Saturday, February 18, 2006

House Report and Senate Testimony on Katrina

Both the House report on Katrina and the Senate hearings showed that the federal government has no capacity to respond to a terrorist attack in the United States.

In addition to obscuring news about the torture and abuse of prisoners under the Bush Administration and Cheney's claimed right to declassify data, Cheney's hunting accident also obscured news about the Katrina catastrophe.

On Wednesday, a house select committee consisting entirely of Republicans (though it still called itself a “bipartisan committee”) investigating the Hurricane Katrina disaster released its report (pdf). This document reported failures all the way up the political chain, from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, to FEMA's former head Michael Brown, to the head of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, to President Bush himself.

At the same time, Brown and Chertoff testified before a Senate committee investigating the same event.

President Bush's biggest mistake, according to the report, was that he was slow to step up and assume a leadership position when everybody below him had failed.

The mainstream news media did think that it was significant that an all-Republican house committee would find any fault with a Republican President. However, the Democrats did not leave them any option but to find some minor transgression. They had boycotted the hearings on the grounds that a House committee led by Republicans could not present a fair and balanced assessment of the failures for Hurricane Katrina. Any Republican decision to dissolve the President of all blame would have been met by a Democratic chorus of, "See, what did I tell you? They should have called this the House Select Committee to Whitewash the Katrina Disaster."

The committee did discover that the Administration had received notification that the levees had failed the night of the storm. However, that information did not get to those who needed to know -- those who should have been told, such as the President of the United States.

However, the Report did not touch on the greatest failure that Hurricane Katrina exposed.

Brown testified that one of the causes of the failure was that the Department of Homeland Security was too tightly focused on potential terrorist attacks to deal with a natural disaster.

That line of reasoning makes no sense. What Hurricane Katrina showed us was that the Bush Administration had done absolutely nothing to improve its ability to respond to terrorist threats. If it had done so, responding to Hurricane Katrina would have been relatively effortless.

We can see this most clearly if we imagine a case in which the New Orleans levees failed, not as a result of a hurricane, but as a result of a terrorist attack.

Imagine a scenario where, in the very early hours of the morning -- say, on the morning after Mardi Gras -- terrorists move a couple of boats up to the levee. These boats are loaded with explosives -- comparable to those that blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole in 2000, and they blew apart a section of the levee. While the city of New Orleans slept, the water came rushing in.

Imagine how big of a disaster that would have been.

With Hurricane Katrina, the government had three days' warning. They were able to get a substantial portion of the city evacuated before the storm even hit.

A terrorist attack against the levees would not have allowed for any warning. The entire population would have been asleep.

Now, let us look at what happened in the case of Hurricane Katrina and extrapolated it. From this, we have reason to predict how poorly the government would have responded to a terrorist attack against New Orleans. Indeed, we are given reason to wonder how the government would have responded to a terrorist attack against any major city -- from a dirty bomb going off in Washington DC to a biological warfare attack at the Super Bowl?

To the best of my ability to determine, the report did not even address the question, "If the government cannot respond to a natural disaster where it had three days' warning, how is it going to respond to a surprise terrorist attack against a major city where it has no warning at all?"

Since 9/11, we have heard one horror story after another about how terrorists have the potential and the desire to launch a serious attack against an American city. From detonating a "dirty bomb" (or even a nuclear bomb) in Washington DC, to using a crop duster to deliver a biological weapon to a crowded city event, to releasing chemical weapons in a crowded subway system, we have been warned about these types of attacks.

The Bush Administration had been telling us for four years that its top priority was to make deal with the possibility of a terrorist attack. This included dealing with the aftermath of a potentially successful attack. The reorganization that placed FEMA in the Department of Homeland Security was allegedly to help to provide a better, more coordinated response to a successful attack.

If the Bush Administration lacks the capacity to respond to Hurricane Katrina, then it also lacks the capacity to respond to a potentially successful terrorist attack on any city. This means that one of the things that this Administration had promised to make a top priority since 9/11 has not been done. It has little or no ability to respond to this type of threat. If it had such a capacity, then it would have been able to use it to respond to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

I cannot imagine why it had not been done. I cannot imagine why nobody is asking the Bush Administration about this most obvious failure. Yet, there can be no doubt that if terrorists had blown the levees around New Orleans, the Bush Administration had nothing in place to respond to this type of a disaster.

If not for the public attention being drawn to the relatively trivial story of a hunting accident, perhaps the people would have noticed that Hurricane Katrina had uncovered evidence that the Bush Administration had not taken the steps to protect their life, health, and property that it had promised to take.

Because if it had the ability to respond to such an attack, then why did it not use that capacity when Hurricane Katrina attacked New Orleans?


vjack said...

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Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr. I am looking into it.

vjack I am pleased that you find value in what I write. I have done as you requested.

vjack said...

In addition to the lack of preparedness for another terrorist attack, we don't seem to be any more prepared for a major hurricane. With hurricane seasoning beginning in early June, I'm not sure what we are waiting for. It was bad enough that the whole Katrina nightmare happened. That it could potentially happen again on the watch of this administration is terrifying.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You are exactly right.

One of the things that I keep wondering is, "What happens if New Orleans gets hit with a Category 4 hurricane this year -- between 4 and 10 months from now?

To the best of my knowledge, nothing . . . and I mean NOTHING . . . has been done that will result in that hurricane being handled any better than Katrina.

I have not seen one story on new warning procedures, new procedures for evacuating the city, nothing.

Now, maybe there are things going on that I do not know about. However, an administration that is intereted in showing the people that it is competent to handle such things should be waving its hands and shouting to the press, "Over here! See what we have done," if for no other reason than to give the people peace of mind.