September 22, 2005

"Stuck on Stupid"

That's the phrase General Honore has been using with the press that has caught so much attention. Here's the link to Radio Blogger with a transcript.

The General is trying to get the press to report how people can evacuate from this storm, and they are unable to stop talking about the last storm. Here are a few excepts (Gen. Honore speaking)

Let's not get stuck on the last storm. You're asking last storm questions for people who are concerned about the future storm. Don't get stuck on stupid, reporters. We are moving forward. And don't confuse the people please. You are part of the public message. So help us get the message straight.
Male reporter: General, a little bit more about why that's happening this time, though, and did not have that last time...

Honore: You are stuck on stupid. I'm not going to answer that question. We are going to deal with Rita. This is public information that people are depending on the government to put out. This is the way we've got to do it. So please. I apologize to you, but let's talk about the future. Rita is happening. And right now, we need to get good, clean information out to the people that they can use. And we can have a conversation on the side about the past, in a couple of months.

The point he makes about the public communication role of the press is a very good one. A lot of the preventable suffering after Katrina was the result of misinformation and confusion. The press ought not to be contributing to that confusion. They are very much "stuck" as the General says, but stuck, I fear, on a good deal more than "stupid." They are stuck in their role as professional expressers of outrage and placers of blame. They cannot get their minds into the reality of the situation, seeing instead the chessboard on which political forces are always maneuvering for position, and dodging responsibility. While they are trying to parse blame for one disaster they are ready to contribute to confusion about the next one.

I don't know if "stuck on stupid" is a common expression in the General's line of work or home region, but it is certainly apt for this application. he press will very often "play dumb", and ask a question that they very well know the answer to, just to get a reaction out of the interviewee. The General, faced with a second major hurricane in a month, finally said what needed to be said. There is a time for the press to stop pretending to be stupid, as stupid as they think their audience to be, and get with the program. Like it or not they have a role to play as well.

...but the "stuck on stupid" line is here to stay. As Radio Pundit put it:

I think the General just started a movement, and he may not even realize it. Every time a reporter, in any situation, starts spinning, or completely misses the point, they need to be peppered with, "Don't get stuck on stupid." ... I can see the bumper stickers now. I can even see those stupid rubber wristbands with DGSOS etched in them.

I love General Honore.

I think a lot of people are feeling that way.

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Posted by Jay on September 22, 2005 at 12:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 14, 2005

The effect of a politicized disaster.

...Interesting meeting last night, concerning some charitable work in this community (in California). Everyone there both volunteers and makes regular donations to charitable causes. Some of them make very significant donations. What was "interesting " was how some of the attendees admitted that they were "sitting out" the relief efforts for Katrina.

The reason these regular donors were sitting on their wallets? Politics. Katrina is no longer a simple natural disaster, it has become a political event, which drives some of the potential donations and volunteers away. The reaction came from both sides of the political spectrum. One of the more significant donors is so frustrated and angry at the government that she "doesn't want to jump in and do his job." One guess who the "him" is. Others were turned off, and turned away by the ugly racial angle. "Playing the race card" was a powerful disincentive to these (mostly) white potential donors. The need of the victims was apparent, but the relief effort had acquired the bad taste of racial politics, and they felt they would rather find other ways to contribute.

When disaster strikes there are people so obsessed with greed that their first thought is not, "how can I help", but rather, "how can I profit from this". The disaster scams and even legitimate money making schemes that sprout up after every such storm are properly abhorred by the decent people of the country. Why then do we tolerate those who are obsessed with political gain while other citizens are suffering? It is a different sort of greed but it springs from the same self-absorbed world view and cares nothing for the true impact on the victims. High-profile news anchors and movie stars rush in looking for publicity and fame, politicians rush to cameras to spin the storm to their political benefit. At best they distract from the important work of rescue and relief, but more than that they tarnish what ought to be a community-building time when Americans drop their differences to come to the aid of storm victims. There is a time and place for anger over bureaucratic inefficiency that increases the suffering of a suffering people. There is also an appropriate level of response. By the end of the first week of disaster response legitimate anger and frustration had given way to the Kabuki theater of modern politics. I strongly suspect the sincerity of these outbursts. I know that they are hurting the relief effort.

Posted by Jay on September 14, 2005 at 11:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 12, 2005

The frustration of those who were paying attention

Brendan Loy has been covering the Katrina impact since, well since before there was an "impact." Brendan, a student at Notre Dame, has done quite a lot in the past weeks to make "weather geeks" respectable (even admired!) I've been reading and commenting on his posts over at Bird's Eye View, but as the Katrina news becomes more of a political debate I've covering it over here.

Brendan has achieved some notice in the media for being "the blogger who saw it coming" (and the blogger who got linked by Instapundit.) We should point out that Brendan is not psychic, nor does he possess sophisticated weather monitoring equipment, just an internet connection. It seems that a young fellow with an interest in weather and an internet connection can do better than the higher government officials.

