Friday, January 21, 2011

Hurricane Katrina-Post Script

President George W. Bush was a principal in the Hurricane Katrina response. I am very unhappy in general with the quality of the analysis of that event that has appeared in academic circles although obviously there are some really meritorious analysis.
Because the Bush Administration successfully fought the creation of a Commission to examine and document the reasons for the failures in the Katrina response efforts to capture certain data from outsiders has been difficult. One thing that continues however is the outpouring of federal monies to a region that still seems to have no clue that surviving requires a different form of practice post Katrina. And NOLA for example had some really close calls before Katrina in both Hurricanes Betsy and Andrew for example.
I am eagerly awaiting the book by Michael Brown, the Under Secretary for Preparedness and Response in DHS at the time of FEMA. He was never actually confirmed as the FEMA Director either before or after the creation of DHS and will be of interest to see if that fact is made clear in his new book when released.
My focus is more on the crisis management by the White House of the event. And therefore include the following blurb:

Bush on Katrina

CBS Sunday Morning

November 14, 2010

Failure to act could be the subtitle of the chapter on Hurricane Katrina. This man who saw "decisive" as his political brand ("I'm the decider") found his presidency undermined by his delay.

When asked why Katrina was one event where he took too long to decide, President Bush said, "I got caught up in the legal system. [it's] not an excuse. I'm just giving you the facts. And that's the purpose - "

"But you're the President of the United States," Axelrod said.

"No, I know. But that, the purpose of the book is to show you the decision-making process. And in this case, it, in order to send troops into New Orleans, the law says that the governor must declare an emergency and request [them], or I have to declare an insurrection.

"In retrospect, now, knowing what I know today, which is, you know, it's not exactly what you get to do when you're sitting there, I would've sent in troops a lot quicker."

"There was a common feeling that after Katrina, you could never fully regain the trust of the American people," Axelrod said. "Did you feel Katrina was a fork in the road for your Presidency?"

Well some would say the George W. Bush Presidency started on 9/11/01 and ended with Hurricane Katrina. We do know that if the flood walls in NOLA had not collapsed no where near the damage or disaster and NFIP outlays would have occurred. The event was not a CATEGORY 5 although Katrina at one time had that meterological reading. It was not even a CATEGORY 3 when it made landfall. And note these scales are not storm surge or flood ratings, such as the 100 year flood (actually the 1% annual occurrence flood) or the 500 or 1000 year flood.
In a book report I did for JSHEM I referred to a major MEA CULPA by the USACOE of their 50-60 year involvement in NOLA which has three completely different flood threats, maybe even four. First, main stem Mississippi River flooding. Second, MRGO flooding. Third, Lake Ponchatraine flooding. And finally internal drainage and runoff.

Another fundamental error was that few in DC seemed to know that the Superdome and the Convention Center were two different structures and that neither were capable of handling the mass care issues by the transportation dependent in NOLA. The point is that FEMA which had been burned for failure in damage assessment numerous times, most devastatingly in Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, once again failed in this mission. The FAS teams established post Andrew largely by Chief of Staff William Tidball had withered to nothing by August 2005 with the result that FEMA personnel had to beg, borrow and steal heliocopter rides to do damage assessment in a highly unstructured and unorganized manner. This is what Michael Brown and his team could be blamed for.
Thus, I am going to exonerate Bush for having been let down by the FEMA he had in August 2005. Now the fact that he had let it be stripped by Secretaries Ridge and Chertoff to fund elements of DHS that had no budget is another matter.
As NAPA (National Academy of Public Adminstration) concluded in its important February 1993 report "Coping with Catastrophe" Presidents get the disaster response system they want. Well that is my conclusion. Even though a former Governor, and coming from a state with weak Emergency Management, in which the USACOE and Texas National Guard do most of the heavy lifting in disasters, Bush was never really briefed on how badly FEMA was treated. Why is the question for historians? Was it because it was viewed as one of President William Jefferson Clinton's successes? gaegoa99National