September 06, 2005

Yet Another Stupid and Out of Touch Tierney Column

Now I know that the standards of the New York Times have collapsed into previously uncharted depths since Bill Keller took over, but is there any more obvious example of that than letting John Tierney write a regular op-ed column? Yes, sure, there is the whole Judy Miller abomination. But for now she's locked up and can't as easily spew her pro-Chalabi rantings in what's supposedly the nation's paper of record. And at least Miller knows how to build arguments. When they are tied to the Middle East they are often built on false information, but there remains a certain logic to the lies.

Tierney, on the other hand, can't write well (or at least coherently) and he seems rather dumb too. After trying to read him, and giving up, shortly after he got his current assignment I'd sort of let myself forget about him. But for some reason I chose to read his latest this morning - and boy do I wish I hadn't.

First off, there are the contradictory bits about the president. While he himself writes that Bush failed and merits being questioned about his lack of performance, particularly given the image he's tried to cultivate, Tierney also says "most of his critics are making an even bigger one (mistake) now by obsessing about what he said and did". Huh? "Obsessing" seems an inaccurate word choice, and conveys that the president's critics are crazed loons - not people who are rightly outraged that someone who promised both protection and compassion showed an appalling failure to provide either in what might be the biggest disaster in modern American history.

Instead of holding the nation's leader accountable for his failures Tierney would have us look to some disaster-preparedness worker in Virginia to learn lessons from this case. Because, you know, it's men like that, not presidents of the United States, that bear the true responsibility, for say, stocking FEMA with political hacks, not adequately funding proposals that would have better protected the city, and waiting to provide direction and oversight to national emergency teams instead of activating them immediately. Oh, wait, Mr. Judkins didn't have responsibility for that? Well, he must surely be key since a flood that kills twenty-something in Virginia is just like a hurricane that kills thousands. Oh, it's not?

You know, even given the terrible analogies and the knee-jerk protection of our failure of a president, I was still not too irritated with Tierney until I got to this:

The federal officials who had been laboring on a one-size-fits-all strategy were unprepared for the peculiarities of New Orleans, like the high percentage of people without cars. The local officials who knew about that problem didn't do anything about it - and then were furious when Mr. Bush didn't solve it for them. Why didn't the man on the mound come through for them? It's a fair question as they go door to door looking for bodies. But so is this: Why didn't they go door to door last week with Magic Markers?

That Tierney thinks that it's unusual for many people not to have cars shows a sadly predictable and fundamental disconnect from the reality of the lives of millions of Americans (many of whom of course live in New York itself). Mindless ditto-heads like him can't begin to fathom the challenges that the poor face, and really I don't think they should be trusted to give advice to government officials (or at least presumably informed advice). As to the latter comment - that he equates the failures of the federal government in this case with the failures of the local government, particularly along the lines he uses, is just damn silly, and it shows a pathetic level of political desperation by the Bush team and its mouthpieces in the media. Yes, local government could have done more - but they were tightly constrained by structural limitations that were much more binding that those constraining the federal government. Beyond that, the kinds of actions and services they could have provided were simply less likely to affect whether people lived or died than what the federal government chose to do or not do. And, after Ivan, the locals had shown themselves to be moving in the right direction, and were making changes. The same isn't remotely true of the federal government. In fact, it appears that it may have even moved backwards. Much like the Bush team downgraded the role of the counter-terrorism chief prior to 9/11, it was more interested in giving tax breaks to its corporate friends and starting a war in Iraq than in paying to protect American citizens from obvious threats here at home. Sadly, thousands more have had to suffer because of the Bush team's priorities. And as much as people like Tierney try to spin responsibility away from the president, sooner or later you'd think he'd have to admit he bears some responsibility for what his government has failed to do and the bad choices it has made in the last 5 years.

Posted by armand at September 6, 2005 08:40 AM | TrackBack | Posted to Politics


He's not saying he doesn't understand people not having cars, as you suggest. He's saying that local officials didn't adapt to this reality with their disaster plan, there was no plan for the fact that even after a mandatory evacuation was ordered, a hundred thousand people would stay in New Orleans. This is evident not just from the lack of immediate disaster relief, but even more from the lack of a plan on how to deal with maintaining order in the wake of a disaster--the mixed messages about looting, etc. Now it's true that some parts of this unpreparedness are just media perpetuated lunacy (the idea that hospital and search and rescue ships should have been waiting right off the coast, in the middle of a hurricane--that's a GREAT idea), but there was obviously no plan for maintaining order consistently enacted by state, federal and local officials on the scene.

