Whose Authority Where?

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As far as I can tell, the media is still sorting out who, exactly, is at fault in the botched response to the flooding in New Orleans. At the moment, the scorecard looks something like this: State and local authorities pretty clearly deserve blame for not having a decent evacuation plan ready, apart from preparing DVDs to let all the poor people know that they need to fend for themselves. The Bush administration, meanwhile, deserves blame for stocking FEMA full of cronies, focusing Homeland Security resources too heavily on terrorism, underfunding the construction of levees, and not preparing for the possibility that the local and state authorities might be overwhelmed. Not planning much of anything, in fact. A more complete list of failures can be found here and here. (Meanwhile, Eric Boehlert’s asking a prickly question: Why was FEMA’s response to the hurricanes in Florida last year so much better than the response in New Orleans? Okay, so it’s a rhetorical question. Still.)

That appears to be the basic “fair and balanced” storyline. Another question worth asking, though, is why there’s even potential for lack of coordination between local, state, and federal governments. FEMA’s plan, insofar as it had one, apparently involved hoping that New Orleans had its act together in the first 48 to 72 hours and then step in. What sense does this make? With a competent team running the local and state responses, sure, FEMA’s delegation of responsibility to the states and cities would work nicely. If that’s not the case, though, it pretty clearly sets the stage for disaster. And there’s no way to predict that the municipal and state governments will handle everything smoothly, especially when a large disaster quickly overwhelms local responders.

So why is the chain of command so warped? Over at the Corner, Jim Robbins reads the relevant statutes and points out that the Department of Homeland Security “can’t just seize control” of the area after a disaster, it needs to wait for authority. Why? What purpose does all this waiting and authorization serve? According to the Washington Post, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was grappling with the federal government in the early post-Katrina days over who had authority where. The Bush administration reportedly requested authority to federalize the state National Guard, Blanco reportedly said no, people were struggling over chains of command, and so on. This all seems very inefficient and nonsensical. State sovereignty may have its purposes, but not here, not while people are drowning.

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