Hurricane Disaster Will Test A Lagging FEMA And President Bush
The mounting toll of Hurricane Katrina, with levee breaches in New Orleans, and forecasts of many , will be a test for FEMA, which has deteriorated under the Bush Administration.
It has long been hinted that the present Administration wasn't ready to accept the role assigned by previous administrations to disaster relief. The head of FEMA, Michael Brown, is no match for James Lee Witt, President Clinton's man in the job.
But with the importance of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to U.S. energy supplies, the Administration is likely to be thrust willy-nilly into the relief effort in this instance.
What I think will become evident in a big hurry is that it's not ready.
President Bush commendably called his vacation short and is hurrying back to Washington to monitor the situation. It's going to tax his capabilities.
The first priority must go to rescue New Orleans, put the Army Corps of Engineers to work sealing the breaches in the levee and finding what might not be such temporary shelter for the hundreds of thousands of residents who fled New Orleans before the disaster, or stayed there, probably foolishly, to confront it.
These people cannot go back until New Orleans is high and dry, and given the fact that it is below sea level, that is not going to be so easy.
Now that the natural balance has been destroyed and Lake Pontchartrain has drained into the city, it will be difficult to restore the situation to what it was before the hurricane struck. James McPhee, the nature writer, may wonder whether this can be done at all.
Reporting from the scene, in the meantime, makes it plain that only the military, and not just the national guard, can rescue hundreds, maybe thousands of people confined to the roofs and attics of their homes.
And what about the French Quarter? When the levees are restored, that must be pumped dry and restored as a national institution.
Will the insurance industry be adequate for the job? Will reinsurance come through? My own experience as an insurance reporter makes me very much doubt it. The private insurers usually try to cut corners and leave most of the hard work to the government. Their first priority has almost always been to shortchange their own policyholders. Reinsurance almost always has been shown to lack the resources it claims to fulfill its role.
Now, we not only have an Administration which has allowed FEMA to be weakened, but it has a godawful record of compelling private enterprise to do its job. By the time this is over, George W. Bush may appear to be another Chuck Quackenbush, the corrupt California insurance commissioner who was forced to move to Hawaii to avoid prosecution after falling down in the Northridge relief effort.
Of course, the President can't quit. He'll have to prove resilient.