The chaos that overwhelmed New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was matched by Washington's initial strained relations with the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans' mayor, Ray Nagin. After being widely criticized for the slow response of the federal government, President Bush fired his director of Emergency Preparedness and put a Coast Guard admiral in charge of federal relief operations.
A problem of federal-state authority over disaster relief has not been resolved, even though Washington's relations with state and local officials in Texas during Hurricane Rita showed substantial improvement. In disasters such as the 9-11 attacks and the New Orleans flood, federal law stipulates that state and local officials will act as "first responders. They ask for federal help when needed, and the president responds with a wide range of federal disaster relief programs.
The system has proved successful in Florida after numerous hurricanes. It also worked in New York when Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani grappled with the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in New York. And it worked in Mississippi after Katrina hit its coast and Governor Haley Barbour asked for federal assistance.
But in Louisiana, Governor Blanco at first refused to permit federal officials to supervise rescue and relief efforts in New Orleans. She also refused to let Mississippi's national guard troops be federalized when law and order in the city was shattered.
Mayor Ray Nagin had not previously held public office before his election as New Orleans' leader, and in the aftermath of Katrina he seemed more interested in blaming federal officials for the city's plight than carefully managing the evacuation of thousands of trapped citizens. He also encouraged the early return of residents to New Orleans, but was reminded by Vice Admiral Thad Allen, in charge of federal relief operations, that pollution was so bad that it was unsafe for people to return. The mayor wildly predicted that the death toll could be 10,000, but it will be closer to 1,200.
Most Americans assume that when calamities hit any part of the United States, the president has the authority to intervene immediately. They do not expect that he must negotiate with state and local officials about the lines of authority during a catastrophe.
President Bush stated in an address from New Orleans on September 15 that "the federal government will undertake a close partnership with the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, the city of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities, so they can rebuild in a sensible and well planned way."
But he added that "it is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces, the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice." He thought that five years after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, "Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency."
By law, the national guard in each state is under the governor's authority except in cases of national emergency. Law enforcement remains the responsibility of state and local authorities. U.S. armed forces have long been prohibited by law from engaging in local law enforcement operations.
The president seemed to suggest that this law should be amended to permit federal troops to intervene immediately in disasters. Some think he should already have had that power when Governor Blanco refused to nationalize the state's national guard.
Federal funding to rebuild New Orleans, to the extent it proves feasible, will be far more costly than disaster relief. Yet, the president told a news conference that the government will do whatever it costs to rebuild Gulf Coast cities. Many members of Congress, especially Republicans, are deeply concerned they will be asked to approve additional deficit spending, perhaps up to $200 billion to cover disaster relief.
The lessons of the New Orleans experience are twofold: first, Congress needs urgently to define federal authority for disaster relief and to decide whether the president should have overriding authority if a state governor refuses to accept federal intervention; second, Congress should put limits on federal funding for reconstruction after national disasters. As Hurricane Rita showed, additional destructive storms are surely coming to the Gulf Coast.
It is time for the president and Congress to put aside party politics and clearly define federal responsibility in these areas. Another "New Orleans" is simply unacceptable.
File last modified on Saturday, 15-SEPTEMBER-2005 7:55 PM EST