Friday, 9 September 2005


Michael Brown is apparently being pushed aside at FEMA in favor of his deputy. There’s more thoughts from James Joyner at OTB, who points out the lack of experimental control here:

One presumes Brown has put in incredibly hard hours and done his best here. Clearly, he wasn’t particularly well trained for the position; it’s not knowable whether someone with better credentials could have done any better, though.

Nominally, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has better credentials… let’s go to the tape on her handling of the situation. Shall we say pas bien? And let’s not forget Ray “Underwater Schoolbusses” Nagin either. A pretty shameful showing all-around, methinks.

þ: Glenn Reynolds. I really don’t get the Norman Mineta vitriol, though…


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.

I think the federal government’s biggest error here was assuming that the state and local governments had their act together. Given that the former was Louisiana and the latter was New Orleans, the feds really should have known better than that.


OK…I understand the right wing goofballs desperate to find someone other than Bush to blame passing around the “school bus” picture out of ignorance, but a political science professor HAS to know that a mayor has ABSOLUTELY NO AUTHORITY WHATSOEVER commandeer school district property or order school district employees to do anything (e.g. drive the busses).

If you want to bash him for not starting the process of handling the red tape so the city could use school district property, fine; but don’t join the chorus of idiots who are, in essence, saying, “It’s his fault that he didn’t steal the busses when their theft was possible (prior to flooding) to evacuate folks.”

There is plenty of blame to go around to each of these self-aggrandizing boneheads without incorrectly manufacturing new “errors.”


There were plenty of unused municipal busses that went unused too. I don’t know the byzantine structure of New Orleans’ municipal transit authority, but I find it highly unlikely that a request (not even a “commandeering”) for use of the busses would have been denied.

And, arguably, if Nagin didn’t have the authority to commandeer the busses (and I can’t determine easily at this point whether the New Orleans city schools were independent of the city government or not; there was a School Board, but whether they were wholly independent of the municipal government or not isn’t obvious), Blanco did. This Times-Picayune article suggests that a state takeover of the school district’s finances was in the works, including an oversight board that Nagin was to be part of.

Of course, if you want to blame Bush or FEMA for the inaction of state and local officials, go right ahead. After all, I wouldn’t dream of telling a political science professor to go and read up on concurrent and reserved powers, or even the breathtaking history of cronyism and incompetence in the governance of Louisiana and, in particular, New Orleans.


Neither concurrent nor reserved powers are relevant in the “Blame Nagin for not using the school busses” gambit. Powers shared by the state under concurrent powers do not automatically extend to elected officials of a locality, which owes the existence of any of its powers to the state legislature ala Dillon’s Rule. Reserved powers just means that the red tape Nagin would need to cut through would be state red tape…not federal.

You have to realize…I blame EVERYONE…not just Bush and FEMA. I blame each of them for different things, however. Nagin’s failure was in not heeding the repeated studies that showed thousands would be stuck under a mandatory evacuation and preparing a contingency plan (such as having an agreement in place to expedite use of the school busses). Blanco’s failure was similar in nature…failure to have plans for a well studied crisis ready to implement.

Yes, some Democrats are trying to absolve Blanco and Nagin of all blame by making excuses and laying it all at Bush and Co. feet. However, their smoke screen seems less well organized than the efforts of Republicans to deflect blame from the beltway. I have seen many emails with the school bus pic and eerily similar text blaming Nagin for leaving folks stranded by failing to use the busses. This quite nicely deflects criticism for failure to get aid to them…see…if they hadn’t been “stranded by Nagin” would be moot. This is a logical non sequitur, of course. The failures of state and local officials doesn’t mean that the failures of the federal government didn’t happen. Sort of like when a child uses the “Well, he did it to!” argument to avoid punishment. Yes, you tell them, “he” may have done it to but that doesn’t change what YOU did.

Ditto with the “history of corruption” argument. Yes, there is a history of corruption in LA and NO politics that boggles the mind. Yes, this corruption may have contributed to their failure to plan adequately. Does their corruption ameliorate the failures of others? Not in my book.

Maybe I’m just getting cranky in my old age.


This has gotten off track. My original point…which prompted me to comment, but I failed to actually make…was that…consciously or unconsciously… the juxtaposition of the accusations of Blanco and Nagin with the criticism of FEMA comes across as a defense of FEMA ( i.e. “hey…what FEMA did wan’t so bad because of what Blanco and Nagin did!”) in such a short post.

