Illusory Inquiry

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 7 2005 4:47 AM

Illusory Inquiry

Everybody still leads with New Orleans, where, the Washington Post declares, contamination is so bad that drinking water might not be fully restored for years. (The other papers skip that particular dire assessment.) There were also a handful of big fires—one engulfing two blocks—but with the major flood-wall breaks now plugged, the water is receding a bit. Meanwhile, two congressional hearings on Katrina are expected to start next week, while President Bush said he also plans on "investigating" the government's response.

New Orleans Mayor Nagin signed an order last night authorizing police to evacuate people by force, though police said they're not actually planning on doing that yet. The WP says there was "a dramatic drop in the number of survivors found" yesterday. The Times-Picayune's blog still has new posts from people saying they have relatives trapped in houses. The Journal counts "more than 23,000 messages" posted on the T-P's "missing persons" page. The Post mentions far down that, while pumping should quickly pick up speed, only three of 148 pumps are going and at only a fraction of full speed.

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Everybody cites word from Congress that President Bush is expected to ask for another roughly $50 billion in aid today. Senators, both Republican and Democrat, were predicting that the final federal outlay will blow by $100 billion. The Wall Street Journal guesses $200 billion. FEMA's daily burn rate on Katrina is somewhere between  $500 million (Post) and $700 million ( New York Times).

The papers say that Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist put off a vote on extending the estate-tax cut. But the WP mentions far down that Republicans suggested they'll "proceed with a package of $70 billion in tax cuts." The Post also says that for the moment House Republicans are still sticking by their proposal to cut funding for Louisiana flood control. "We are committed to living within our budget," said the Appropriations Committee spokesman.

Asked about the government's response, President Bush stuck by the playbook and gently suggested that state and local officials should share the blame. But what the papers focus on is his promise to "lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong." Presumably riffing off that, the NYT's lead headline reads in part: "U.S. INQUIRY IS SET."

The only problem: Nothing was "set." As the Los Angeles Timespoints out up high, the president avoided putting a time frame on the "investigation." And as the NYT itself notes, the White House even backed away from the I word, preferring to call the eventual inquiry an "analysis." "There will be a time to do a thorough analysis," said spokesman Scott McClellan. "Now is not the time to do that."

Though the news pages don't seem to touch it, the president's insistence that he'll "lead" the inquiry fits a pattern. The last "investigation" the president set up was the WMD commission. It was endowed with a limited mandate that excluded one of the central questions. There is one place that addresses the relevant context: a NYT editorial.

The Post points out inside that FEMA chief Mike Brown is getting some extra help. The Coast Guard's chief of staff was brought on board to, as the WP puts it, "take over operational control" of the federal response.

The NYT, meanwhile, has a soft profile of Brown, complete with quotes from his "friend and lawyer." Both the NYT and WP could have told us about the now-questioned qualifications of Brown's underlings, namely his chief of staff  (a former event planner for Bush) and his deputy chief of staff (a former flack for ... Bush).

The WP notices that foreign offers of assistance—everything from a Swedish water purification system to Canadian rescue boats—have been caught up "in bureaucratic entanglements, in most cases, at the Federal Emergency Management Agency."

A Journal reconstruction of the hours after Katrina in New Orleans emphasizes that, contrary to initial press reports, there were breaks in the flood walls—and sections of the city were flooded—by 9 a.m. Monday. In other words, as TP suggested last Tuesday, it's not that New Orleans initially escaped massive flooding, it's that reporters weren't in the neighborhoods to see it. (The levees and floodwalls divide New Orleans into essentially self-contained sections, so there can be plenty of flooding without, say, the French Quarter getting wet.)

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