Saturday, September 04, 2004

An open letter to the President from the New Orleans Times-Picayune editors

OUR OPINIONS: An open letter to the President

** Note that the Times-Picayune endorsed Bush in the 2000 election, but endorsed neither Bush nor Kerry in the 2004 election. Thus, it would be unfair to dismiss these editors as liberals looking to pin anything and everything on Bush.

Dear Mr. President:

We heard you loud and clear Friday when you visited our devastated city and the Gulf Coast and said, "What is not working, we’re going to make it right."

Please forgive us if we wait to see proof of your promise before believing you. But we have good reason for our skepticism.

Bienville built New Orleans where he built it for one main reason: It’s accessible. The city between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain was easy to reach in 1718.

How much easier it is to access in 2005 now that there are interstates and bridges, airports and helipads, cruise ships, barges, buses and diesel-powered trucks.

Despite the city’s multiple points of entry, our nation’s bureaucrats spent days after last week’s hurricane wringing their hands, lamenting the fact that they could neither rescue the city’s stranded victims nor bring them food, water and medical supplies.

Meanwhile there were journalists, including some who work for The Times-Picayune, going in and out of the city via the Crescent City Connection. On Thursday morning, that crew saw a caravan of 13 Wal-Mart tractor trailers headed into town to bring food, water and supplies to a dying city.

Television reporters were doing live reports from downtown New Orleans streets. Harry Connick Jr. brought in some aid Thursday, and his efforts were the focus of a "Today" show story Friday morning.

Yet, the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach.

We’re angry, Mr. President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.

Mayor Ray Nagin did the right thing Sunday when he allowed those with no other alternative to seek shelter from the storm inside the Louisiana Superdome. We still don’t know what the death toll is, but one thing is certain: Had the Superdome not been opened, the city’s death toll would have been higher. The toll may even have been exponentially higher.

It was clear to us by late morning Monday that many people inside the Superdome would not be returning home. It should have been clear to our government, Mr. President. So why weren’t they evacuated out of the city immediately? We learned seven years ago, when Hurricane Georges threatened, that the Dome isn’t suitable as a long-term shelter. So what did state and national officials think would happen to tens of thousands of people trapped inside with no air conditioning, overflowing toilets and dwindling amounts of food, water and other essentials?

State Rep. Karen Carter was right Friday when she said the city didn’t have but two urgent needs: "Buses! And gas!" Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially.

In a nationally televised interview Thursday night, he said his agency hadn’t known until that day that thousands of storm victims were stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He gave another nationally televised interview the next morning and said, "We’ve provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they’ve gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day."

Lies don’t get more bald-faced than that, Mr. President.

Yet, when you met with Mr. Brown Friday morning, you told him, "You’re doing a heck of a job."

That’s unbelievable.

There were thousands of people at the Convention Center because the riverfront is high ground. The fact that so many people had reached there on foot is proof that rescue vehicles could have gotten there, too.

We, who are from New Orleans, are no less American than those who live on the Great Plains or along the Atlantic Seaboard. We’re no less important than those from the Pacific Northwest or Appalachia. Our people deserved to be rescued.

No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced. Especially not one as preposterous as the claim that New Orleans couldn’t be reached.

Mr. President, we sincerely hope you fulfill your promise to make our beloved communities work right once again.

When you do, we will be the first to applaud.

27 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Playing the blame game isn't going to help anyone right now.

9/05/2005 12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stick to basketball, where you're not going to get hammered for being disingenuous. there's plenty of blame to go around for both democrats and republicans the past 100 years in neglecting New Orleans. it would be wise to wait until all the facts have come out, otherwise you're doing a disservice to your readers.

9/05/2005 12:45 PM  
Blogger Dan Rosenbaum said...

People say "playing the blame game isn't going to help anyone right now" all of the time, but I am not sure there is any evidence to support that view. It appears to me that "the blame game" may have been a crticial component in speeding up the response.