Were all criticisms part of a long and exhaustive analysis of what went wrong, I wouldn’t see a problem, but the proximity smacks of a defense.

THAT was what struck me wrong because I AM sure as hell part of the “Nagin and Blanco should be strung up” chorus. Unfortunately…it seems that too many of my fellow chorus members are less willing to choir when it comes to FEMA.


Well, for what it’s worth, the “busses” link goes to an article at the Houston Chronicle that takes shots at everyone.

I think the issue here, though, is that all that can really be pinned on BushCo (as opposed to FEMA and the Corps of Engineers—the president’s control over the bureaucracy, as you well know, is tenuous at best, particularly in a classic pork agency like CoE) is that Mississippi and Louisiana Guard troops were being used in Iraq for duties that, frankly, ought to be the duties of the regular Army and reserves, and thus were unavailable for the initial response. That is a serious problem with the force structure, albeit one largely driven by Congress’ desire to use the Guard for local pork and prestige projects. Of course, that the “necessity” of them being in Iraq is debated accentuates that failing.

Certainly the political appointees chosen to lead FEMA were questionable, but given the “Yes, Minister” approach to bureaucratic oversight we have developed I’m not sure anyone could have done much better except at the PR aspects of the job. And, in general, this administration sucks at PR. Many things being attributed to FEMA apparently actually were done by Louisiana homeland security officials or National Guard troops, both under Blanco’s control; an effective PR machine wouldn’t have gotten those faults hung on FEMA in the first place, and might have saved Michael Brown’s job (not that he deserved saving, mind you).

A neoinstitutionalist would lay most or all of the blame for these failings at the feet of the 22nd Amendment. Certainly polishing one’s legacy is not as big an incentive to govern effectively as is the potential wrath of the voters.

Me, I’d lay it all at the foot of the ill-thought-out Homeland Security boondoggle, gleefully copied by states and localities after the pathetic example of the feds, whose sole accomplishment has been the inadvertent—and overdue—restructuring of the airline industry, largely because getting between checkin and the plane is now only done by the idiotic, the desperate, or people who really just like wasting their own time and/or wandering around without their shoes on in public.


Ah, I guess my main point in the juxtaposition was that people who were nominally “qualified” to deal with these problems sucked monkey nuts too. I’m not sure that was a defense of FEMA, just a statement that qualifications and sucking monkey nuts seemed to be uncorrelated.


Dang it, I’ve lost the link now, but there is a clause in the New Orleans evacuation plan that specifically gives Nagin (the mayor) the power to commandeer the school busses. Of course, he’d have then faced trying to keep all those drivers on the job when most were trying to flee town….

For what it’s worth, there’s lots of blame to go around. The NO/LA evac and emergency plans specifically state that LA must work on its own for 72 to 96 hours before NG help can be expected. (This is what happened.) The governments of NO and LA both were criminally underprepared and completely overwhelmed by what happened. There was no front line of response whatsoever.

Federal help was actually staged nearby, ready to go. The problems:
a) No one in LA or NO government to do what was needed by the Feds to get moving. The NO/LA folks just assumed the Feds were now in charge and bailed.
b) The emergency communications grid collapsed completely. Police and first responders weren’t there; their buildings were flooded and inaccessible. The people depended on to keep order, establish groundwork, etc. were not there.
c) Roads that were depended on by supply trucks to provide routes into affected areas were gone. Literally, in the cases of some bridges. And again, the locals who were tasked with beginning to open those roads weren’t on scene.
d) In all fairness to everyone, I don’t think anyone really expected Cat5-level catastrophic damage. I don’t think anyone really expected the worst possible scenario.
e) Expecting any bureaucracy hundreds of miles away to respond rapidly and fluidly is foolishness of the highest order, doubly so for Washington.
f) Brown handled four hurrincanes in Florida in the last year. There were complaints of slowness, yes, but no one seems to have questioned Brown’s fundamental ability (or resume!) back then. What’s changed, other than magnitude?


Well said Mike. Unlike many opinions on this issue, yours seems to be researched and well thought out. I grew up in Fl and lived there as an adult too. I evacuated many hurricanes and stayed when I should not have during Opal. I have never seen an evacuation so mismanaged. That has nothing to do with the feds and everything to do with state and local government. The fed response, FEMA etc has been pretty similiar to many other hurricanes if I remember well . As far as what has changed with the other hurricanes other than magnitude is that no other evacuation has been as botched as this one.

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