Tuesday, September 06, 2005

"This Is Working Very Well for Them" (She Chuckled) 

Courtesy of our venerated colleague Melissa at Shakespeare's Sister, a partial (partial!) catalogue of fuckups so egregious you might be tempted to interpret them as evidence of MD -- that is to say, Malignant Design: Is there some baneful will at work in the list above? Many bloggers have painted the failures of FEMA as the inevitable result of Grover Norquist's frequently-quoted prescription for all America's ills: shrinking government to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub. Our revered colleague Billmon, however, remembers a long-ago time when FEMA was not so feeble -- namely, 2004:
Even the legally blind can see the Rovians are serious about the essential functions of government. It's just that in their value system, funneling federal money to sympathetic interest groups while simulatenously redistributing the tax burden away from those same groups are the two essential functions of government.

Likewise, the Bush family is prepared to spend almost unlimited amounts of federal money on preventative measures -- that is, on efforts to prevent them from losing an election.

It's instructive, on that score, to compare the current response to Hurricane Katrina (in which the Three Stooges apparently have seized control of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a bloodless coup) with the administration's efforts on behalf of the voters of Florida following last year's triple storms -- Charley, Frances and Ivan . . . .

It appears there's something special about years divisible by two -- and particularly every other year divisible by two -- that can inspire amazing feats of bureaucratic energy and competence, at least in large, populous swing states.
As further evidence of what our government can accomplish when the motivation is there, Billmon also links to a new article by Eric Boehlert of Salon, who describes in great detail the seamless coordination between federal and local authorities during hurricane season last year:
FEMA's often invisible and incompetent reaction to the devastation in New Orleans stands in sharp contrast to the way the relief agency and the entire Bush administration sprang into action last summer as a series of deadly hurricanes -- Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne -- battered the crucial swing state of Florida just weeks before Election Day . . . .

Some FEMA insiders were so happy with how they handled Florida's flurry of election-year hurricanes that they made a serious pitch within the administration to get FEMA director Mike Brown, now a target of sustained criticism, promoted to homeland security chief . . . .

Floridians had good reason to be grateful. In the summer of 2004, FEMA handed out hurricane relief checks with wild abandon, doling out nearly $30 million to residents of Miami-Dade County to replace TVs, computers and microwaves, even though that county suffered little or no hurricane damage.

Locally, top sustained winds the day the storm struck only reached 47 mph and did minimal damage to just a handful of buildings. Just 5 percent of county residents even lost power, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which uncovered FEMA's unusual largess. The newspaper reported that within two days of Frances' arrival FEMA officials knew Miami-Dade had been unscathed, and yet the checks soon flowed into the county. "They were just doling out this money like it was Christmas," a spokeswoman for Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., told the Sun-Sentinel. (Eventually, 14 Miami-Dade residents who received assistance were indicted on fraud charges) . . . .

Partisan politics were certainly in the air during the busy hurricane season. Specifically, one FEMA consultant, in an e-mail dated Sept. 3, 2004, recommended that "top-level people from FEMA and the White House need to develop a communication strategy and an agreed-upon set of themes and communications objectives." He stressed, "Communication consultants from the President's re-election campaign should be brought in." FEMA officials insisted they did not follow the consultant's advice . . . .

The federal government's extreme generosity wasn't restricted to Miami-Dade. In 2004 an aide to Gov. Bush reported back to him that FEMA was handing out housing assistance "to everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind." As the Sun-Sentinel reported, "Even state officials were surprised at how quickly money flowed to Florida. The day after Hurricane Charley hit the west coast, the state's labor chief, Susan Pareigis, asked for a federal grant for unemployment assistance for storm victims. Four days later, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao 'was down personally' to award the money, Pareigis wrote in an Aug. 24 e-mail to the governor. 'Please express our sincere thank you for such an instantaneous response.'"
The electoral-vote hypothesis is far more soothing than certain others we have read. Unlike our esteemed-but-immoderate colleague Driftglass, who refers to our federal relief efforts as "Operation Drown the Negroes," we are disinclined to search for a racial motive in FEMA's half-hearted and willfully inadequate response. We are sure, for example, that the tourists in the story below (flagged by the colleague-whose-name-we-are-frankly-embarrassed-to-type-yet-again) received secret, preferential treatment from the troops guarding the Superdome not because they were white, but because they were white foreigners, ill-equipped to cope with the savagery of the indigenes:
Jenny Sachs, of Sheffield, told how soldiers had to smuggle her out of the Superdome in secret.

She was one of about 30 Britons who, realising they could not escape the city, had fled to the stadium for shelter.

"It has hit me more now I am at home, when you can have clean water, how bad it was," she said.

She said people had been raped and that others were beaten up. "A guy was brought in who had seven stab wounds and was covered in blood."

The military told all non-US citizens to stay together for safety, Ms Sachs added.

They later told them they would be secretly smuggled out in groups of 10 under cover of darkness as it had become too dangerous for them to remain in the stadium, she told BBC News.

"When we were leaving, people were going 'Where are you going?' and giving us looks. But the military got us out, which we were all thankful for."
(And be sure to watch the linked video at the BBC site. You will be keen to know what Ms. Sachs's father was told when he called New Orleans police two days before the hurricane struck and asked for details of the evacuation plan.)

We do not recommend that you dwell overmuch on the distinction between a rescue mission and a salvage mission (as set forth by our astute colleague Bionic Octopus, who incidentally has a few additional entries for the FEMA catalogue), but if you do, you will certainly need a bit of cheering up afterward; luckily Zemblan patriot T.C. has forwarded some encouraging news from the President's adoptive home state of Texas that ought to do the trick. We are quite, quite sure that the following item has nothing whatsoever to do with the stories above, but we include it here because we always like to leave you on an upbeat note:
Perhaps no city in the United States is in a better spot than Houston to turn Katrina's tragedy into opportunity. And businesses here are already scrambling to profit in the hurricane's aftermath.

Oil services companies based here are racing to carry out repairs to damaged offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico; the promise of plenty of work to do sent shares in two large companies, Halliburton and Baker Hughes, soaring to 52-week highs last week. The Port of Houston is preparing for an increase in traffic as shippers divert cargoes away from the damaged ports of Pascagoula, Miss., and New Orleans.

Owners of office space here are witnessing a surge in leasing as New Orleans companies, including that city's oldest bank, scramble to set up new headquarters in Houston, helping to shore up its sagging property market. With brio that might make an ambulance-chaser proud, one company, National Realty Investments, is offering special financing deals "for hurricane survivors only," with no down payments and discounted closing costs.

All this, of course, is capitalism at work, moving quickly to get resources to where they are needed most. And those who move fastest are likely to do best.

Meanwhile, even small businesses and cheap hotels are benefiting from the population surge, which could total up to 250,000 people. Some hardware stores have sold out their entire supply of gasoline cans and generators to people preparing for an eventual return to the devastated region.

"It feels like the only things left in south Louisiana are snakes and alligators," said John E. Olson, co-manager of Houston Energy Partners, a hedge fund that operates out of a skyscraper downtown. "Houston is positioned for a boom."

(Thanks to our august colleagues the Nielsen Haydens for the graphic.)

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