And note many of those doing the blaming are also doing a good share of the helping. One of the leading liberal organizations - MoveOn.org - has generated offers for well over 100,000 beds for Katrina evacuees.

And I am sorry that not sticking to basketball is "disingenuous" and a "disservice to my readers." If I did not allow myself these couple posts, I probably would not put anything on this blog for months. That is how utterly ashamed I am right now. We failed these people in New Orleans and in the rest of the Gulf Coast.

9/05/2005 1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dan,
thanks for offering your home out to yor fellow citizens. putting your home where your mouth is an excellent indicator of your intent for putting forth this opinion piece.
i do look forward to your posting hopefully their subsequent pieces on the city and state government failures to properly take care of their citizens. everything from not learning from previous evacuation drills to leaving parked buses to be flooded. (nice picture of those buses on junkyardblog as linked by instapundit)
i would recommend looking at kris alexander's http://alexandertheaverage.blogspot.com/ as he works with fema and is an army reservist. he has a fema brief posted now.
as to the timeline to deliver aid, i recommend jason at http://iraqnow.blogspot.com/2005/09/what-does-it-take-to-move-just-one.html (i do have a bias toward military officers as generally they tend to be extremely practical and understanding of the importance of logistics). in his blog, he talks of the difficulty of moving vehicles on an inundated road system.
finally, i would offer that as bad as New Orleans got it, they did not suffer the brunt of the storm. otherwise they would have had a 30 foot surge level rather than the gradual 10 to 20 foot they received. Note the differences in attitude in Mississippi where houses and property were literally wiped off the face of the earth.
my point is that while this opinion piece does capture well the emotional state of the editors, its factual basis will certainly be tested in the future as the ineptitude of the locals is brought more into light. there will be certainly more than enough to blame
as to moveon.org contributing to aid, good on them but most of the political blogs are also looking for ways to contribute. instapundit (prof glen reynolds) has a long list of contribution and aid.
as for me, I have contributed though not to your level. anyway you seem like a smart guy and i really enjoy reading your blog but just as you would have an adverse reaction to a society writer stating that statistical analysis has no place in sports because bill james is a jerk, you will find the same reaction here with this particular piece. the editors are looking for someone to blame for their victimhood and it is always easy to blame the feds.
again thanks for your efforts on the NGA
GRR

9/05/2005 3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the blame game should be played now so that further disasters can be handled effectively, i whole heartedly agree with everythings that been said, i do feel that racism was part of the delay but more importantly wealth and class, its a truly sad thing to see

9/05/2005 4:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Dan.

9/05/2005 10:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

Running to shift the blame for obvious Federal incompetence onto state and local officials (who also failed in various ways) is to me much more obviously politically motivated than just pointing out the ways in which FEMA fell down on the job.

9/06/2005 12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your disingenuousness is not in shifting off basketball, but in presenting one side of the blame game--not highlighting the incompetence of local and state government as well (like the buses mentioned earlier). Presenting one side only helps to provide cover for the other culprits, thus helping no one in the end.

9/06/2005 1:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Blame Game keeps swirling around--Now the NO Mayor blames the Governor:

NAGIN: The president looked at me. I think he was a little surprised. He said, "No, you guys stay here. We're going to another section of the plane, and we're going to make a decision."

He called me in that office after that. And he said, "Mr. Mayor, I offered two options to the governor." I said -- and I don't remember exactly what. There were two options. I was ready to move today. The governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision.

S. O'BRIEN: You're telling me the president told you the governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision?

NAGIN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: Regarding what? Bringing troops in?

NAGIN: Whatever they had discussed. As far as what the -- I was abdicating a clear chain of command, so that we could get resources flowing in the right places.

S. O'BRIEN: And the governor said no.

NAGIN: She said that she needed 24 hours to make a decision. It would have been great if we could of left Air Force One, walked outside, and told the world that we had this all worked out. It didn't happen, and more people died.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

S. O'BRIEN: The mayor making it clear that much politicking was going on, even as people here were continuing to suffer. The mayor clearly thinking that the governor did way too little, way too late for her part.


http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0509/05/ltm.01.html

9/06/2005 2:32 AM  
Blogger Dan Rosenbaum said...

