Organizing thousands and thousands of people, in hellish conditions and in a hurry, is tough work. Let's take that as a given. But still: We're now a work week into a natural disaster that had been forecast for years, and New Orleans "is being run by thugs," the city's emergency preparedness director tells the Times. "Some people there have not eaten or drunk water for three or four days, which is inexcusable."Damn right. And this Slate article on the Department of Homeland Security's underwhelming response to Katrina is absolutely dead-on. (Click here for ways you can help.)
How is it possible that with the fourth anniversary of 9/11 almost upon us, the federal government doesn't have in hand the capability to prepare for and then manage a large urban disaster, natural or man-made? In terms of the challenge to government, there is little difference between a terrorist attack that wounds many people and renders a significant portion of a city uninhabitable, and the fallout this week from the failure of one of New Orleans' major levees. Indeed, a terrorist could have chosen a levee for his target. Or a dirty-bomb attack in New Orleans could have caused the same sort of forced evacuation we are seeing and the widespread sickness that is likely to follow.Chertoff's Department of Homeland Security demonstrated today that it could organize an impressive press conference in Washington, lining up every participating civilian or military service from the Coast Guard to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to promise its cooperation. But on the ground in Louisiana, where it counts, DHS is turning out to be the sum of its inefficient parts. The department looks like what its biggest critics predicted: a new level of bureaucracy grafted onto a collection of largely ineffectual under-agencies.What has DHS been doing if not readying itself and its subcomponents for a likely disaster? The collapse of a New Orleans levee has long led a list of worst-case urban crisis scenarios. The dots had already been connected...Located only three hours from New Orleans is Fort Polk, home of the 4th Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry unit with about 3,000 soldiers. Also at Fort Polk is the Joint Readiness Training Center, which prepares military units to respond rapidly to crises abroad. The 4th Brigade has been training for duty in Afghanistan. Why was it also not ready to take on a local disaster scenario in hurricane season? Or at the least, once the National Hurricane Center predicted that the eye of Katrina would come close to New Orleans, couldn't DHS have deployed the military to help shore up the levees?And in the event of a WMD attack, when there would likely be no warning at all, what is DHS's contingency plan for moving into position the army or the marines to restore order and sustain life? In the wake of Katrina and the breached levee, the answer seems to be not much of one. In the wake of 9/11, that is worse than incomprehensible. It is unforgivable.And one other thing: on my plane ride back to New York from Oakland tonight, I saw Chertoff and FEMA director Michael Brown on every two-bit cable talk show on Jet Blue's dial. Why exactly are these guys taking the time to chat with Hannity and Colmes? Don't these guys have, y'know, jobs to go do at a time like this?Besides, the best on-air commentary of the flight came from Jack Cafferty, who's gone from local-news-stuffed-shirt to don't-give-a-fuck-TV-truth-teller:
I gotta tell you something, we got five or six hundred letters before the show actually went on the air, and no one - no one - is saying the government is doing a good job in handling one of the most atrocious and embarrassing and far-reaching and calamatous things that has come along in this country in my lifetime. I'm 62. I remember the riots in Watts, I remember the earthquake in San Francisco, I remember a lot of things. I have never, ever, seen anything as bungled and as poorly handled as this situation in New Orleans. Where the hell is the water for these people? Why can't sandwiches be dropped to those people in the Superdome. What is going on? This is Thursday! This storm happened 5 days ago. This is a disgrace. And don't think the world isn't watching. This is the government that the taxpayers are paying for, and it's fallen right flat on its face as far as I can see.THERE'S MORE: Even the President is now saying that the relief efforts "are not acceptable."