Leisurely Bush, Bumbling Feds


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

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