The shock came on two levels. First, government -- federal and local -- failed to perform, failed to arrive when needed, failed to anticipate. Second, the inescapable demographic reality of this disaster was that the better-off portion of the population of New Orleans -- affluent and predominantly white -- mostly left in time while the mainly black underclass struggled for their lives as the world watched.
The Gulf Coast tragedy unfolded onto a political landscape totally reshaped by our previous unprecedented national tragedy -- 9/11. The terrorist attacks transformed a rudderless Bush presidency into a highly focused crisis administration. It underpinned the rationale for the war in Iraq, and at home it was used to justify a significant reversal in American civil rights. The 9/11 tragedy also led to the greatest restructuring of the federal government since the aftermath of World War II. Overwhelming majorities from both political parties supported the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an unprecedented federal behemoth combining a vast array of new and existing agencies responsible for immigration, border control, aviation security, coastal protection, disaster assistance and other functions.
In the wake of 9/11, no politician could afford to be seen as quibbling with the nation's security. Therefore, few questions were asked about how well this cumbersome collection of turf-sensitive bureaucracies would work together in the nation's defense. Unaccountably, as big as DHS is, somehow it does not include the nation's primary counter-terrorism agency, the FBI. On the other hand, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the government's designated instrument of coordination for natural disasters, lost its independence and was buried in DHS.
Having pushed Congress to create DHS and entrust it with the nation's defense against all domestic threats, human or natural, the Bush administration subsequently showed little interest in its effectiveness beyond tinkering with the dubious color-coded warning system for terrorist attacks. The first DHS cabinet secretary was the well-meaning but clueless former Governor Tom Ridge, who spent most of his time on Capitol Hill testifying before the hundreds of Congressional committees and sub-committees holding a piece of the massive DHS turf.
Congress contributed more than its fair share to DHS's growing disarray by treating its appropriations as the new mother lode of political pork extending into virtually every congressional district. News reports have extensively cataloged the dispersal of billions in DHS funding without reference to actual threats or any evident attempt to prioritize spending. Meanwhile, skeptics have relentlessly demonstrated that the nation's key infrastructure and most lucrative terrorist targets -- chemical producers, nuclear plants, ports, transportation routes for the most deadly materials, etc. -- remain highly vulnerable to a well-planned terrorist assault.
Amid the focus on DHS's lapses concerning terrorism, the new Secretary for Homeland Security, former prosecutor Michael Chertoff, was rarely questioned about his Department's readiness to respond to "traditional" natural disasters, like hurricanes. As Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Chertoff's boss, President Bush, was home in Crawford evidently focused on Iraq War dissenter Cindy Sheehan and her friends encamped just beyond his gate. Despite years of warnings from experts and locals about New Orleans' extraordinary vulnerability to a major hurricane, DHS and FEMA responded to the coming crisis in the traditional way -- leaving major details of inter-governmental cooperation to be sorted out after the storm. This played out in the face of the proverbial "perfect storm" of disastrous events, including near-complete destruction over a wide area, the failure of New Orleans' levees and resulting catastrophic flooding, and the unconscionable -- if unintended -- abandonment of many thousands of the poor, aged and infirm who could not or would not evacuate. By then it was too late, and after a brief "deer in the headlights" pause, President Bush sprang into action in a belated and clumsy effort to salvage his administration's tattered reputation.
Many have already drawn the obvious lesson that Katrina -- incomprehensibly awful though it was -- pales against the possibility of a successful biochemical or even nuclear attack on a major American city. But Katrina amply illustrates that so far, we have made only cosmetic gestures toward protecting ourselves from that unimaginable but only too real possibility. After the political recriminations from Katrina run their course, there must be a credible commitment from our leaders -- of both parties -- to seriously prepare us for the worst case. And, above all, the American people must demand -- and keep demanding -- that our leaders not lose sight of that reality.
Bill Loskot, a Spokane native and resident, worked for the State Department in Washington, D.C., and overseas for 27 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org