As someone who was paying attention (the critical ingredient in this disaster), Brendan reacts angrily to the Washington Post's in-depth report of government inaction in this crisis.

I experienced a bit of the feelings Brendan recounts, sitting up all night on Monday after the storm, too emotionally overwrought to sleep. I'd heard (over the internets, of course) the Mayor of New Orleans confirm 200 yard long levee breeches that were about to flood-out the pumps. I had a bit of the same feeling I had when I flipped on the television four years ago and saw WTC towers collapse. Not quite as bad, but similar. If you have read at all about the situation at New Orleans, you would know that a significant breech in the levee system was the "big one" for that city. I sat up all night looking for more news and coverage on the TV but no one was reacting. New Orleans was flooding, people were dying, and there was this maddening silence. What was strange was that I could know this in California, but the people who could do something in Louisiana did not.

In any case, I'll let Brendan do the talking.

Posted by Jay on September 12, 2005 at 10:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Learning from mistakes (can we?)

So now the other shoe drops. To no one's surprise and most everyone's relief, Michael Brown has left FEMA, and will be replaced, at least on an interim basis, by an experienced fire chief.

This appointment, along with the earlier appointment of an experienced Coast Guard Vice-Admiral to manage the relief efforts for Katrina, seems to indicate that someone has recognized that the "Emergency Management" agency ought to be led and staffed by people who are trained and experienced in that profession. We have excellent proof here in the Katrina response, that if your emergency agency is led by lawyers, it will do an excellent job assuring that everything is properly authorized. The agency will be less concerned with moving quickly or with getting aid where it is most needed. Rather it will get the aid where and when the proper authorizations and legal restrictions allow it. Only the bureaucrats are happy with that situation.

Wouldn't it be a shame if this baby step in the right direction went no further? I'd like to propose a few similar steps we can take, now that the clarity of hindsight is available to us.

1. Staff the investigation right. Lawyers mucked up the disaster relief, and lawyers will muck up the investigation. Commission an investigating team made up of experts in disaster relief and planning. In a disaster of this magnitude, even the best conceivable response will look ugly. Things are genuinely a mess in the gulf area and only experienced disaster officials will be able to look past the many obvious barriers and see what realistically could have been done and ought to have been done. A bunch of politicos with an agenda will find enough chaos in any disaster recovery to fuel a witch hunt. A panel of genuine pro's, however, might be able to see past the rumors, misconceptions and partisanship and generate some useful findings.

2. Expand the Scope: In the planning and response to Katrina, officials did not appreciate the scope of what they were dealing with. They looked and acted too narrowly. Don't make that mistake again. Give the investigators full scope. Let them look at this problem from its inception in the corruption of Louisiana politics decades past, and follow it through generations of officials who failed to take the danger seriously, right though to the local, state and federal officials who couldn't perceive it as it happened. They might even take a look at the attitudes of the public, some of whom fled immediately and some of whom will not leave even now. This disaster was decades in the development, and should be studied in its fullness. A narrow look at the last two weeks won't save many lives in the future.

3. Restructure FEMA: Make it FERA, replacing "management" with "relief". FEMA is a coordinating organization. We need an organization that can move the trucks and planes, not "request them." FEMA needs to be able directly control real assets.

4. Give authority to the Federal responders: The state organizations are a weak link. As we have seen, the American people are looking for the feds when trouble hits. Let's find a constitutional way around all these concerns over authority. Perhaps we can link it to the President's declaration of an emergency area, or a disaster area (they different.) Right now the states are able to get all the federal money without giving up any control or authority. Change that. Once the President declares an emergency, and the state accepts that declaration, the federal responders will coordinate with the state officials but won't wait for authorizations. A declaration of martial law carries some significant implications, why is a declaration of a federal disaster so toothless?

There's no need for battles between the federal and state forces; everyone is trying to save lives, correct? Let's just prepare legislation to clear the way for federal forces to move into an area without bottlenecks. I don't expect that the Coast Guard choppers were waiting for a green light from Baton Rouge before they started pulling survivors off rooftops (perhaps they did, but I'd be surprised. My impression is that they can move into action immediately.)

5. Give Homeland Security/FEMA power to force better planning and preparation at the local level. This "waiting for the cavalry" habit needs to be dealt with. Some locales are spending the time and money to be prepared and work well with the feds, and some are doing next to nothing. Laziness, greed and incompetence didn't vanish after 9/11/2001. Some places just need some guidance and a bit of a nudge. Others will need a big stick to get them moving. The failure of one city to tend to its preparedness will cost us all.