I am not presenting any side of the "blame game." All that I did was re-post the views of the media closest to the action - the group most likely to see the whole picture. A group that in the past has endorsed Bush for the Presidency. But if such a re-post means that people like you will insult me, then so be it.

9/06/2005 2:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan,

I'm sure you've figured this out on your own and don't need me chiming in, but feel free to ignore these clowns.

9/06/2005 10:05 AM  
Anonymous Lance said...

Dan,

I won't insult you and I have no problem with what you posted, but it does deserve comment.

Did FEMA fall down? Of course, it will next time also. There are thousands of people in a chaotic situation making all kinds of mistakes. Big surprise. What doesn't seem to have happened are any critical mistakes of a nature other than typical bureaucratic failings. I say that not in any pejorative way. These kinds of failings are endemic to being human, and bureaucracies are composed of human beings, most no more capable than any of the rest of us.

The problem was compunded down here by the mistakes of the locals. Let us understand, the system is set up for FEMA to support the local leadership, I believe for very good reasons, but even if it shouldn't work that way that is the way it is set up and always has. Maybe we should rethink that, but it is hardly a reason for anger. From what I have seen down here FEMA's job was made vastly more difficult, and therefore prone to error by the gross errors at the local level.

Interestingly I am not that angry yet at the locals either, because most of the critical errors were part of issues that have festered for years, including Nagin's inadequate evacuation and provisioning for the hurricane. If anything he was more prepared than any before him. It seems unfair to castigate them for being on the job when our state and cities lack of preparedness was exposed so fully. I'll evaluate them, and FEMA, not on their failures, but on their ability to address the problem going forward.

I also think in FEMA's defense that despite the unfortunate delays they, prior to the hurricane, and specifically President Bush, were responsible for prepositioning assets and aid that were critical in keeping this from being an even larger disaster. It was Bush and FEMA who pushed the city and state to take action and evacuate the city.

For those who believe that the evidence of TV crews and others to get into the city proves anything, that is laughable. The question is not whether a single convoy, bus, or Media team can get in. Federal and locals were getting in and providing aid. The USS Bataan had helicopter crews in doing search and rescue immediately after the hurricane. The question is the scale of assistance put in, making sure that they themselves are provisioned so that they can stay, and that they ahve roles to perform in an environment where communications are almost nonexistent. The blogs on logistics mentioned by anonymous are very accurate as to the scale of the task, reasonable timelines and illustrates why all communities are supposed to be able to provide the majority of the initial response for 72-96 hours. FEMA in fact beat that timeline by a large margin. Throw in the communications problems down here (and once again, a TV crew being able to establish some communications is totally different than coordinatiing the thousands of people involved in this)where the communications infrastructure was destroyed and the SNAFU's were bound to be omnipresent.

Finally, despite my states repeated screwups, the unprecedented difficulties, this was actually one of the fastest, if not the fastest responses ever. It was much faster than what we saw in the nineties, despite the horrible circumstances. This is not an attempt to praise this administration, or condemn the previous. We have gotten better at this decade after decade. I expect the federal government to improve as it gains experience. However, learning requires analysis.

Dan you are right that we need to critique this, however unreasoned criticism, criticism lacking understanding of what each arm of the governments role in a situation is, not accounting for what has happened before as a benchmark to compare with, and for that matter unforgiving criticism will lead not to unvarnished attention to mistakes, but attempts to explain away and excuse. That defeats the purpose of what criticism should be able to accomplish. Haven't we seen this kind of thing in sports all too often? Haven't we seen coaches fired because mistakes occur who actually might be the most qualified people to fix the mistakes? Fired before th fruits of their improvement efforts ripened? Haven't unreasonable expectations destroyed the steady work of many an NBA, NFL or MLB employee?

I love New Orleans. I have lived there, gone to school there, fell in love there and had more fun than any person should really have a right to. Still, we did this to ourselves and nobody outside of this state deserves to lose a job or have their career ruined because we have for decades neglected what is most important. We put them in an impossible situation, and they fell short of what is possible, but did better than what anybody who is really looking at this could reasonably expect. Chaotic and confusing situations are by their nature, well, chaotic and confusing.

9/06/2005 10:41 AM  
Anonymous Lance said...

Dan,

I also think it is perfectly fine for you to stray onto this topic. Not only is it your blog, but I think you might have much of value to say.

9/06/2005 10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is always too bad when real life gets in the way of basketball, isn't it? At least you care about real life enough to bring it up.

Blame will be laid bc lawsuits will be filed and money will be paid. I assure you that some of the people who found their way into New Orleans were attorneys with digital cameras, not just for pictures of the damage, but pictures of the documents saying that prevention should have been done before this.

The rest of us are simply mad. We're burdened to take care of friends from NO and Mississippi, but happy to still have them. And we're further assured that our safety as a nation cannot rely upon the politicians in charge. In a country where politicians used to be elected from communities because we trust our community members to help out, now politicians are people that no one knows unless you have $100,000 to pay for dinner. The community that can pay for that doesn't need food drops.

9/06/2005 3:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan,

I'd like to add my endorsement to Lance's comments. Most of what is being said about the lack of response by the government, in particular the federal government is based on a very suspect knowledge base of how emergency response works in general and on actual conditions on the ground. This includes much of the media.

For example, who really knows if the federal government's response has actually been slower than in past disasters? Where is the comparison data? Instead it is all subjective, with references to how fast the US responded to the Tsunami disaster or about how the media can get in so easily. The first can be verified (don't journalists learn about research and fact checking?) and the second, as Lance pointed out, is not a relevant comparison.

What the press should know, even if the general population doesn't, is that responsibility for initial response in an emergency is always that of local officials, backed up by the state. In fact, if I remember correctly, there are certain restrictions in the law that prevent the federal government from taking certain actions until requested by the state.

From what I've seen and read, it appears pretty obvious that both the Mayor of NO and the LA Governor stumbled coming out of the chaulks (this is a sports blog after all), which in all likelihood made a bad situation worse. The objective data supporting this conclusion are; the failure by the Mayor to activate the evacuation plan (which is not the same as telling people they should leave), the failure of the governor to immediately step in to order it, the 200 city buses left unused and flooded out, just blocks from the Superdome and the governor not knowing the steps required to initiate a federal response.

On the other hand, I don't have enough verifiable information yet to say with certainty that the federal response is lacking, at least in comparison to past performance. It would not be a surprise to find out their initial performance matched that of the locals. I have no great confidence in government bureaucracies, federal ones in particular, to move quickly, efficiently and decisively. Having learned root casue analysis, lets make sure we are looking at all the relevant evidence before coming to a conclusion.

I just wonder what the people in Mississippi are thinking. Their homes and businesses are gone, not just flooded. Their infrastructure is destroyed. Yet most of the attention (and relief efforts?) is on New Orleans. Does anyone see a problem with that?

TMG

9/08/2005 4:17 PM  
Blogger Dan Rosenbaum said...

In medium-size cities and smaller states, it seems to me reasonable to expect more mistakes from the local officials. They just don't have the expertise and large professional staffs of the big cities and big states.

In my opinion, this is where the feds step in. They are professionals with experience and expertise. They should be able to foresee problems and come up with effective remedies. They may sit in the background when working with a New York City, but when dealing with a smaller city or state, they should be prepared to exercise more leadership.

And this is where I think FEMA really dropped the ball. They did an alright job with pre-positioning assets and other things they usually do. But when things started to break down, there was no leadership to pull things back together. And that, in my opinion, stems from the high proportion of top FEMA people who were awarded their jobs because of loyalty to Bush rather than any expertise in emergency management.

