Sunday, September 4

[The best intelligence in the world?]

All week, Michael Chertoff has succeeded in displaying just how slow on the uptake he and his department are, unfortunately. Today's "Meet the Press" didn't help his case much. He contends that on Tuesday, he picked up a newspaper and breathed a brief sigh of relief because the headlines told him that New Orleans, while ravaged by the hurricane, had essentially dodged a bullet and that that's why massive relief efforts weren't already mobilized to inundate the region.

I won't claim that he's lying, because many of the nation's front pages on Tuesday did say that, particularly papers set on making a "Big Easy" pun ("The Big Breezy"? Give me a fucking break; it was a hurricane — not a fart) and papers futher geographically removed from Louisiana (both WaPo and the NYTimes had a headlines or deck headlines that said, basically, "New Orleans escapes a direct hit"). See for yourself. But pay close attention to the Louisiana newspapers, particularly the Times-Picayune, whose giant headline and deck headlines warned of ongoing levee failure. I don't know if Chertoff has a subscription to every paper in the nation, but I would bet that he could snap his fingers and have a secretary or someone go to any given paper's Web site and find out what the regional news is from, you know, people who live there.

This is my beef with Chertoff and Mike Brown's lackadaisical approach to the relief effort: Why don't they know about the situation before reading about events in the newspaper the next day? I mean, I love newspapers and make my living in the news business, but I hold no delusions of our ability to report news in a more timely manner than broadcast or internet outlets. Our print editions just can't compete in the arena of speed and immediacy, period. But that's another issue for another day.

The truly disturbing thing to imagine is that these beauracratic talking heads are getting their information — apparently their only inkling into the situation — from the media. I knew we had been co-opted in a lot of ways to work for the government, but I didn't realize we were the intelligence-gathering arm of the federal government's disaster planners. I assumed they had crazy lasers and satellite thingeys with which they were able to ascertain the magnitude of a weather-based disaster and swoop in with their green helicopters and help make things right while the reporters trudged through the shit gathering stories and photos to share with the people of America.

How is it that these powerful people in charge don't have access to the communications technology that will keep them abreast of major events and happenings in real time? This isn't 1860; they weren't waiting on the Pony Express to return with the news. Why the disconnect between the way things happened and the way officials learned about them? Why would a Tuesday headline's assertion that the worst had passed be heeded but a Wednesday or Thursday headline/video/audio blitzkrieg about stranded people at the convention center mysteriously slip through the cracks? Don't they have interns at the White House who just watch the news all day in case stuff happens? More importantly, aren't there people who can be dispatched to the scene to report back to the officials, kind of like reporters report back to their news agencies? If so, aren't there enough to get the reconnaissance job done at least as well as or better than the media?

I've heard the argument that mobilization and rescue didn't begin sooner because of paperwork and the need for the local government to request federal assistance before the feds would move in. I'm not sure that's the best argument (and it seems to come from the same people who like to preach about how big, beauracratic government is so bad) since FEMA was authorized by the President on Aug. 27 (several days before the hurricane) to do whatever it needed to do in the wake of Katrina. If it's the (unlikely and I'm guessing non-existent) case that FEMA got the cold shoulder from local Louisiana officials, then I don't see why FEMA didn't just take over operations to "identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency." We could have squabbled over local jurisdiction later, after people were safe and fed*.

There are more questions than answers, I guess. But my point is this: The media needs to be included in how government officials gather information, but the media can be neither the only source of information nor completely ignored, which seems to have happened almost simultaneously in this most mind-boggling of events.

*I saw this Washington Post story today, in which it says that the feds have requested that Gov. Blanco hand over "unified control over all local police and state National Guard units reporting to the governor. Louisiana officials rejected the request after talks throughout the night, concerned that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law. Some officials in the state suspected a political motive behind the request."

The complete breakdown of the chain of command and responsibility continues, and the plot thickens.

I also want to say that I don't absolve Gov. Blanco or Mayor Ray Nagin of their responsibility to be prepared for this catastrophe. I have seen the photos of the New Orleans schoolbuses languishing in murky water, unused. I know that the mandatory evacuations should have happened earlier and been more coordinated so that those with no personal transportation could have managed a way out despite their lack of a car.

I don't blame Bush for the failure of the levees. I think his "no one imagined it would happen" was a bone-headed thing to say (par for the course) but I sympathize with him because I don't like to imagine random catastrophes that will destroy my life and those of the people around me as being anything more than imagined, even if I know they're a real threat. They don't seem really possible, especially if you think God loves you. I mean, I live on a fault line; the Earth could swallow me up and wreak havoc on this city's people in an instant. What would I do? What would I expect my local, state, and federal government to do to help me? I don't know.

What I do take issue with is the lack of government efficiency, decorum, decency, and common sense this whole affair has unmasked — the flippancy with which this event was treated in those first critical few days. How the stories of looting and unlawfulness almost eclipsed the more pressing stories of struggling survival. How the fragility of a city's and country's infrastructure was exposed for ourselves and the entire world in a weeklong stupor of death and violence.

What will we do when it happens again?


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