History Repeats Itself

In 1927 the apocalyptic floods in the Mississippi River Basin ravaged a huge swath of the South, stranding tens of thousands of impoverished people on levees as narrow as six feet wide for days. The devastation was enormous.

The response from the humorless, taciturn president, Republican Calvin Coolidge, was for the most part nonexistent. He barely acknowledged it, leaving relief efforts to his secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, who did his best to find some way to bring solace and aid to the suffering throngs. Although Hoover was to win the presidency a year later, the negligence of the Coolidge White House and the disdain on the part of the president himself was the beginning of the end of black support for the Republican Party. Lincoln’s legacy had finally succumbed.

That shameful affair, the subject of song and verse, seemed to play out again for five days at least while the world watched in utter horror as sluggish, confused and unresponsive government on all levels allowed tens of thousands of its citizens from New Orleans to Biloxi, Miss., huge numbers of them black, to suffer and often die in the most horrendous conditions. It was and is a national disgrace documented 24-7 by television and causing even the most hardened to weep in frustration, anger and sorrow. Watching became unbearable.

The political fallout for the Bush administration and the Republican Party generally could be more horrendous than the aftermath of 1927, threatening the president’s legislative agenda and further undercutting his Iraq policy. Moreover, only four years after the terrorist attack on America, it has shaken Americans’ faith in the ability of elected and appointed leaders to adequately deal with threats to their security from storms to dirty bombs and to meet the challenges of recovery afterwards.

Americans have the right to ask where all the money has gone that was meant to reassure them that everything was being done to safeguard their well being? What has happened to the vaunted Department of Homeland Security that was supposed to provide a levee that would hold back or at least contain disaster, natural or manmade? It now looks to many like an illusion devised to give them comfort in the wake of 9/11, but meaningless beyond issuing color coded threat levels. If not, where was it?

Well, we certainly know it wasn’t anywhere near New Orleans. Michael Chertoff, the secretary of this hastily cobbled together nightmare of a department, didn’t even know until mid-week that there were several thousand refugees trapped and expiring in the vilest conditions in the city’s convention center. He had to be told by reporters, who unlike official rescuers were able to reach the beleaguered survivors without much difficulty. The truth is it has been painfully obvious for some time that the department was a mistake. The complete failure of the Federal Emergency Management Administration to meet its responsibilities after having been incorporated into the new department is the best evidence of that.

It is too bad that rather than accept and admit the mistakes, Chertoff spent time on television Sunday shifting blame and making excuses. State and local authorities were severely out manned and unprepared in a miscalculation of historic proportions. This still begs the question about the lack of planning by FEMA for a worst-case scenario from a storm that had made its fury quite clear for two days before it hit. The possibility of what a head-on or even veering collision of a major storm would do to below-sea-level New Orleans has been the subject of countless studies and articles.

“Unacceptable,” the president said about his administration’s slow response to pleas for help as he took off to view the scene too many days late. Unfortunately for him, he had been caught once again out of Washington at a time of horrific crisis, leaving the impression that he and his minions were not on the job. His palpable anger was muted, however, by his foolish praise of an incompetent FEMA head, Michael Brown.

Bush needs now to forget about Crawford, Texas, and to focus his attention on cleaning up the debris Katrina has left in Washington as well as New Orleans. He needs to appoint a national figure, a Colin Powell or Rudolph Giuliani, to oversee the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast.

Otherwise, to paraphrase the Randy Newman ballad, “Louisiana” about the devastation of the 1927 flood, the aftermath of Katrina may “wash away” the president’s credibility and the fortunes of his party.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)