08 September 2005

Disastrous Incompetence

I don't believe it. I totally don't believe it. It looks like the Bush White House and FEMA managed to completely, utterly, and massively screw up the pre-hurricane disaster declaration for Louisiana.

A post over on BobHarris.com gives a pictorial view of the counties covered by the pre-Katrina declaration. I'm linking the picture here. The counties in RED are the ones covered by the pre-Katrina declaration. If that map doesn't make sense to you, join the crowd. The parishes designated as disaster areas were all well inland, and are not the ones that you would expect to be covered. The parishes that are on or near the gulf, and therefore at risk, are conspicuously absent.

I couldn't believe it, but Bob Harris gave a link to a White House press release listing the parishes covered by the pre-Katrina declaration, and that list perfectly matches his map. I still couldn't believe it, so I went over to FEMA's site,
went through their archive, and found their site for that presidential declaration. The map to the left is taken from their site for that declaration. This list is exactly the same as the list on the White House website. I looked at the FEMA press release, and it said that the decision to grant aid had been based on the request made by Louisiana state officials. Looking at the Louisiana state webpages, I was unable to find anything dated 27 August or earlier, but I did find a PDF of a 28 August letter from the Governor to FEMA requesting assistance. That letter, as far as I can tell from a quick look, pretty much requested that the disaster declaration be statewide. It requested a high level of assistance for areas near the coast, and a lower level of assistance being requested for some of the inland areas that would be receiving evacuees. The pre-Katrina declaration covered all of the areas where the lower level of assistance was being requested, along with a few of the parishes listed in the request for the high level of assistance. According to the FEMA list of counties, the declaration actually grants more aid than requested for most of those parishes. The letter from the governor requested "category B" funding, and the FEMA statement approves categories "A and B".

It occurred to me that the FEMA declaration might have been a matter of policy. Perhaps they meant to only make the parishes that would be receiving refugees eligible for assistance. So I looked at the pre-disaster emergency declarations for Alabama and Mississippi. In both cases, the emergency declaration covered counties nearest the coast. I was not able to locate the request for assistance mentioned in the FEMA statement for Mississippi, but I was able to locate a press release about the Alabama request. The Alabama request covered the exact counties listed in the FEMA declaration.

Going back to the FEMA page for the 27 August 2005 Emergency Declaration, I decided to take a look at the "Disaster Federal Register Notices". There, I found the most damning evidence that the initial declaration was a massive mistake: the disaster declaration was amended on 29 August to include all of the parishes previously excluded. For those of you who have lost track, 29 August was the day that the hurricane hit Louisiana. Oops.

My best guess of what happened is this: FEMA decided that Gov. Blanco's request, which covered all of Louisiana to some degree, was excessive, and they decided not to give her all of the aid that she had requested. They drew up a list of the counties to include and the counties to exclude and, possibly in a rush to get done for the presidential press event covering the declaration, got the lists crossed. And then nobody noticed the mistake until the storm hit. I'd love - totally love - to be wrong about this. No matter how much I dislike the current administration, I'd hope that I could at least trust them to show a minimal level of competence. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case.

The worst part of all of this is that the only way for something like this to happen is if a lot of people didn't care enough about the situation to double check their decisions. Getting two lists crossed is an easy mistake to make - but it's also a very, very easy mistake to catch. It should have been caught. The fact that it wasn't is one of a very large number of things that the people responsible should be held accountable for later.

Hat Tip: Amygdala
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