Thus, when the situation moved away from what they were used to, they could not react effectively. They overfocused on everything being done by the book, rather than taking some leadership and making decisions. (Bush and his staff being in Crawford until Wednesday exacerbated this situation.)

And then their instincts to protect Bush at all costs started to kick and they started to paint really rosy pictures of what was going on in New Orleans. And Michael Brown even resorted to lying about the situation.

So in the end people died because of poor decisions by local officials. But, in my opinion, the buck stops with the experts - the feds. Given that President Bush was largely re-elected on his promise to protect us, the lack of professionality and leadership in FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and in the President himself was scary and shameful.

I knew that the Bush administration will be one of the biggest disasters ever in lot of dimensions, but I thought that disaster preparation was the one area where they would get things right. To see the qualifications of the people they put in charge of disaster preparation and to hear the ignorance exhibited in some of their public statements was unbelieveable.

If, after years of endless boasting how President Bush would protect from disasters, to learn that we are largely dependent on the expertise and professionality of local officials - when those same local officials have never been given the resources to become more professional and more expert - is shocking.

Perhaps expecting qualified professional to be running the organizations that protect us from disasters is too much to ask, but I guess I believe that we can do better.

It sure seems like we used to do better. See the responseduring the 1906 San Francisco fire (http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist10/06timeline.html). But Bush has made a career out of meeting incredibly low expectations.

9/08/2005 5:44 PM  
Blogger KnickerBlogger said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9/08/2005 6:56 PM  
Blogger KnickerBlogger said...

John Stewart said it best. People who say "don't play the blame game" are most likely those to blame.

It's ridiculous that we've come to a point in our society, that politicians can ask that they be not held accountable for their actions (or in this case, in-action).

9/08/2005 6:57 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Dan, I agree with a lot of what you say. But I also think that the local officials should bear the brunt of the responsibility. FEMA didn't help things at all, and in fact may have made things worse. And there's no question they didn't do their jobs.

At the same time, I see Ray Nagin blaming everyone and not taking any of the blame himself, and I think that he's just out there try to save his butt. He is as much if not MORE responsible for what happened than the feds.

There are stories coming out about how a lot of the federal money given to New Orleans to shore up the levees was spent near the levees on a totally separate project - making barge passing easier, despite the declining barge traffic in recent years. This is not the result of federal ineptitude but rather local ineptitude.

There was a great op-ed piece in the New York Times by John Tierney, called the Magic Marker Strategy that I thought hit the nail on the head. I would highly recommend it.

9/08/2005 8:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The guy who was writing about lack of data etc.. you dont need data to show that th federal government either lied or just didnt cared, the fema guy said he didnt know about the people at the astrodome till a certain day when the whole country knew about it days earlier, when a disaster strikes and the city is in chaos its not up to the local level its up to the federal government, and i do think race is a factor

9/09/2005 9:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must admit it was foolish of me to think having good information and some objective data is useful in reaching a conclusion. Afterall, who wants to let facts get in the way of one's opinion?

I am not here to defend Michael Brown, FEMA, the administration or the federal government. I'm just asking how is it some people are so convinced that the response by the feds is so slow and inadequate. Actually, that's a retorical question. I know the reason - it's what we all are hearing in the media. Yet has anyone seen anything presented that would indicate this view is based on anything other than perception? People perceive relief efforts are moving too slow, but what is that perception based on? Is it based on previous experience or on their expectation (possibly unrealistic) of how fast such assistance should arrive?

Consider the issue of the number of storm related fatalities. What are the numbers we keep hearing? Thousands, tens of thousands? I would estimate my exposure to non-print news media yesterday totaled no more than 30 minutes, either as I walked into the lunch room where CNN was on or flipping through the channels after dinner. In that brief exposure I heard about the 25,000 body bags 3 - 4 times. Now, who can tell me what the most recent official death tally is?

