The primary villain in the Hurricane Katrina saga, of course, was Katrina herself. Yet the aftermath of the storm seems to have unleashed a pent-up fury among inconsolable Bush-haters, and the entire Democratic Party and its unofficial brain trust, it seems, have gotten in on the action.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi denounced President Bush as "oblivious" to the suffering of others. Her California Democratic colleague, Rep. Barbara Lee, was even more barbed. "If anyone ever doubted that there are two Americas," she huffed, "this disaster and our government’s shameful response to it have made the division clear for all to see." Jim Wallis, editor of the evangelical Left magazine, Sojourners, put it this way: "Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster."
Purist libertarians, for whom central government is the fount of all evil, also were spinning a predictable narrative. Future of Freedom Foundation President Jacob Hornberger, for example, cited "the 70-year-old New Deal-Great Society" as the root cause of the destruction. He was apparently unable to explain how FDR or LBJ caused the great floods of 1900 and 1927.
Let’s be straight about this. Nobody is suggesting leadership in Washington ought to be immune from public scrutiny. President Bush has said as much from the outset. Already, the political fallout has cost Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown his job. But the best place to start a search for an accountability breakdown should be at the local level, preferably among criminals and cops – in that order.
It is little secret that New Orleans has a large and nasty criminal class. The city’s murder rate is about ten times the U.S. average. Only one in four murders results in a conviction, in large measure because witnesses fear retaliation or don’t think their testimony is worth the effort. Keep in mind that on January 4, 2004, musician Ray Davies of The Kinks, taking an evening stroll in the French Quarter with a female companion, was shot (in the leg – he recovered quickly) after giving chase to a pair of purse-snatching holdup men. That’s enough reason to walk softly in the Crescent City.
The criminal element acted up with a vengeance after the flooding forced tens of thousands of people into the city’s downtown area. Hoodlums went on an orgy of robbery, burglary, assault, rape, arson, and yes, murder. Perhaps most egregiously, a number of them shot at police, firefighters, and rescue helicopters.
It’s tough enough to recruit police officers under such conditions. Making things tougher in the case of New Orleans is a residency requirement for cops (who have been known on occasion to flout the ordinance). Nor surprisingly, New Orleans has only a little over three police officers per 1,000 residents, a ratio less than half that for Washington, D.C.
The city does have its share of honest, dedicated cops, by now thoroughly exhausted. But it also has a higher portion of bad apples than most cities. Just how much higher was suggested by a segment of CBS’s "60 Minutes," aired Sunday, September 11. During the course of the flood, New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass admitted that roughly a third of city’s police force had simply walked off the job. And some of those who stayed joined the looters. In a program aired over a week earlier on MSNBC, Martin Savidge, reporting from a Wal-Mart in the process of being looted, interviewed police officers claiming to be arresting suspects, even as they were loading their own shopping carts with dry goods. How’s that for abdication – not to mention chutzpah?
Chief Compass knows his force has a major morale problem. He didn’t mince words on the "60 Minutes" broadcast either, expressing regret he couldn’t find a word in the dictionary more harsh than "coward" to describe those AWOL officers.
Meanwhile, let’s put away the FEMA jokes for just a minute, and give a modest round of applause for the feds. In the week following the main levee’s breach, the military and the Coast Guard managed to rescue more than 32,000 stranded civilians, many from rooftops by helicopter. The Army Corps of Engineers all but completely repaired levee breaches, and began pumping large quantities of water. Fact: Federal response time for Hurricane Katrina was faster, not slower, than for hurricanes Hugo (1989) or Andrew (1992), each a brutally destructive Category 5 storm in its own right.
It would be easy for President Bush to excoriate local failures. But wherever possible, he should stand tall with the rescuers. Let his enemies appear as inveterate complainers exploiting tragedy for political gain.
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