When the Levee Breaks
Or, Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Kodos

I am a pretty emotional person.

I wanted to say that right up front, because this is probably not going to be as measured a response to Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath as it could be. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say yet, but I’m offering fair warning that it might turn into a rant. If you measure this in death toll and sheer size of the area affected, the disaster on the gulf coast is much larger than 9/11, but unlike that catastrophe, I don’t personally know anyone who lost someone last week. So my response to this is really limited to what I read and what I see on television. Anyone who wants to disregard my thoughts on those grounds is more than justified.

But here is what I’m thinking.

We are, as a country, in worse shape than I thought we were.

It’s been four years since Islamic extremist terrorists crashed two planes into two buildings in New York, four years since President George W. Bush was granted enormous power and freedom to launch his homeland security initiatives. And as we, the voters, handed over the keys, we gave him one mandate: make us safer. Some of us were even willing to give up and renounce some of our most basic American freedoms for this cause. In the days and weeks after 9/11, a shattered and broken America pleaded with the guy in charge. Make us safer.

Four years later, I’m not even sure they know what “make us safer” means. Part of becoming safer, I think, revolves around actually having a plan in case of emergencies, and executing it with the precision we should expect from the greatest nation on Earth. Imagine, for just a second, that Al Qaeda decided to blow up the levees in New Orleans. The resulting devastation in that city would have been pretty much the same. The only difference between that and what happened is that Hurricane Katrina let us know she was coming, a week or two in advance.

And we still had no plan.

Thousands of people died, many of them unable to leave their homes. What evacuation efforts did take place found thousands more people packed into the Superdome, with no food, no water, no medical supplies and no promise of escape. Anarchy descended on the region, in the absence of authority figures. I heard tales of people being turned away at the bridges, or lied to about phantom rescuers. I also heard plenty of stories of looting, and of victims turning their firearms on rescue helicopters and hospital vehicles, which makes no sense at all to me.

The pictures coming in from New Orleans last week could have been from the Sudan, so desperate were the images. It was heartbreaking. The hurricane hit Monday morning. Through Thursday, the question remained unanswered: where the hell is everyone? Why aren’t they coming with food, with medicine, with a way out?

There’s plenty of blame to go around, and some of it has to land on New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, who called for an evacuation with no coherent plan to carry it out. Some of it has to land on Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who supported said evacuation without, seemingly, assisting with its execution in any way. But in my world, being the top guy means you have to take the responsibility when things go wrong, and that’s why I think the lion’s share of the anger, recrimination and resentment must be directed at our president and his gang of idiots, who dropped the ball so completely that it was shameful.

Where the hell is everyone? I can tell you where our president was on Monday and Tuesday as thousands of people were dying. He was on his vacation. Week five of his vacation, to be precise. I can also tell you where our secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice, was on Wednesday night. She was on Broadway, taking in a show. On Thursday, as Ray Nagin was giving his famous radio rant excoriating the federal government for its slow response, Rice was shopping for expensive shoes. What I can’t tell you is where our vice president, Dick Cheney, was. I don’t know. Last I heard, he was on vacation, too.

Some of you are writing this off already as a partisan rant. It isn’t. This isn’t about left and right, it’s about complete failure of leadership. I’d be saying the same things if Kerry had won last year, and if his response to this crisis was as lackadaisical and careless as Bush’s has been. I personally don’t think it would have been – Kerry, at the very least, would have been able, through sheer presence and articulation, to appear concerned and on top of the situation, something that eluded Bush throughout this crisis. Bush is approaching the aftermath of Katrina like a public relations problem, not a national emergency.

Seriously, take a minute and read this.

It’s from a leftist website, true enough, but everything there is sourced and linked. It even points out something that not a lot of people are talking about – the very moment when Katrina and her aftermath became the federal government’s problem. That would be Saturday. That’s right, Bush, DHS and FEMA took complete responsibility for mobilizing aid to New Orleans two days before the hurricane hit.