It seems to me that our society is less and less concerning with fostering an atmosphere Where decisions and opinions are based on facts and an informed viewpoint. Instead, it now appears it is more important how people feel, than what they actually know. Back to channel surfing last evening - I caught a brief snippet from some female commentator talking about statements by Kanya West. While this is not a verbatim quote, she said something like this - "Kanya West may not have all the facts, but he knows how he feels." That's fine. And hats off to Kanya for achieving the level of success where he can get his opinions broadcast to a large audience. But excuse me for not basing my evaluation of the performance of federal relief efforts on the opinion of an entertainer.

TMG

9/09/2005 11:10 AM  
Blogger Dan Rosenbaum said...

TMG: It is arrogant and condescending to assume that everyone who feels like the federal response was too slow is just aping what they hear on TV. I made the comparison to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, where the response appears several orders of magnitude faster than during the Katrina disaster.

And what about the polls of FEMA employess that indicate very little confidence in their leaders, a strong preference to leave FEMA and work for another federal agency at the same pay (a preference stronger than than reported in other agencies), and the large number of FEMA experts who have recently quit FEMA? Is that not evidence of some sort?

That kind of evidence, along with the public comments of our federal officials, is not conclusive but it is a lot more consistent with a negative assessment of the federal response than a positive one.

It sure is better evidence than well, it was hard to respond any faster so the feds must have been doing a good job.

9/09/2005 3:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan,

Since you offered from day one to take in a refugee family, I give you props, and think you are more entitled to vent on this than many of us.

That said, who did you vote for in the 2004 election? My guess is that there would be a "100% statistical link" between Kerry voters and those people who blame Bush for everything here.....

Do I think Bush is blameless? No way....but this problem was decades in the making by many, many selfish parties.

I also disagree with your comment about "Bush failing to protect us" What Bush promised in his election run was that he was better prepared to STOP or PREVENT a major TERRORIST ATTACK....not that he was going to be superior handling the CLEAN UP of the greatest NATURAL DISASTER in modern history. That election was all about whether or not you agree with the Patriot Act, Iraq-Afghan war and Guantanamo Bay as deterents for terror attacks. For the last four years, we have fortunately not seen a major terror attack on US soil, even though most all of us thought terror attacks would be frequent after 9-11. Now whether that is just dumb luck on our and Bush's part, or a result of serious CIA/defense department work against Al Queda, we may never know.

Going back to the original point, there is plenty of blame to go around....I mean c'mon, I saw the head of the Red Cross on TV last night saying that the governor and local officials told the Red Cross to "stay out" initially.

If you build a city 10 feet below sea level, surrounded by water, you better expect problems with a mega-hurricane. Just as there may someday be a terrible California quake for all those mega movie stars who built mansions on the Malibu and Newport Beach hills.

Both sides are to blame here, and both need to learn from this, rather than point fingers.

9/09/2005 3:57 PM  
Blogger Dan Rosenbaum said...

Two points. The point of creating the Department of Homeland Security was not only to protect from a terrorist attack. It was to respond if there was one. The Katrina disaster response is not strong evidence that we are prepared for a terrorist attack.

Second, I personally have voted for a Republican in one of the last three Presidential elections. Do I have to have voted Republican in all three in order to have any credibility? The Times-Picayune editors endorsed Bush in 2000 and withheld endorsing anyone in 2004, so your 100% statistical association seems to be untrue with the folks who are closest to the action and in a great position to give an objective assessment of blame.

9/09/2005 4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

im sorry i have to make this generalization but anyone who voted for bush is an idiot, i have no respect for them plain and simple, you can tell what kind of person bush is by looking at his actions, look at what his mother said the other day, i want someone who is a bush supporter to give me some justification for that comment, they dont care for the poor and are closet racists, which many people who are probably white will deny,

9/09/2005 7:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of posters found someone at fault, but not many listed what they did BEFORE the disaster. Why not ask yourself the question "What was my role in the problem?" "What's my role in the solution?" Or just find someone else to blame. GL

9/11/2005 11:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that was the dumbest post ever, sorry i had to say it

9/12/2005 10:48 AM  

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