Wednesday, September 14, 2005

FEMA Smoking Gun

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.


Anonymous said...

Right on the mark! Arkin's "analysis" is specious and his conclusions tendentious and absurd.

Anonymous said...

I think Arkin made a good argument. The current Administration does focus on terrorism and WMD and pays less attention to natural disasters. Given the mess that occurred with Katrina and the lack of terrorist attacks in the past four years, I would question the wisdom of that. I am not talking about preventing terrorism, but instead about cleaning up after any disaster, natural or otherwise. Nuclear bomb or hurricane, anthrax or tornado, people still have to be evacuated, sheltered, fed and put back on their feet. I do believe that Bush and his buddies made a mess of Katrina's aftermath and that they didn't do all that well after 9/11, either. You don't have to be a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, to be incompetent.

The Bush Administration has its own agenda that does not include making a serious effort to respond to terrorism or natural disasters. Do you honestly think that the Department of Homeland Security would do any better responding to a massive terrorist attack? In my opinion, the reason is that the Bush Administration's Katrina agenda goes like this:

1. Make sure the oil refineries keep pumping. The very first thing I heard that Bush did after Katrina was to release the strategic oil reserves to private refiners. Fact is, there is not all that much oil in the strategic reserves, but why did Bush think of that first? Because in time of disaster, you always think of your loved ones first.

2. Start channeling money to other cronies. Halliburton started cleaning up Air Force bases in Florida hours after Katrina blew by, cleaning up to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Sure, somebody had to do the job and Halliburton had the contingency contracts to do it. Ironic, though that the company that profits so much from the war in Iraq—started because of then-nonexistent terrorism and never-found WMD—gets to profit by Katrina, too.

3. Get rid of laws that the Bush Administration considers repugnant. Bush quickly waived the Davis Bacon Act in the area hit by Katrina. Davis Bacon is a clause in federal contracts that requires companies that get those contracts to pay the prevailing wage to the workers they employ for the job. So, day laborers hired to clean debris and rubble in Mississippi don't have to be paid the prevailing wage of six or seven dollars an hour by the federal contractors who hire them. I've heard some folks gloat that waiving Davis Bacon is a solid, union-busting move. Tell that to the poor folks in Mississippi who are going to be rebuilding the place at minimum wage, if they can get that.

4. Make the poor and middle class pay for the recovery. (Okay, so what’s new?) Give or take a billion, this Administration has made or wants to make about $70 billion in tax cuts a year, mostly for the wealthy. Now, if Congress repealed those cuts, let them expire or just don’t enact them, then there would be enough money to pay for all of Katrina’s recovery. This is an emergency, after all, so if the rich have to do without some luxuries, well hey, that’s noblesse oblige (French for the obligation of the nobility to be caring, decent masters). You think Bush is going to renege on his promises to family, friends and business colleagues? Yeah, right. Instead, look for cuts in every social and health program that the conservatives can get away with. Bye-bye, Head Start.

This is only my opinion, but with an agenda like that, I don't think the current Administration cares about what happens to Katrina survivors or any other victims of natural or unnatural disasters. Bush and his friends care about oil, scratching each others backs, and carrying out a so-called conservative ideology that in reality is rank opportunism.

Now, if Bush et al. don't care about disaster victims, then they probably don't have many ideas about how to address disasters. That reminds me of what Hunter S. Thompson said when asked why he thought another W was running for his party's Presidential nomination in 1972: "George Wallace doesn't even have the wrong ideas about why he wants to be President."

Anonymous said...

Like most Americans, I know that we will never be safe from every conceivable threat. I deal with it.

The idea that we can secure this country from every conceivable attack is insane. Fortress America is a pipe dream that would bankrupt us in the process. I for one would like to see effective RESPONSES to emergencies, rather than throwing money at a problem that cannot be fixed in the conventional sense.

Perhaps even more radical, we could try and get beyond the 'they're evil' motivation of the enemy. There are definite motivating forces, beyond simple religious fanaticism, that can be manipulated or altered to affect change within the movements themselves. These are weapons too, and we should be using them.

In summary, for a country which prides itself on our sciences, we don't seem to be acting very intelligently as a whole. It could be something to do with the leader...

Charles said...

Your criticism of Arkin is so lame, it deserves to be on disability.

Look, of course counting the mentions of terrorism v. natural disaster is a crude metric. The value of simple metrics like this is that they provide an objective measure. Budget is another objective measure. It has its own deficiencies.

When one comes up with such a huge disparity in the apparent interest in natural disasters v. manmade ones, and when there's supporting evidence from the response to say it's true, disparagement only reflects on the disparager.