Posted by Jay on September 12, 2005 at 08:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 10, 2005

Politics meets reality

There is a difference between a State Governor and a United States Senator. It has something to do with why Governors make better presidential candidates, and better presidents, than Senators. Governors are forced, by the nature of their jobs, to deal with reality, and to deal with real people. They are expected to produce tangible accomplishments. Senators, on the other hand, are purely political animals. They are graded on their public positions, on their ability to sell a party line on Sunday morning TV shows. They are professional posturers.

Sometimes people get elected to state governorship who are really political types, not doers. They find the office to be a good platform for pushing their ideology. It's also a good place from which to manage the state political machinery, dole out patronage, and exert control over money (the better to look after campaign donors.) Sometimes these people, despite being mismatched for the job, are able to get by; patronage and pork can bring in votes. Other times, however, events catch up with them. It can get ugly for everyone when that happens.

The weather must frustrate these folks enormously. They cannot lobby it, buy it off, arm-twist it. They can certainly influence public attitudes about the weather, but that doesn't seem to change it. The atmosphere is no respecter of polls. It is a patient foe, however, and can wait decades before calling the government's bluff. Politico's can be lulled into thinking they have it all under control. Sooner or later reality hits hard, and the confident political master is left blustering into a microphone, traumatized to find all his or her well-honed political skills useless.

Meteorologists and hurricane researchers who provide dire predictions are easily ridiculed, and easily dismissed. The people in power have other plans for those moneys, other pockets to fill, so they keep the public chuckling over the doomsayers. (This happens with earthquake predictions, climate research and at one time with those who predicted terrorist attacks.) This sort of bad news is not welcomed, and it is much easier to make the "news" go away than to make the threat go away. To a politician, a prediction of disaster is a public relations problem to be solved with speeches, not a public safety problem to be solved with planning and levees.

Sometimes these people are so good at this that they convince themselves with their own spin. They have been so successful in downplaying forecaster's scary predictions that they themselves don't listen anymore. They tune them out.

In the last week most everyone with some government responsibility has said that "no one could foresee the magnitude of the Katrina disaster." When they say "no one" they mean "me." They couldn't foresee it, because they had stopped listening to the people who make those predictions. In the days prior to Katrina's landfall, the National Weather Service was issuing bulletins laced with almost apocalyptic language. I don't ever remember hearing such strongly worded warnings. According to the detailed timeline from the Washington Post (also at MSNBC), the director of the National Hurricane Center made several personal calls to the state and federal government leaders and officials to make sure they understood the seriousness of the threat. They heard it directly from his lips, but it didn't really register.

Actually, it "registered" in a way. There was no opportunity to discredit the report, everyone, including the voters, can see a storm the size of Texas on the satellite image. They tried to get with the program and used the most potent tool they possess, the impassioned speech. Both Governors were "emoting" very well in their televised appearances, and I expect that they were generally concerned. Afterward they emoted even better, and expressed concern in the gravest possible way. It was probably very genuine concern. It was also totally useless at the time.

When the storm is on your doorstep you don't need "expressions of concern" or even "impassioned pleas", you need a plan. You need a governor who picks up a red phone and says, "execute Plan A", which starts hundreds or thousands of wheels rolling. Then the press secretary can come out and say, "the Governor is executing Disaster Plan A, and is too busy to come out here and cry for the cameras." This time there was no plan. There was plenty of concerned appeals, strongly worded requests, a bit of anger and even a few tears. There were no thousands of wheels rolling to the rescue.

These are the political sorts of Governor, the talky type. Other Governors, less glib and politically polished, understand that the time for concern is in the years before the disaster. In the heat of the moment the Governor is not allowed the opportunity to be "stunned" and "deeply concerned", the Governor needs to be steady and hard, executing the plan without passion.

If you or I walked into a hospital trauma center we would be overwhelmed with emotion and shock, that's a natural reaction. The doctors and nurses cannot allow themselves the "natural reaction." They have prepared themselves for this moment, imagined it and practiced it until they are past the point of shock, and ready to fly into action when the patients arrive. We expect this of airline pilots, military generals, and football quarterbacks. We ought to demand it of our civic leaders.

But we elect people who are great proponents of the ideology, who are smooth talkers and skillful at outmaneuvering people who worry the public about bad storms. We like being lied to, it seems, and the political parties have noticed.

The blame ought to get spread around far and wide after this. The people of Louisiana elected the people who ignored the danger over decades, and were happy to ignore the danger themselves. The people of Mississippi elected leaders who put giant casinos on barges in the Gulf of Mexico and called them "riverboats." They elected the people who rebuilt the communities wiped out in Hurricane Camille in the same flood zone and with the same poor (or missing) building codes. I hate to sound like I'm blaming the victims, but if "the people are sovereign", than the people are responsible for their situation (that is the double-edged sword of freedom.) If you elect a good talker you will get words in abundance, but no action.