As to whether you think people like him should be trusted to give advice to government officials, this has the hint of censorship to it.

And while you continue on your "Bush didn't do anything except everything bad" rant, you might remember that he did, in fact, personally appeal for a mandatory evacuation.
Bush also declared a state of emergency the day before the hurricane hit.

Of course, I do have to admit I'm one of those loony people who thinks that people shooting at helicopters bear some of the responsibility for the delay in disaster relief, though I know this is politically incorrect because of course it was just the stress from the slow federal response that led to all the looting of designer tennis shoes and armed gangs going around the city raping people.

Posted by: Morris at September 6, 2005 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

Obviously people shooting at helicopters are responsible for their actions - but the idea that they bear an equal level of responsibility with the White House is ludicrous.

Re: Bush - Wow. He appealed for an evacuation. Obviously all is well. I'll grant you that Bush has done somethings - I'm sure he's gotten out of bed every day, lifted weights, made an order or two. I'm not arguing that he's in a coma. What I'm arguing is that what he's done is been grossly inadequate.

I said people like him (Tierney) shouldn't be trusted to give informed advice - b/c they haven't been informed to the realities of the existence of many/most of the people who've been suffering with and dealing with the disaster over the last week. Tierney obviously has a giant megaphone in the New York Times (bastion of liberalism? as if) for his cloistered views. But perhaps it's better for those in charge to listen to those who have more of a clue.

And yes, he explicitly makes it clear that he doesn't understand people not having cars - he says it's "unusual" when it's anything but in many American cities.

And yes, it was well known that the city's plan would result in tens of thousands still being in the city - that's why outside assistance would be needed to help get them out. Assistance that was, again, woefully inadequate and underprepared. Would it have been better if the city's plan hadn't simply been evacuation? Perhaps. There simply was no way that the city could get everyone out. But given the constraints placed upon it, the city's plan isn't entirely unreasonable.

As to the breakdown of order - on that I'll give you something. I don't have much faith in the NOPD on a good day, much less on a category 4 hurricane day (not that there aren't good cops too - but the organization certainly has some problems). But again, that's a problem that's no doubt been known about for ages - and yet another reason why the feds should have taken action sooner. That the police would have/cause some problems was known ... and yet the federal government seemed to sit on their hands for ages as the situation got worse and worse.

Posted by: Armand at September 6, 2005 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

"people not having cars"

According to census data, among the poor in NO, 21787 blacks had no car, while only 2606 whites had none, and "other" came in at 1384.

re: NOPD

I've seen estimates of PD walking off the job at proportions ranging from 1/3 to 2/3.

Posted by: binky at September 6, 2005 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

There is a September 6th editorial by Bob Williams in the WSJ called Blame Amid the Tragedy that details the failures by local and state officials. They had a disaster plan, they just didn't follow it.
To it being the case that the Federal government had responsibility to maintain civil order because they should have assumed the police would botch the job (again, I do not blame the police so much as the criminals), maybe that would be, except that Blanco refused to give control of the National Guard to the feds.

If only about twenty five thousand didn't have a car, that means more of the people who stayed in New Orleans actually had a way out and didn't take it. What were they thinking?

Posted by: Morris at September 6, 2005 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

1) Bush could still have sent in federal troops - and in any event, that's far from being the only thing he didn't do.

2) Don't simply assume I think Blanco has been superb in this whole thing. I've no doubt that when all is said and done there will be some flaws in her performance. But nothing I'd seen so far convinces me that they are on the same scale as the failure of the feds.

3) Find me citations that don't come from the WSJ editorial page - it's not that everything they write is a lie or half-truth - but a hell of a lot of it is. Can you give me a different source for a similar article?

4) I have to think that the number of people without cars was higher than 25,000. Would this # be skewed by the sampling (or lack thereof) problems with the last census. Of course even if that's all it was (which I doubt) - that's still a big number to leave stranded.

Posted by: Armand at September 6, 2005 01:33 PM | PERMALINK

"Bush also declared a state of emergency the day before the hurricane hit."

