William Arkin at The Washington Post finds the smoking gun behind FEMA's Katrina screwups. Ready for this? It's that the Bush administration is too obsessed with WMD and terrorism.
Now that's a nice inversion of the typical criticism we've heard from the left this week, which says the response to Katrina proves we can't handle a terrorist attack. A few words about that in a moment, but first back to Arkin.
His sophisticated analysis (I'm almost embarrassed for him) amounts to adding up the headings and subheadings in key homeland security planning documents to reach a priority score of 1,287 for terrorism and WMD versus 45 for hurricanes and all other natural disasters. He argues that Michael Brown was "set up" for failure by these misplaced priorities.
The giant flaw in his approach is that mother nature has a rather limited arsenal of large-scale disasters that play out much the same way over and over and over. (Ok, if you throw in supernovas, comets, giant meteors, black holes, giant flaming worms from beneath the earth's crust, and various other sci-fi phenomena the list can grow, but there's not much we can do about those anyway!)
Terrorists, on the other hand, have few natural limits when formulating their concoctions of evil. Attacks involving nuclear weapons, engineered plagues, nerve agents, aerosolated anthrax, or toxic chemicals would strain local response and cleanup capacities in ways that natural disasters don't. Coastal states already know how to deal with hurricanes; the South and Midwest understand tornadoes and floods; and California can handle earthquakes. Of course they still take plenty of foresight and cleanup, but they're dealt with repeatedly, and the really bad ones like Katrina are mostly a matter of scale. Chlorine tanks, however, don't explode in Chicago every year. Nor are office buildings routinely filled with anthrax in Atlanta. Simply enumerating and explaining these variegated considerations to local officials requires quite a bit more verbiage than do earthquakes and hurricanes.
The other side of the left's opportunistic criticism, that Katrina proves we can't handle a terrorist attack, is just as wrong. We've been hearing this stupid line all week--even from a few Republicans. If you believe it, I have a challenge for you: Peruse Homeland Security's terrorist attack scenarios to your heart's content, and let me know when you find the one that floods an entire city with water and wreaks devastation with 150-200 mph winds over hundreds of square miles. Find the one where the city must be evacuated by only boats and helicopters. Find the one with downed trees and smashed buildings strewn over hundreds of miles of roadway. And find the one we'll know about days in advance but can't stop because it roars along with the kinetic energy of a dozen atomic bombs. God forbid that we must ever respond to a WMD attack; but Katrina didn't tell us anything about it. (The coming decontamination of New Orleans is probably the more realistic test.)
Arkin's brilliant solution is splitting FEMA out of Homeland Security to protect it from the administration's infatuation with terrorism. Now I'll be the first to agree that creating the Department of Homeland security was a dumb idea. But will restacking the the agency letter blocks again really make things better? People like Arkin who belieeeeeeve that giant federal bureaucracies can work rapidly and efficiently are part of the problem. It. Doesn't. Happen. Frankly the only reason the military actually gets things done is that the warriors at the point of the spear can die when they screw up. Tying a few FEMA officials to an Outer Banks pier in front of Ophelia might best improve the agency's alactrity next time.
Side Note: Arkin claims the National Planning Scenarios document he references is "making its public debut here for the first time." (When will it make it's second private debut!) I'm not sure why he says that. The planning scenarios in this document have been discussed all over the Web. Maybe he means the newest version? Or maybe he doesn't google much.