The rest of us have some responsibility too. We were quiet when an administration packed FEMA with political appointees; lawyers who had supported the campaign. Based on reports of the first days of the response, it can be safely said that the disaster was "well lawyered."

Certainly some bureaucratic heads ought to roll after the situation stabilizes. I would like to see a few elected heads roll in the next election too. In fact I'd be thrilled if the voting public came to realize that we have placed our trust, and our fates, in the hands of flatterers and posturers. We can investigate who is responsible for bad decisions and inaction, but are we strong enough face our responsibility for crummy leadership?

Posted by Jay on September 10, 2005 at 11:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 09, 2005

A fast exit from the stage

In the old "vaudeville" days they called this, "the hook." When the comic was bombing the manager would use a great long hook to yank him off the stage before the audience got too unruly.

The old tradition was put to use in a similar circumstance today. The Fed's comedian on the scene in New Orleans was very rapidly dragged away from the worlds new cameras and stashed in a lonely office in Washington. According to the press conference, Michael Brown will be thinking about "future disasters." It's like when the coach is replaced mid-season, but not "fired" since he will stay on the work on preparation for the draft. Brown was not given an opportunity to speak at the conference, which demonstrates that Micheal Chertoff is a quick learner.

That he is being replaced in New Orleans by an experienced Admiral is also a sign that folks are beginning to "get it" in Washington. If FEMA who some are now remembering, has never been all that fabulous an institution, is really going to be "emergency managers", it must be structured and led very differently that other government agencies. The military forces are different from other government agencies for a reason.

What will be interesting is the interface between the new Federal presence, now led by two very dynamic and authoritative military leaders, and the state agencies, led by .... well... a different sort of person. The folks in state government are caught in a bit of a bind, at the moment. General Honore and Admiral Allen will be on the streets and giving daily press briefings right down there where the action is. They are likely to do whatever they need to d to fix things and send a note out to Baton Rouge asking for permission after the fact. They will not hide this from the reporters. We'll all see lives being saved and restored by the bold action of these leaders.

Now the state authorities will either provide the post-facto approval, weakening their tenuous hold on authority in the state, or they will try to make trouble for the guys who are doing the heroics on camera. Either way, they lose. They're only hope if to get down there and lead from the front, except that I have yet to see anyone from the State government even close to being capable of that. They are all cut from the Michael Brown pattern. The Mayor of New Orleans has a chance to rebuild his reputation a bit if he hangs very close to Honore and mimics his actions. The president of Jefferson Parish, Aaron Broussard, has been a flurry of activity, despite being a lifetime politician, and will probably fit in well with Allen and Honore.

Posted by Jay on September 9, 2005 at 01:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 07, 2005

A bad time to be a bureaucrat.

Not that there was ever any doubt, but the Congress will be moving to investigate the response to Hurricane Katrina. They will do so with a single bipartisan and bicameral commission that will, I trust, look at the whole disaster. The alternative, a flurry of separate, partisan "investigations" (gotta put that in quotes) that obsess over small pieces of the picture would have been in character for the Congress but a disaster in it's own right. A scatter shot approach would have created more noise but accomplished little or nothing constructive. The single commission at least has a chance of some beneficial effect.

There were some who would have preferred the other approach, as maximum noise with minimum real action is what they desire. Congresspeople are a particularly refined form of politician. Mayors and Governors must dirty themselves with real-world issues of police and schools and the lives of their constituents, but Congresspersons are able to float above the fray, in an atmosphere of pure partisan posturing and ideologies, the un-realpolitik. A chance to sit at an elevated table and make speeches about how other people should be doing a better job is like crack cocaine to that sort. Even with the single commission, few will be able to resist the temptation to mount the pulpit and preach, demanding that government officials accomplish the sort of effective action overnight that a Senator cannot muster in a full career.

While some on the "left" were itching for the witch-hunt, the larger body of national legislators came together in a unlikely confluence of interests. The Democrats want a vigorous investigation because they expect it will reflect badly on the White House. The Republicans are equally interested in slinging some mud at the Democratic Governor of Louisiana (the Mayor, also a democrat, is small fry and not really such an inviting target.) Both parties are eager to get after FEMA and Homeland Security, the Dems because they are controlled by Republican appointees, the Repubs (at least some Repubs) because they are big government bureaucracies.

Everyone will be treading carefully (except Nancy Pelosi, who has already said too much on the subject) as they do not want to appear to be critical of the Red Cross, the National Guard, the regular Military (especially the Coast Guard), or the reluctant evacuees, who might be part of a minority group.

But it's open season on bureaucrats. I heard a few commentators yesterday remarking on what a great leader Bernie Karik would have been under these circumstances. I even heard someone say that the head of FEMA should be someone with experience in emergency management. Imagine!

Posted by Jay on September 7, 2005 at 05:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack