By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, September 6, 2005; A25
BATON ROUGE -- After a tragically incompetent beginning, the effort to give urgent care to the multitudes from New Orleans whose homes and livelihoods have been obliterated is finally in high gear. The problem now is that nobody knows where it's headed.
At the top, things are still hopeless. Federal, local and state officials who perform for the cameras here at the Louisiana State Police complex, headquarters for the relief effort, still spend an unconscionable amount of time debating who's in charge. Is the president the ultimate authority, or is it Blanco, Nagin, Chertoff, Brown or the generals? The answer seems to vary from hour to hour, depending on who's holding court in the hot, stuffy briefing room or outside on the portico, where visiting luminaries get mobbed by microphones.
Fortunately, the finger-pointing follies don't matter much on the ground and in the water. Military, police and civilian relief units did what had to be done and emptied the New Orleans basin of Hurricane Katrina's bereft survivors. They are being fed, sheltered and clothed. They can't be described as alive and well, but they're alive.
Hundreds of thousands of evacuees are scattered around Louisiana and neighboring states in a sudden diaspora, and no one seems to have any idea what to do with them next. The evacuees bristle at the word "refugees," which makes them sound as if they don't belong in this country. But whatever you call them, they won't be able to go back home -- and won't have a home to go back to -- for months or even years.
Baton Rouge, perhaps the best example, has swollen like the Mississippi River in an epic flood. The people here have been generous and good-natured to a fault. Down by the river, at the convention center, the Red Cross is housing about 5,000 evacuees; another big shelter is being opened across town, and smaller shelters are being organized every day, many by local churches. It's impossible to count the families who have opened their homes to relatives, friends or needy strangers.
Every city and town in Louisiana that wasn't blasted by the hurricane is full of evacuees. Then there are the tens of thousands in Texas and the multitudes scattered across neighboring states. Their host communities have the best of intentions, but many won't be able to stand the added drain on resources indefinitely. Where will these people go? Why wasn't there a plan?
That's when I start my finger-pointing, because a few days in and around this ground zero have convinced me that there are two things the federal government failed to do, and that for these failures there's ultimately no one to blame but the president.
First, an administration that since Sept. 11, 2001, has told us a major terrorist strike is inevitable should have had in place a well-elaborated plan for evacuating a major American city. Even if there wasn't a specific plan for New Orleans -- although it was clear that a breach of the city's levees was one of the likeliest natural catastrophes -- there should have been a generic plan. George W. Bush told us time and again that our cities were threatened. Shouldn't he have ordered up a plan to get people out?
Second, someone should have thought about what to do with hundreds of thousands of evacuees, both in the days after a disaster and in the long term. As people flooded out of New Orleans, it was officials at the state and local level who rose to the challenge, making it up as they went along. Bring a bunch of people to the Astrodome. We have a vacant hotel that we can use. Send a hundred or so down to our church and we'll do the best we can.
Tent cities aren't a happy option, but neither is haphazard improvisation. Is the problem the Bush administration's ideological fervor for small government? Does the White House really believe that primary responsibility should fall on volunteers, church groups and individuals? Or is it just stunning incompetence and lack of foresight?
At the big shelter here in Baton Rouge on Sunday, some student volunteers from Louisiana State University took a group of children outside to get some air. The kids were using sheets of cardboard as sleds and surfboards, zooming down the grassy levee next to the Mississippi River and then scampering back uphill for another ride. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the scene warmed your heart. But those college students are going to have to go back to their classes, and then how will those kids from New Orleans spend their days?