on an issue he actually has followed much more closely
And how did Andrew himself react? Here is Andrew’s ‘correction’:
Carpetbagger corrects to say that it was FEMA and not the president who did not give the necessary order to get to work.
Which isn’t what the Lt. Commander had to say at all, but Andrew has his story and he is sticking to it. Again, if someone in Provincetown can find Andrew’s fact-checker, who apparently was left behind on vacation, please let me know. I will personally coordinate the fund-raising effort to get him a ride back to work.
2.) I am sure FEMA has screwed up some things. Why? Because every situation like the one created over the past few weeks is one in which lessons can be learned, mistakes are made, and lives are unnecessarily lost. It is inevitable. There is a reason the military does ‘After-Action Reports’- to assess the action, to learn lessons, and to make the necessary changes so that future similar events are more efficient.
Furthermore, I would bet there were some unique failures in this event- the breakdown in communication seems to me to be a key example. Similarly, the public statements of Michael Brown are in and of themself pretty disturbing, demonstrating a lack of situational awareness. But right now, I would wager a great deal of the FEMA ‘failures’ we are learning about simply are not failures at all. An example of the sort of thing being labeled as FEMA perfidy:
“We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back.”
Why on earth would FEMA reject a shipment of water to a site ravaged by Hurricane, in desperate need of relief? The answer, it seems, is that they didn’t:
Sharon Weber of Wal-Mart called back. She said that last week, FEMA diverted those water trucks to “another location, which [FEMA] felt was in greater need than where they were headed.” Weber emphasized that Wal-Mart would not override any FEMA decisions made in emergency situations. So Broussard, who claimed that Wal-Mart’s aid was ourtight rejected, was wrong. Based on Wal-Mart’s information, their trucks were taken where FEMA thought they were needed most. It would appear that the same story occurred with the Coast Guard fuel issue. Broussard said that FEMA wouldn’t release the fuel to Jefferson Parish – but surely that fuel went somewhere else it was needed. Thanks to Wal-Mart’s Sharon Weber for tracking down this information.
In other words, what sounds like rank incompetence, an abdication of duty, and something that is inexcusable actually turns out to be simply a diversion of assets by those responsible for the coordination of relief. This isn’t a dereliction of duty- this is a difference in where assets should be deployed and how.
I don’ know what else is true or false right now, but as anecdotal evidence of the accuracy of the numerous FEMA failures, this might be reason for some people to view similar reports with a touch more caution. We will find out what happened, eventually, but it would be wise to remember why After Action Reports come, quite reasonably, after the action.
3.) We all heard all of the horrible stories about conditions in the Superdome for several days, where survivors were sent with little pre-positioned food or water or plans for evacuation prior to the storm even hitting, and where they huddled for days, survivors continuously arriving, in awful conditions. There were numerous reports of violence, rape, and murder taking place, and the responsible press has finally decided to investigate these stories and verify what actually transpired. Unfortunately, this sort of undertaking is left to the foreign press, as the American press is busy emoting elsewhere (or, in Geraldo’s case, providing CPR to pets stranded by the flood):
But as time goes on many remain unsubstantiated and may yet prove to be apocryphal.
New Orleans police have been unable to confirm the tale of the raped child, or indeed any of the reports of rapes, in the Superdome and convention centre.
New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass said last night: “We don’t have any substantiated rapes. We will investigate if the individuals come forward.”
And while many claim they happened, no witnesses, survivors or survivors’ relatives have come forward.
In closing, I am sure there have been mistakes. I am sure there have been breakdowns in communication, breakdowns in planning, a lack of foresight in some cases, a lack of creative problem-solving in others, and many other issues that need to be addressed in the future. However, I am also aware that there is a lot of crap out there, a great deal of which is being willfully hoisted on a public that doesn’t know any better.
It my turn out that there have been a number of inexcusable errors that have occurred over the past few days and weeks, but the time to address those issues is when we know what actually happened, not when we are simply repeating parts of the whole story, absent context, absent verification, and absent the type of serious approach that this sort of investigation demands.
*** Update ***
It sure looks like there is plenty of damning enough evidence without all this speculation.
*** Update #2 ***