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Friday, September 09, 2005

Please Think Hard

First, courtesy Howard of Oraculations, see this PPRUNE account of the medical relief operation at the New Orleans airport which involved private and government workers:
Overall, I cannot do justice to all the good I saw today just by writing. I wanted to try though. Basically, the operation set up down there at the New Orleans Airport is one eerily similar to that of Baghdad Int'l airport when I was there for over eight months. Just a hive of activity with people pushing their bodies and aircraft to the max. No one complains, they just get the job done and worry about the rest later. Every citizen of this country should be so proud of what their fellow citizens are doing for each other. The pressure they are working under knowing these sick and stranded people do not have time on their side is unexplainable. Our country is one of great strength and determination. It is evident in all the rescue and relief efforts that are taking place down there. If the hard work and pure grit of all the rescue and medical personnel I witnessed today are of any indication of the eventual outcome of this indescribable tragedy, then we are on the absolute fast track to victory.
Second, please see this NY Times article which at least begins to address the issues about the feds taking control of the operation:
As criticism of the response to Hurricane Katrina has mounted, one of the most pointed questions has been why more troops were not available more quickly to restore order and offer aid. Interviews with officials in Washington and Louisiana show that as the situation grew worse, they were wrangling with questions of federal/state authority, weighing the realities of military logistics and perhaps talking past each other in the crisis.

To seize control of the mission, Mr. Bush would have had to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows the president in times of unrest to command active-duty forces into the states to perform law enforcement duties. But decision makers in Washington felt certain that Ms. Blanco would have resisted surrendering control, as Bush administration officials believe would have been required to deploy active-duty combat forces before law and order had been re-established.
Okay, it is clear that Blanco did resist federal control. Even the WaPo has reported that. My purpose is not to judge her for that, since I don't have all the information necessary, and I think no one does at this time. I want individuals to think about the legal and logistical issues involved in the president deciding, on his own behalf, that the feds should take over an entire relief effort instead of aiding a state-run effort. Our entire national response plan basically relies on the principle that the locals will be in control and that the federal government will respond to their requests for aid. Do we want to change that? I think not, but I am sure it will be proposed in Congress.

Howard has helpfully posted an excerpt from the Insurrection Act. What he does not say is that no president has invoked these powers purely by his own decision. In the case of civil rights uses, the Executive was enforcing either Congress's legislative act or the Supreme Court's decision. In those cases, the local authorities were actually in defiance of US law. In the case of New Orleans, the local authorities were not.

Think of the worst president in your lifetime (no need to specify your pick). Think of the worst president that you can imagine. Do you think that such a president should have the authority to take over a state simply because he believes the local authorities are being ineffective? I do not. Remember, the distinction here is between sending in federal resources in response to a request versus taking control of the situation by what is essentially armed force, which has been forbidden under these circumstances since after the Civil War. Furthermore, a President can't simply send in troops without a clear line of command, especially in a situation like this.

If you do believe that the Executive should have the power to invade states and supercede local authority on the basis that they were not doing a good enough job, where would you draw the line? Simply saying that lives are at stake is not good enough. Lives, many lives, are lost from traffic accidents, for example. Last year it was something like 40 or 50 thousand. Over the space of a decade it is very possible that an individual state could lose more lives to traffic accidents than to a storm such as Katrina. Should the president have the authority to demand at gunpoint that the locals change their traffic laws, eliminate traffic circles and lower speed limits?

How about a state that does not have really effective medical insurance programs? Is the loss of life and/or unnecessary disability significant enough for the federal Executive to order that state to provide for its citizens? These types of issues have always been handled by Congress and for good reason. Even Congress has had its overreaching curbed by the Supreme Court, which ruled that Congress can't require local and state law enforcement agencies to perform actions. They have sovereign powers under the Constitution.

Let's be honest and admit that the federal government doesn't have as much local knowledge as it needs to do the task too. I am sure that Bush could have intervened and ordered (if he were controlling troops on the ground) that the Red Cross and Salvation Army be permitted into New Orleans to provide food and water to the flooded-out groups in the Superdome, the Convention Center and other gathering points. I am sure the local authorities didn't let them go in because they knew they would be shot at. In order to move these agencies in the President would have needed to get troops in to protect them. Were they available a couple of days after the disaster? Probably not.

Would the President have known where to send the agencies or how badly they were needed? FEMA did not even learn until Thursday that there were tens of thousands of people at the Convention Center in New Orleans. When a hurricane as huge as Katrina hits, it wipes out ingress to the area and also communications. Pre-positiioned assets are often lost, so FEMA and other resources (utility trucks, etc) are positioned outside the area so that they will be poised to go in. This was done. Even if Bush had declared martial law and taken control of the operation a day or two after the storm, I doubt all that much would have changed. It takes days to clear an airport and get significant assets into such a devastated area. See Tommy's explanation.

