What Went Wrong

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 11 2005 6:42 AM

What Went Wrong

The New York Times and Washington Post lead, and the Los Angeles Times off-leads, with detailed post mortems of the mishandling of Katrina. All papers are commemorating Sept. 11 by critiquing the government agency created in its wake. Even though the Department of Homeland Security was set up to address blunders in the federal government's response to the terrorist attacks, allowing it to "face domestic threats as a unified, seamless force," Katrina revealed a giant hole in the department's national response plan.

In January DHS unveiled the 426-page plan to coordinate federal, state, local, and tribal organizations. Even as Katrina's destruction was spreading, the department's spokesman said that because of the plan, there was "no confusion, no chaos, there's just immediate action and result." Despite the department's intention to improve coordination, the reaction to Katrina was plagued by a major misunderstanding: Local officials expected the federal government to provide swift and substantial aid, but federal officials assumed local officials would lead the relief efforts and ask for federal help only as needed. The WP points out that the plan itself underscored the need for the federal government to "take charge" and assist state and local authorities overwhelmed by disaster. Instead, as the NYT reports, the crisis in New Orleans was met by a standoff between "hesitant federal officials and besieged authorities in Louisiana."

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The LAT offers a laundry list of missteps, many of which fall on the shoulders of FEMA. The agency was short of equipment, especially helicopters; failed to provide working telephones and radios, even though better communication was meant to be a focus of the DHS plan; and blocked private relief efforts including civilian aircraft responding to requests from hospitals to transport people. The NYT adds that FEMA's hurricane response plan for Louisiana was not complete when Katrina hit, and failed to address crime control or transportation. More absurd: FEMA held hundreds of firefighters in Atlanta for community relations and sexual harassment training before sending them to Louisiana.

The NYT also reports that questions about FEMA's staffing problems aren't new. An organization representing the agency's employees wrote to Congress in June of last year complaining that experienced staffers were being replaced by "inexperienced novices and contractors." Michael Brown wasn't the only FEMA official with scant emergency management experience—a chief of staff and a former deputy were both alums of President Bush's political campaigns. 

The LAT fronts some good news. Officials now say that flooded parts of New Orleans will be pumped dry in 37 days, not the 80 days originally predicted. Power was restored to 98 percent of Mississippi residents. In Houston, the 7,327 people who'd been living in temporary housing (including the Astrodome), will be in permanent housing by the end of this week. The LAT also fronts some bad news—the confirmed death toll stands out 154 in Louisiana and 211 in Mississippi.

The NYT and WP both front stories on Katrina's far-flung evacuees. A reverend in New Mexico counseling the storm's victims likened the displacement to the "exodus of Moses" as some are vowing never to return to New Orleans. Officials say between 400,000 and 1 million people were uprooted by the storm and are now scattered nationwide, many in places far different from home. For example, some are now residing in states with minimal African-American populations, or as the WP recounts one family's reaction to its new surroundings in rural Texas, "Where were all the black people?" The NYT points out that some of the states absorbing the most people were those hardest hit by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s when almost 250,00 people fled the Southern Plains. Some of those same states are now absorbing thousands of evacuees —there will be an additional 6,000 school children in Texas this year.

The LAT fronts an interesting look at the rebuilding of New Orleans. Even with the power out and draining incomplete, the mayor offered a plan to repair the city, beginning with parts that didn't flood. It's a given that everything under the fetid water would have to be destroyed—including 150,000 homes, 163,000 vehicles and 93,000 boats, to date. The environmental challenge is staggering—cars must be drained of oil and have their tires removed before being burned and many appliances must be removed from homes. Once officials figure out how to burn all of this, they have to find a place for what will likely be 20 million tons of debris.

It's also possible that parts of the city will never return, and not everyone thinks this is a bad thing. If some of the poorest, hardest-hit neighborhoods are not rebuilt, a giant public works project could create some sort of "racial balance" by "integrating white neighborhoods, thinning out the concentrated poverty in black neighborhoods, creating jobs and opportunities for people who didn't have them before." The LAT takes an optimistic, if not starry-eyed, approach: "There is something about the prospect of scraping half a metropolis clean and starting fresh—especially a portion dominated by rundown neighborhoods—that unleashes creative juices of those who would devise a better city."

In northern Iraq, Iraqi and American troops launched an offensive in Tal Afar, a city known to be a haven for insurgents. The troops had been circling the city for days, battling with guerillas, but when they entered the city and began knocking on doors, they soon learned that the insurgents had all vanished. Insurgents use Tal Afar, which is 40 miles from the Syrian border, to smuggle weapons and foreign fighters. On Saturday Prime Minister Jafaari ordered Iraq's northern border crossing into Syria closed until further notice.

South of Baghdad, police found the bodies of 18 men who had been shot to death in a town known for vengeance killings by Shiite and Sunni death squads. The LAT fronts a story on the increased number of revenge killings in Iraq. The killings are purely sectarian and often the victims have no political connections. A young Sunni newlywed was shot 30 times, possibly because his father had worked for Iraqi intelligence under Saddam Hussein. An engineer was shot to death at a Sunni mosque while trying to repair the mosque's wiring.

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