But that can’t be, you’re saying. I’ve heard FEMA head Michael Brown, and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay blaming the local governments for not asking for assistance earlier. You’re right, they have been saying that. And they’re wrong, plain and simple. The local government should have had a plan in place, but at least Nagin and Blanco knew they couldn’t handle the situation, and they asked for help. And they received a federal promise.

On Saturday the 26th.

You’ve also, no doubt, heard Chertoff and Brown expressing surprise at the size and the effects of the storm, saying that no one could have known what would happen. No one could have foreseen the levees overflowing, the flood walls breaking. This is patently untrue. For one thing, Nagin and Blanco seemed to have foreseen it, because they ordered the evacuation. The National Hurricane Center knew about it, too, and they told Bush, Brown and Chertoff. And you know, that’s kind of what experts are for – to tell you that these things might, and probably will, happen. It helps if you listen to them.

But Brown and Chertoff seemed thoroughly oblivious through this whole thing. Brown said he only learned about the evacuees in the Superdome on Thursday, after they’d been there for three days. I knew about it before the head of FEMA, and I found out by switching on CNN. That scares me, that I can find out about a national emergency situation from Wolf Blitzer before Michael Brown hears about it. Where the hell was he?

But the complete lack of a coordinated response doesn’t bother me nearly as much as our beloved administration’s refusal to accept an iota of responsibility. On Friday, Bush flew into Louisiana for a series of photo ops, shutting down the airport from which food and water was being delivered. It was then that he delivered his famous speech about Trent Lott’s house, and said that Michael Brown was “doing a heck of a job.” He also seemed as defensive and cavalier as always, betraying no sense that he understood or felt the scope of the disaster.

Soon after that, the effort to blame the locals kicked into gear, with the administration blithely glossing over a couple of big facts: Blanco called for and received a state of emergency on Saturday, and much of the national guard needed for a rescue effort in New Orleans now resides in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is no doubt that more could have been done over the last 20 years to strengthen the flood walls and fortify the levees in New Orleans. There is also no doubt that once the storm breached those walls and levees, none of that mattered.

Or it shouldn’t matter, to an adult. But then again, the adult thing to do last week would have been to stay on top of the situation and offer well-coordinated aid. Failing that, the adult thing to do would have been to admit it, come clean, say “I screwed up, America, and I’m sorry.” But the finger-pointing and name-calling have all but drowned out any contrition that may have existed. Meanwhile, the bungling continues – a thousand or so volunteer firefighters and rescue workers have responded to FEMA’s call, and they’re sitting in a convention center in Atlanta, learning how to hand out flyers and getting sexual harassment training. Seriously.

The name-calling is happening on both sides, too. I can’t think of a single emergency situation that Jesse Jackson has ever made better, but there he is, throwing around charges of racism. I think all of the talk about race and economics is largely a red herring – with no evacuation plan in place, of course the poorest residents were the ones who couldn’t get out, and that a vast majority of them happen to be black is beside the point. I agree with Kanye West that George Bush doesn’t care about black people, in that I think George Bush doesn’t care about anyone besides himself and his buddies, but I also think that making race the focus of this issue diverts from the more serious charge of dangerous incompetence.

Bush is incompetent. Chertoff is incompetent. Brown is incompetent. And what’s worse, they don’t seem to care that they’re incompetent, and they blame everyone else for their own catastrophic blunders. With that attitude, there is no way any of them will be able to keep Bush’s promise, given four years ago this month, to make us safer. Thousands of people died, and they’re more worried about covering each other’s backs. It’s shameful.

I believe in leading by example, even when one isn’t in a position of leadership. I’m just a guy, a regular voter who pays his taxes and plies his trade. But I’m willing to take up my share of the responsibility here. Thousands of people died, and I let them down.

We let them down.

By electing this administration, and turning a blind eye to their incompetence and their shell games, we made a bad situation worse. By not holding their feet to the fire and demanding accountability from them, we exacerbated the situation. When the time came for decisive action, Bush failed spectacularly, but he wouldn’t have been able to fail if we’d refused to re-elect him, or at least kept a close, watchful, discriminating eye on his administration. It’s our fault.

And only we can make up for it.

See you in line Tuesday morning.