The President couldn't have stopped the flooding. The state was probably in the best situation to decide what additional law enforcement actions were needed and how to get them in the city before the storm, but remember that whoever they sent in were exposed to the same risks as the people left in the city. Hundreds of New Orleans police are still missing, and the suspicion is growing that many of them died in the flood.

It is quite possible that the feds could have taken over and evacuated more of the city before the storm hit, but to do so they would have needed to be in control of disaster planning. They would also have needed to have an infrastructure of shelters and resupply points set up in LA as a whole. To do that they would have had to be in control in LA months before to do what the locals weren't doing. Do you really believe that the federal government is going to be that much more effective than the locals all over the country? I don't. Furthermore, the effort to get significant help into the most devastated areas in other parts of the Gulf Coast took a similar length of time.

When harbors are wiped out, roads are wiped out and airports are wiped out, it takes time. You can chopper in small groups to clear up an airport, and then fly in a few more, and then clear up more and reestablish traffic control, but it takes time. From the land crews start working immediately to clear roads so that trucks can get in. When you have to clear 80 to 150 miles of road, that takes time. The area of Katrina's devastation was huge, which was the problem over four states. The problem in New Orleans was complicated by what appears to have been gang activity and the city's incredible vulnerability to flooding, but I doubt federal authorities could have done much about those issues if they had started working on them 10 years ago.

People need to stop and think hard before babbling about these matters. There will be a review in Congress. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. After the 2000 election Congress rushed to mandate electronic voting, and as a result we got uncheckable machines and long voting lines. Hasty legislation is usually bad legislation. Instead, question your local authorities about their plans. They will pass your concerns on to your state authorities. Eventually I believe that Katrina will result in Congress mandating more federal feedback and rating of state and local disaster planning, but it is a huge task which will have to be accomplished by publicizing failures so that citizens can exert pressure on their local and state governments.

Excellent post.
Can you picture what would happen if he invoked the Insurrection Act? They would be screaming bloody murder (just like they are now) and blaming Bush for everything (just like they are now).
Gindy, that is probably true.

Still, the legal principles here are what I think are important. If you follow the argument through to its logical conclusion, where you end up is a federal takeover of state powers against the will of the state.

You can't really do this partially, or you run into conflicts between state and federal authorities. I think Bush would have provoked a constitutional crisis if he had done this. I am glad he didn't.

Usually what occurs is that the legal position is that the federal government assets are considered to be an adjunct to state power. The legal authority is supposed to be the state's. And if the state tells the feds "okay, go in and do this", then you don't have the conflict so you avoid the legal issue.

The idea that the federal government should act unilaterally is what I don't like.
I agree with SC&A: the best post I've read all week.
In this case Blanco was clearly incompetent to run affairs a day before the hurricane hit. It seems she hired a Clintonista to help her control her power in a disaster, not to help people. It is also clear that Bush could not replace a WOMAN and TWO Blacks without risking both his presidency and his political party---see the race hustlers now. Can you see the MSM had he done it?

What is clear are the severe limitations of the Patriot Act and the huge mistake of putting FEMA under Homeland Security, thus robbing it of Cabinet Level power.

We have to look at the possibility of declaring disaster AREAS, not states so that FEMA, the National Guard, and some Army support allowed by Posse Comitatus can happen quickly.

BTW the police were actively stopping people trying to leave New Orleans, penning them in by force of arms. The police claimed roads were closed that were open just to keep "those people" from entering their townships and cities.

"Those people" did not mean Blacks per se, it meant the poor were to be kept out of some of these upscale communities.
Carl, thank you.

Howard - it does seem like people ended up defending their own bailiwicks against crowds of marauders, and by doing so blocked routes out.

I do not want to criticize Nagin and Blanco until we have really had a chance to calm down, deal with the displaced people and get more accurate information. Both of them inherited a situation that was pretty bad. It is unfair to blame people until you look at how they used the opportunities they had.

I don't think they should be criticizing the feds, either.

I would prefer that for right now people looked at their own areas and considered what similar devastation would produce. As you pointed out on your blog (and Carl), there is simply no way to completely evacuate a major metropolitan area given the time frame. Most metro areas aren't built below sea level though.

When we have fixed up the holes in our own disaster planning perhaps we will be in a better position to understand what happened in LA, MS, AL and FL. I object to the idea that there was some magical way to avoid a large amount of deaths given the incredible power of this storm and the vulnerability of NO.

For now, rescue efforts and helping the people who are homeless, broke and desperate should take center stage.
"I think Bush would have provoked a constitutional crisis if he had done this."

I completely agree.
Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.

I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

Thank you - and keep up the thoughts!
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