An America I Never Expected to See

The incompetence—the sustained, systemic, outrageous incompetence—that marked the government's response to Hurricane Katrina is genuinely hard to believe.

By Clive Crook

In my time as a journalist in Britain, before moving to Washington this summer, I more or less made a career of defending American supremacy (and not just in the economic realm) to skeptical or downright hostile Europeans. I admire the United States so much, I tell my puzzled American friends (who mostly seem to be liberals), that I am even willing to give the Bush administration a chance to explain itself—a vanishingly rare thing in the part of the world I come from, and a pretty rare thing, for that matter, in much of Washington. I resist the label "conservative," but my instinct is certainly to praise the country and give this White House, like any other, a hearing. And so I stand before you this week, having followed events in New Orleans with mounting incredulity, a sad and disillusioned man.

I still find this epic of incompetence—sustained, systemic, outrageous incompetence—genuinely hard to believe. If you had told me that the flooding of the city would be followed by day after day of chaos, with officials at every level incapable of any effective action; if you had told me that an uncounted number of dead bodies would be floating in the street days after the levees were breached, while huge crowds of abandoned victims, filmed from helicopters, clamored for food and water, with not a police officer or a soldier or an emergency worker of any kind to be seen; if you had said that as the country watched all of this go on, and on, and on, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency should appear on television to tell open-mouthed news anchors how pleased he was that everything was going so well—if you had described all of this to me ahead of time, I would have said you were crazy. In Italy (forgive my British prejudices), maybe such a thing could be imagined. In Bangladesh, well, sadly yes—until foreigners, preferably led by Americans, arrived to help. But in the United States? For heaven's sake, it simply could not happen.

And the more one watched and read and thought about this, the more perplexing it became. Because this was no hitherto-inconceivable catastrophe. It had been imagined, it had been foreseen, it had been predicted in detail. It had even been—or so one supposes—planned for. Think of that. The authorities, even though many have tried to deny it, knew this was coming. Nonetheless, they were paralyzed when the disaster struck, and who knows how many people died needlessly as a result? It is literally incredible.

It is also terrifying, because the flooding of New Orleans is not the only foreseen, planned-for disaster that Americans need to be contemplating right now. Imagine a radiological bomb in Chicago, or an effective biological or chemical attack on New York City. Is the terrible anarchy of the days following the hurricane, played to the same soundtrack of surreal official complacency, what residents of those cities should expect if or when such catastrophes occur?

The focus on that question should now be remorseless, but it doesn't help that people, determined to bend what has happened to some pre-existing agenda, are reaching for larger theories of what went wrong in New Orleans. Blame the war in Iraq, some have argued, for stretching resources too thin—stranding troops and equipment overseas, when they were needed at home, and leaving no money for shoring up the city's infrastructure. Or put it down to racism. Why hurry to help, the authorities are supposed to have asked themselves, when the victims are nearly all black? Or even this, if you can believe it: Look to the exaggerated individualism of the age, the disdain for collective action and for the idea of the greater good. This is the kind of thing that happens only when countries think of government as a problem rather than as a solution.

Even the normally sensible Joe Klein decided on this approach in an essay for Time this week. In "Listen to What Katrina Is Saying," Klein wrote:

There was, last week, an immediate and furious debate about the racial implications of the tragedy.... There were recriminations about the lack of preparedness for the disaster.... But those arguments can be neatly folded into a larger discussion about the radical turn toward what is inaccurately described as "conservatism" that American politics took in the late 20th century.... The new philosophy of governance was stated most crudely in 1987 by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: "There is no such thing as society.... There are individual men and women, and there are families."

There was no such thing as society in New Orleans last week.

Please, not that. Not that quote again—"There is no such thing as society." Thatcher said it in reply to a questioner who wanted "society" to pay for some extra public provision. All she meant, and it was a fair point, was that the cost would have to be met by individual taxpayers, and could not be shuffled off to some disembodied entity. She was not unveiling a new philosophy of atomistic individualism. Thatcher was an authoritarian, a patriot, a chauvinist, and a (conservative) collectivist. She believed in Britain, in "society," to a fault.

But, really, who does not believe in society? Is there anybody, even in the farthest recesses of the Heritage Foundation, who believes that you don't need government, at the barest minimum, to provide security and to manage the collective response to catastrophes such as the one that befell New Orleans?

Even if so strange a person could be found, his views are certainly not shared in George Bush's White House, which—look at the budget—needs no coaching in collective provision. This is a spendthrift administration, and it especially believes in spending on homeland security, the budget heading under which disaster management falls. The question is not why the White House disdains government—it should love it a little less—but why an administration willing to create new entities devoted to collective security, and to throw such colossal sums at them, should have got precisely nothing in return.

Perhaps, then, there is something in the racism charge. But is this plausible? As well as believing that the president and his team, the governor of Louisiana and her team, and the (black) mayor of New Orleans and his team were willing to let black people suffer because they are black, you would also have to believe that they were politically dumb enough to expect to get away with it. The universal outrage over the mishandling of this emergency has gravely damaged every politician it touches. It is one thing to think so little of the people in the White House that you imagine they did not care about the victims, quite another (and against history) to score their powers of political calculation quite that low.

Was there, then, a shortage of resources, because of the war or for some other reason? No. A week after they were first needed, people and equipment were finally arriving in the disaster area in strength. They have not come from Iraq. They could have been deployed much sooner. As noted, millions of dollars have been spent on planning for a disaster such as this. The planning was done; the people and equipment, Iraq or no Iraq, were available. So what on Earth happened?

The answer seems to be: sheer incompetence, before and after the storm, at every level of government—local, state, and federal. I cannot accept that the blame lies solely with the Bush administration. The loss of life was so great mainly because of the failure to evacuate the city before the storm. Blame for that—for the indecision, and for the lack of policing and preparation (including public transport for those who needed it to get out)—lies mainly with local and state authorities. As soon as the scale of the catastrophe was apparent, though, and it became clear that the local authorities were utterly incapable, blame shifts to the federal government. It should have taken charge sooner, deploying resources already positioned to go.

At no stage, in fact, has anybody seemed to be in charge: That was the weirdest aspect of the entire week's events. Everybody you might have expected to be in command—the mayor, the governor, FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, the White House—seemed mainly concerned about offering a commentary on the poor performance of other agencies.

Let's not trouble over whether society exists. My concern, as a new resident of Washington, is whether a system for recovering from civil disasters exists. What purports to be such a system, newly built at vast expense, has just been tested—and not as severely as it will be in future, since this calamity had at least been foreseen and thought about. We have the results, and one wonders whether no system at all could have been any worse. Welcome to America.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/09/an-america-i-never-expected-to-see/304288/