WASHINGTON — The current investigations into the Katrina disaster are a familiar repeat of the blame game that can serve little useful purpose, because the chances are good the errors will be repeated.
Who cares whether the White House knew on Monday or a day later that the New Orleans dam had burst? Should the president have dispatched someone to put his finger in the dike? Perhaps he should have really shown compassion by doing so himself. A lot of his enemies would have loved that. The fact is irrefutable that it was too late by the time anyone, including those in the path of the flood, knew it was happening.
Anyone who wasn't in a coma — or maybe in Congress — at the time of this disaster knows by now why it occurred. It is the result of decades of talking about a potential problem, of diverting funds to other projects and believing that the inevitable will never happen. It is sort of like the fellow who fell from the 10-story building and, as he passed every floor, was heard to say, "Well, so far so good." The litany of mistakes will be flooding forth all over Capitol Hill soon.
So here we are, almost six months afterward, wasting time and money looking backward at the obvious rather than addressing the fact that huge parts of what used to be the most intriguing city in America still looks like the hurricane and flood hit just yesterday. Here we are with the fired FEMA director, Michael Brown, the one-time Arabian horse breeder and official Katrina scapegoat, talking about how he called this White House aide or that in the early hours and got no response, while thousands of displaced persons are still strewn across the South and elsewhere like flotsam.
Where has all the money gone? You know, the billions and billions pledged from private and government sources. Where are the thousands of trailers to provide temporary housing while the permanent homes are being rebuilt? Where are the bulldozers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and others necessary to put right the blighted neighborhoods the president promised would be flowering again in no time? Those are the questions Congress needs to be asking — not who called whom in Crawford, Texas, when nature's mighty force was kicking the stuffing out of the Gulf Coast.
It is the nature of Congress that it always refuses to accept any blame, ignoring the fact that the lack of preparedness and slow response to Katrina stemmed largely from its own panic-stricken actions. Everyone told lawmakers, even in the atmosphere of 9/11, that the Department of Homeland Security was a mistake of giant proportions; that it was a blueprint for a dysfunctional agency. Need we look any farther than the Ninth Ward of New Orleans for proof of that? This unwieldy blunderbuss would test the managerial skills of Gen. George Marshall, a logistical genius, let alone one of far lesser stature like Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who probably should resign in the wake of disclosures that his level of incompetence was the same as Brown's.
The truly scary thought is what happens in the case of a nuclear explosion or detonation of a radiological "dirty" bomb? Brown said that everything in Homeland Security, including his former agency, has been aimed at responding to or heading off a possible terrorist attack, not a natural disaster. What is the difference? If you can't respond properly to one, chances are you can't to the other.
That leaves us with some horrendous prospects. Try evacuating this city and its environs on a moment's notice, let alone the behemoths of New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Americans should be demanding to know whether their government can protect them from a repeat of the current chaos or whether they should begin building those silly shelters of the '50s and stocking up on supplies.
In the meantime, Congress, as it approaches its midterm elections, will go on looking backward and trying for political gain by fixing blame while the good folks of the gulf, particularly the poor ones of New Orleans, face another rapidly approaching hurricane season while still trying to recover from the past.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.