Maybe Homeland Security Director Michael Cherthoff would have a different view of the adequacy of the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans if he had spent a few nights with the throngs of thirsty, hungry, people in the New Orleans Superdome or Convention Center.
It is surely easy to sit in New York or Washington and hear subordinates spewing statistics about how many trucks have been (finally) mobilized, how many gallons of water are en route, how many have been rescued by local Coast Guard teams. But what is missing to people like Cherthoff is context. The question is not what was done (eventually), but when in comparison with known or predictable need.
Senator Trent Lott told Anderson Cooper that the griping was because people were uncomfortable and expectant of instant relief. Not true in New Orleans. People were way beyond uncomfortable; they were sick and dying. Even patients in hospitals died unnecessarily because Chertoff and Mike Brown did not feel their pain.
If Cherthoff had spent nights two and three in the Superdome with the unwashed masses, and Mike Brown had spent those nights in the Convention Center, their pride in their agencies’ responses might have subsided far faster than the New Orleans floodwaters will subside, and a little humility might break through. If they had FELT the emergency instead of looking at it from painless helicopter rides or television screens, they would have been SCREAMING for action from their agencies, not bragging about how impressive the responses were. If they had the need to use the bathroom in conditions experienced by the storm refugees and known the uncertainty of what was happening on the ground and when relief would finally come, they would have had a far different attitude.
If you had put Mike Brown and Mike Chertoff in New Orleans for a few days with only outgoing communications and no ability to hear from their offices, and let them take charge from the perspective of the needy, things would have been far different. But it is not too late, let’s send those proud agency heads down to those facilities post-evacuation and let them spend a couple of nights in the evacuated facilities with nothing to eat or drink and forced to stay in squalor, and maybe the response moving forward will improve.