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Taking responsibility

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President Bush made the proper first step Tuesday in taking responsibility for the cataclysmic failure of the federal government to respond to Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans.

Now let us see if he recognizes how deeply responsible he is.

What happened in New Orleans wasn't unexpected--we all now know about the city's topography, vulnerability to a major storm, and failure to get funding for flood protection.

I'm talking about FEMA's response afterward. Anyone who read Jon Elliston's investigation in these pages a year ago ("Disaster in the Making," indyweek.com/durham/2004-09-22/cover.html) understands the problem. Elliston laid out a clear pattern of political patronage by the Bush administration that led to having people like failed horseshow judge Michael Brown put in charge of response to the nation's worst calamities. Because the president turned FEMA into well-paid parking places for people unqualified for their jobs, then diverted emphasis and funding from natural disasters to terrorist attacks, morale plummeted and dozens of experienced emergency managers left.

The result was the deaths of hundreds, likely thousands, of New Orleanians and the suffering of thousands more. It makes Bush responsible for the failure of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security to implement a plan he demanded in order to respond to a calamity or terrorist attack.

Last December, Bush wrote in the preface to the National Response Plan that its purpose was to create "vastly improved coordination among Federal, State, local, and tribal organizations to help save lives and protect America's communities by increasing the speed, effectiveness, and efficiency of incident management."

There's a section entitled "Proactive Federal Response to Catastrophic Events." It states:

  • The primary mission is to save lives; protect critical infrastructure, property, and the environment; contain the event; and preserve national security.
  • Standard procedures regarding requests for assistance may be expedited or, under extreme circumstances, suspended in the immediate aftermath of an event of catastrophic magnitude.
  • Identified Federal response resources will deploy and begin necessary operations as required to commence life-safety activities.
  • Notification and full coordination with States will occur, but the coordination process must not delay or impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources...

    None of that happened.

    Read our story. Look at the plan itself at www.dhs.gov/interweb/assetlibrary/NRPbaseplan.pdf. Then look at what happened in New Orleans. You decide how much responsibility the president should take.

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