The Bush administration's response to the Gulf Coast disaster as the result of Hurricane Katrina could best be described as a comedy of errors if its results were not a tragic loss of lives and the virtual ruin of one of America's finest cities. Little the federal government attempted to do to cope with this catastrophe has worked.
Nobody involved can be exempt from the fiasco that has resulted. That includes President Bush, who emerged from the 9/1 1 tragedy as a public hero for his conduct but who is now taking the heat for outrageous response to the hurricane. And rightfully so. The first statement he made after Katrina had to do with gas prices, not the dire circumstances of the people on the Gulf Coast. The hurricane hit Aug. 29; on Sept. 13 Bush accepted responsibility for the fiasco.
If the president had staffed the all-important Federal Emergency Management Agency with competent, experienced people, the loss of lives and billions of dollars in property damage might very well have been lessened. But when you staff as important an agency such as FEMA with political hacks who don't know how to react to an extreme emergency, you can't expect good results. And the nation didn't get good results. Instead the actions of FEMA brought a sense of shame to the entire country.
The president, obviously unwilling to publicly admit his terrible error in putting FEMA chief Michael Brown in charge of overseeing Gulf Coast relief efforts, finally yielded to desperate entreaties of Republicans and Democrats, and ordered him back to Washington. He was replaced with Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen. It was a good move that should have been made days before.
Brown, who should have been fired for his poor performance, continued as FEMA director until he resigned on Sept. 12. David Paulison was named acting director. Paulison headed the U.S. Fire Administration and has had emergency management experience. You may remember him as the person who advocated the use of duct tape for the Millennium.
The Washington Post recently reported that along with Brown, other top FEMA officials also were Bush loyalists and political operatives who "came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters." Brown, it is reported, got his Louisiana assignment because he was a college buddy of Joe Albaugh, who was manager of Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.
Another phase of the comedy of errors is the plan introduced with much ballyhoo to give each storm victim a debit card bearing $2,000 in immediate cash assistance. The program was designed to show the administration's concern for the victims, but it was not carefully thought out and raised all kinds of problems.
The debit cards were distributed only to those in shelters in Texas and then discontinued. Other victims of Katrina have to apply on line or by phone. They need Social Security numbers, insurance information, financial information, contact information and banking information. Some of this will be very difficult for families who have lost everything. The up side is that they only need to apply once to be eligible for the initial emergency assistance and for additional benefits to which they may be entitled. The maximum FEMA assistance per household is $26,200.
Like too many other facets of the storm relief program, this debit card plan never really got off the ground for lack of proper planning. If you were to assign a report card to the federal government's planning for and execution of storm relief endeavors, it would rate a C- or worse. Hopefully, under the guidance of Paulison and Allen, relief endeavors will dramatically improve.
Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.