Investigating the Response to Katrina
By Alan Nathan
September 22, 2005

The Republicans' rejection of an independent commission investigating the response to Hurricane Katrina is like a condemned man hanging up on the governor calling with a stay of execution. The commission would obviously find the feds rightly culpable for numerously glaring screw-ups, but it would also expose state and local foul-ups coupled with a history of national bipartisan complicity.

Perhaps most illustrative of President Bush's failures was allowing then-FEMA chief Mike Brown to remain employed one second after acknowledging on ABC that he had been impervious to the toxic and hellishly crime-ravaged New Orleans Superdome a day and half after the world had already witnessed it on television. It was to be a makeshift shelter, but devolved into an accelerant for misery. If he and his people were so incomparably devoid of this basic information, it's more than reasonable to deduce that such incompetence had a trickle down impact harming thousands.

In addition to revelations about the administration, a commission would also uncover truths about the missteps of Louisiana's Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin. We should know why Mrs. Blanco refused to grant Mr. Bush permission to move in federal forces a full two days after he made the request. Democrats had strangely criticized Mr. Bush for failing to use an authority he does not possess. Barring insurrection, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 pre-empts the president from moving unilaterally on any state without that state's governor giving the green light.

The commission could also ask Mr. Nagin why hundreds of parked buses reserved for evacuating the needy of his city were left unused and eventually submerged. When asked by NBC's Tim Russert what he thought might have been his own biggest mistake, Mr. Nagin said it was "believing that FEMA was up to the task." Boy, nothing like taking it on the chin!

Additional focus could be revisited upon lost opportunities from days of old. There have been useful in-depth studies attached to possible solutions against flooding in the Delta region. In 1991 there was one called "The Green House Effect and Sea Level Rise: The Cost of Holding Back the Sea," which unfortunately put wetlands before people but still had incredibly valuable research. In 1998 there was "Coast 2050," which rationally combined the otherwise quarrelsome interests of scientists, engineers, environmentalists and everyday residents in a way to revitalize the Delta while protecting communities from flooding. Unfortunately, Louisiana politicians along with Republicans and Democrats in Congress inexcusably dropped the effort.

The commission might also inquire about why in 1998 Louisiana's $2 billion construction budget allocated only one-tenth of 1 percent on levee refortification.

With unbridled passion we should hold the feds answerable for their calamitous response because it has resulted in lost lives. However, that fact cannot be used as camouflage for concealing local, state and national dual party responsibility for many of those same deaths.
Our goal is to expose all who are accountable so as to ensure the future safety of our citizens. But if it's embarked upon through a partisan prism, via Congress or the press, then half of the guilty will escape scrutiny and remain in jobs that permit them to replicate the same mistakes. Perhaps instead of choosing our party's team, we should choose the home team.

This introspective thinking happened recently on my show when conservative Republican Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas stated that the president had shown a lack of leadership on Katrina, while liberal Democrat Rep. Albert Wynn of Maryland argued that the politicos in Louisiana were perhaps even more responsible for the debacle.

Normally, I loathe special commissions because I don't like congressional leaders farming out responsibilities for which we hire them to perform through the ballot box. I especially don't like 50/50 committees when you have a 55/45 divide in Congress because that artificially gives a power to the minority it was unable to garner through that same ballot box. By consequence, this also disenfranchises the per-capita vote of other citizens just because they had the bad luck of belonging to the majority.

However, when you weigh that against the competing interest of ensuring that the investigation of a national disaster is not seen as politically skewed, the choice becomes self-evident.



Alan Nathan, combative centrist, columnist, speaker and the nationally syndicated host of "Battle Line With Alan Nathan" on the Radio America Network.

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