It now seems evident that state and local officials in New Orleans are not up to the task of dealing with the myriad of problems associated with hurricane relief and response (relief priorities and logistics, crime control, evacuation, etc.). And judging from the various Senators and other empty suits from the federal government who crossed my tv screen last night, it also appears that the feds are not going to provide much help either (Rep. Bobby Jindal was the only one that I saw who inspired any confidence in the slightest).
Given the mounting crisis nature of the situation, the best (only?) solution I can see is to bring in Rudy and put him in charge of coordinating relief efforts in New Orleans. From what I can tell, he is the only one with even the slightest potential of getting control over the situation and bringing order to the place. Call him a federal relief Czar or whatever, but get him down there and put him in charge asap.
I think the question for the government response to Katrina is not so much "Where's Rudy?
," as Todd asks below, but rather, "Where's George?
" Rudy Giuliani was an effective leader post-9/11 in part because he assumed control and understood the gravity of the situation. Giuliani was direct, realistic, and 100% focused on the problem, and as the longtime Mayor of the devastated area he was uniquely situated to understand the scope of it.
The devastation of Katrina looks like it is on a larger scale than the devastation of the 9/11 attacks. My sense from news reports is that we're talking about an entire region of the country that is devastated, including a major city lost, at least for now. Plus we're dealing with a problem that is gradually getting worse over a period of days, whereas in the case of 9/11 the incredible devastation occurred quickly and left a problem of response and cleanup. (This is not to minimize 9/11, of course, but rather to point out that the immediate challenge for government here is different, and in many senses more difficult.)
I'm no expert in crisis response, and I don't have any special skills when it comes to putting my finger in the air and getting a sense of the national psyche. But my sense is that given the scale of the crisis, there is really only one person who can take command and be the new Rudy: the President of the United States. And at least so far, President Bush isn't measuring up. The American people want someone who is going to go down to New Orleans and take command and responsibility on the ground, not someone who is going to take an aerial tour of the disaster or have a press conference.
Bush, Blanco, and Blame:
A number of commenters to my earlier post "Where's George?"
raised very good points in response to what was an admittedly inarticulate post. I thought I would respond with two additional (and hopefully clearer) thoughts.
First, I have absolutely no interest in assigning blame. My sense is that the crisis is sufficiently great that we need to be forward thinking right now. Assigning blame looks back; it's something you do when the emergency is over, and you have time to reconstruct what happened and see how you could do better next time. I don't think we're there yet. So for example, while I strongly agree with the many commenters that this should have been a state and local issue, the fact remains that the state and local governments seem to have been overwhelmed by the crisis and are not providing any kind of effective leadership. The key question is what to do next.
Second, a few words about symbolism. A number of commenters argued that whether Bush goes down to Louisiana or stays in DC is merely symbolic, and thus won't actually help anything. I disagree. Symbols matter in times of crisis. Symbols frame mindsets, and mindsets influence conduct. Part of what is so astonishing about the current situation in Louisiana is the sense that no one seems to be in control, or is even willing to take direct responsibility. Right now the home page of CNN is blasting the headline: "WHERE'S THE HELP? STRANDED, SICK, DYING STILL WAITING." I don't know how many days or weeks of such headlines there needs to be before it begins to shake the confidence of the American people in ways that have pretty profound long term implications. But I think someone need to fill the vacuum, even if mostly only symbolically, and I think the only person who can do so right now is the President.
That's my sense of things, at least. I may be wrong; this is far out of my area of expertise, obviously, and I'm just riffing like everyone else. Still, it seems like a very important question so I wanted to address it. Additional comments very welcome.
UPDATE: As of 1:23pm, CNN.com
is now posting what I hope is an important development:
A convoy of military vehicles plowed through the flooded streets of New Orleans on Friday bringing food, water and medicine to the thousands of people trapped at a downtown convention center
Orin on 'Where's George":
It is not my intention to express a strong opinion on the handling of the catastrophe in New Orleans. Like everyone else I only know what I see on TV, and it has been horrific at times. And almost any opinion one now expresses--apart from offering assistance to those in need--can seem like an attempt to exploit this disaster to score a political or ideological point. But I will nevertheless hazard offering two observations.
First, I think we should distinguish attempts at blaming the President for the horrible consequences of the hurricane--as some on other blogs and in the comments are apparently doing--with criticisms of how he is performing NOW in response to events in his capacity as President. I take it that the latter, not the former, was the thrust of Orin's original post. One could completely reject any culpability for these events (via, e.g., theories based on funding for the Corps of Engineers, or National Guard troops diverted to Iraq, etc.) and still be highly critical of the President's current public performance. Whatever one thinks of the former sorts of criticisms, the latter seem perfectly reasonable to offer in a blog--especially from a blogger who might otherwise be more likely to support the current administration. Whatever may or may not be occurring behind the scenes, the President's current public performance is there for all to see and comment on. I cannot say that I have been favorably impressed so far.
Second, government at all levels has obviously not lived up to its promise of being able to anticipate and react to disasters and other social calamities better than nongovernmental institutions. This should not be surprising. Governments are comprised of ordinary human beings with the same limitations of vision and self-interests as those in the private sector (and often, but not always, with far worse incentives)--that is, these human beings confront pervasive problems of knowledge, interest, and power. I have the same reaction every time there are calls for increased government oversight in the aftermath of some failure in the private sector. What gives anyone confidence that government institutions will act with any more prescience? Moreover, it seems often the case that the core functions that are most often used to justify the existence of governments--such as public safety, national defense, and public infrastructure--are often the very tasks that are given short shrift by real world politicians in search of more "elevated," seemingly less pedestrian goals than these. This seems especially the case when the failure to provide these "essential social services" can so often be obscured from public view or, when revealed, responsibility for failure can be shifted to others.
Update: Steve Bainbridge has a nice roundup of other writers who, one way or another, greatly expand on the sentiments of the last paragraph. And it certainly is not "heartless" (in the words of one commentor) to examine the 'root causes' of what seem to be inadequate government responses to this disaster beyond whatever culpability may be attributed personally to George W. Bush.
Update: Lots of good comments in the comment section.