Yes, and in so doing, created a federal operation.

Under the law, Chertoff said, state and local officials must direct initial emergency operations. "The federal government comes in and supports those officials," he said.

Chertoff's remarks, which echoed earlier statements by President Bush, prompted withering rebukes both from former senior FEMA staffers and outside experts.

"They can't do that," former agency chief of staff Jane Bullock said of Bush administration efforts to shift responsibility away from Washington. "The moment the president declared a federal disaster, it became a federal responsibility…. The federal government took ownership over the response," she said. Bush declared a disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi when the storm hit a week ago.

Kevin Drum links to the LA Times, but has a lot more about FEMA.

Do you think we'll hear calls to abolish FEMA from the right? See what big government gets you? Why, let's let the private sector take care of this! Oh wait, it looks like they might have been on the job in New Orleans (and then tried to cover it up).

Of course, FEMA has been on track to fail. There's at least one agency left behind.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency once speedily delivered food, water, shelter and medical care to disaster areas, and paid to quickly rebuild damaged roads and schools and get businesses and people back on their feet. Like a commercial insurance firm setting safety standards to prevent future problems, it also underwrote efforts to get cities and states to reduce risks ahead of time and plan for what they would do if calamity struck.

But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, FEMA lost its Cabinet-level status as it was folded into the giant new Department of Homeland Security. And in recent years it has suffered budget cuts, the elimination or reduction of key programs and an exodus of experienced staffers.

The agency's core budget, which includes disaster preparedness and mitigation, has been cut each year since it was absorbed by the Homeland Security Department in 2003. Depending on what the final numbers end up being for next fiscal year, the cuts will have been between about 2% and 18%.

The agency's staff has been reduced by 500 positions to 4,735. Among the results, FEMA has had to cut one of its three emergency management teams, which are charged with overseeing relief efforts in a disaster. Where it once had "red," "white" and "blue" teams, it now has only red and white.

Yeah, who needs that stinking blue anyway.

Posted by: binky at September 6, 2005 04:00 PM | PERMALINK

i didn't hear anyone pissing and moaning about how people who chose not to evacuate during the unholy trinity of charley, frances, and ivan were courting their own disaster. nevertheless, as binky points out in an earlier comment, they got theirs from FEMA when the chips were down. must help to be old, white, live in a swing state (run by the prez's brother), and get hit by a disaster in a presidential election year, eh?

in other news, focus on the white people who are carless according to that census -- only 2600 had no car? sorry, but i'd stake everything i've got that pittsburgh, which is substantially smaller than new orleans (albeit somewhat more white, percentage-wise), has waaaaay more than 2600 white people without cars. i don't need to see more than that 2,600 to know that the census data, on this topic at least, is hopelessly inaccurate. which dovetails with prior discussions suggesting that it's in the poorest regions of individual states and the country as a whole that the census data is least reliable.

and just out of curiosity, if evac was always the plan, and all smart people worthy of not f$*king dying had cars and left anyway, then explain to me why, in advance of the storm, the city emphasized that the superdome was there for those who couldn't leave. what? -- 20,000 who obviously didn't care to defend their homes to the last, who obviously weren't short on fear of the storm, were sent to a facility that was woefully understocked. where was the advance (federal) provisioning that occured last year during the florida hurricanes? nowhere.

hell, it took chertoff and FEMA two goddamned days to realize that the city had been sending people to the convention center.

if you want to try to scrub the blood off the administration's hands, knock yourself out Morris -- but it's time to put down the soap and pick up a stiff wire brush and a coarse file. just ignore the screams. your government's perfected the art; it ought to be second nature to you by now.

Posted by: joshua at September 6, 2005 06:52 PM | PERMALINK

One thing that I am curious about is this private sector evacuation planning. I've only seen the barest of references - and from a site with "Lenin" in the name at that.

This morning I heard a radio report that suggests the FEMA dithering isn't over yet. A WV reporter embedded with the 130th Air National Guard has been riding along on evac flights, and he said that as soon as FEMA got involved, they ground to a halt. You could hear the frustration in his voice.

Posted by: binky at September 6, 2005 07:37 PM | PERMALINK

For those interested in timelines, here are two:

CNN and Think Progress.

Posted by: binky at September 7, 2005 12:12 PM | PERMALINK
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