Leisurely Bush, Bumbling Feds

Only the Coast Guard looks good after Hurricane Katrina

 WASHINGTON, D.C.—At his usual leisurely pace, George Bush has returned here to take a look at what’s been going on down South. With dire warnings all over the news a good day before Hurricane Katrina struck, this former Texas governor, who ought to know firsthand what the weather can do to the oil industry, let alone human beings, remained on vacation until a day after the storm struck. Only after the levees in New Orleans were breached, inundating the city with floodwaters and stranding desperate people atop their houses, did the president return from his Crawford ranch to take up the reins of government.

Just as on 9-11 itself, the president preferred to wait until he achieved what his administration sometimes refers to as “situational awareness” before taking any rash action, like sending a lot of drinking water to the stricken Gulf Coast, for example. CNN showed him peering out of the window of Air Force One on Wednesday as the plane circled the flooded streets. Below, people bumped along on inner tubes or waved white sheets from their balconies.

Overall, it’s the same old story with federal agencies—too little too late. After all the talk and money spent on homeland security, the government is nowhere in handling the situation in this most strategically exposed part of the United States. It’s a notorious cancer alley—that stretch of polluted lower Mississippi where oil and petrochemical plants are bunched together.The most disgraceful of all federal agencies is the Army Corps of Engineers, which methodically has worked to destroy the Mississippi wetlands, building dikes that have turned the river into a gushing sewer. Now the engineers are left to drop piles of concrete into the breached dikes.Thanks to the Corps, most of nature’s own defense against storms, especially the wetlands, have been torn to pieces for landfill to provide for suburban development along the river’s shores, and along the Gulf.

In this hurricane, the one government agency on the ball is the Coast Guard, a highly decentralized agency now stuck within the Homeland Security maze. With only 40 aircraft, it pulled off over 1,000 rescues yesterday.

The state-run National Guard is meant to be on call for such dire emergencies. And 7,500 members of the Guard were dispatched to help out in the aftermath of the hurricane. But 35 percent of Louisiana’s Guard and 40 percent of Mississippi’s Guard are in Iraq. About a quarter of the Florida and Alabama Guard are in Iraq. The Pentagon said 78,000 of the roughly 440,000 National Guard troops nationwide are deployed overseas.

Because of the lengthy hardship service and rising death tolls, Guard recruitement has declined, meaning among other things that units responding to disasters will be filled at lower numbers than now. "None of the states impacted are stretched thin at all," Jack Harrison, a National Guard Bureau spokesman at the Pentagon, told Reuters. He said there are some 31,500 guardsmen either activated or available to be activated in the four states. But Western governors who depend on Guard units to fight forest fires already have complained about reduced strength.

Diverted from its original function of maritime safety to such tasks as the war on drugs and lately the war on terror, the Coast Guard has shined. Remember, it was the Coast Guard commander in New York who organized one of the most extraordinary operations maritime rescues since Dunkirk on 9-11, pulling together,ferries,tugs, yachts, and all sorts of other boats to evacuate half a million people from downtow New York. “I have long thought the Coast Guard was a good model of how you can have devolution within the federal government,” said Sam Smith, editor of the online daily Progressive Review and himself a former operations officer on a cutter. “The National Park Service has something of the same quality. Interestingly, they are two of the best regarded federal agencies.”


Additional reporting: Isabel Huacuga, David Botti

 
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