President Bush has asked that Americans not “play politics” at this moment of terrible national disaster. But asking hard questions of our nation’s leaders is exactly what democracy demands when the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina is widely viewed as “a national disgrace.”
Katrina came with at least two days’ warning, but authorities waited to issue an evacuation order. There was no transportation for people without cars or money, facilities to house and care for refugees were insufficient, there were no forces in place to deliver desperately needed supplies or to secure order, and there was nowhere near the number of boats, helicopters, and other craft necessary to rescue the stranded.
Hampered by a National Guard with 40% of its people in Iraq, the pace of getting military personnel to the hardest hit areas was inordinately slow. For four days, there was simply no clear center of command and control. As a result, countless people suffered and died.
Much of this failure is the result of the Bush administration’s policies, which effectively eroded the capacities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the government agency primarily responsible for dealing with disasters. Obsessed with the war on terror as well as an ideology of privatizing the functions of government, the administration systematically sapped FEMA’s long-term ability to prevent disaster or at least cushion the blows when prevention is not possible.