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Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Why FEMA Dithered: Power Grab?

This Mick Arran article over at Dispatches From the Trenches is an absolute must read. I don't know if it's 100% true or not, but it's the shortest path to an explanation I've seen for why FEMA sat on its hands and, in some cases, actively blocked, efforts to save the citizens of New Orleans.

According to the Washington Post:

Behind the scenes, a power struggle emerged, as federal officials tried to wrest authority from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). Shortly before midnight Friday, the Bush administration sent her a proposed legal memorandum asking her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans, a source within the state's emergency operations center said Saturday.

The administration sought unified control over all local police and state National Guard units reporting to the governor. Louisiana officials rejected the request after talks throughout the night, concerned that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law. Some officials in the state suspected a political motive behind the request. "Quite frankly, if they'd been able to pull off taking it away from the locals, they then could have blamed everything on the locals," said the source, who does not have the authority to speak publicly.

A senior administration official said that Bush has clear legal authority to federalize National Guard units to quell civil disturbances under the Insurrection Act and will continue to try to unify the chains of command that are split among the president, the Louisiana governor and the New Orleans mayor.

Why might taking over be important enough to them that they'd let people die to do it? Arran explains:

1. Bush’s concern wasn’t centered on helping the starving and homeless refugees in New Orleans but on protecting private property in the suburbs from potential ‘looters’. The refugees were poor and black and the conservative view of them is that they’re all dangerous ‘rabble’—lazy, shiftless thieves; a mob.

2. Because his view is that the poor and black are little more than a mob, he was expecting an insurrection and wanted the authority to put it down by force.

3. Declaring martial law would give the Federal government total control of the city: the Army would be brought in to police it and—perhaps most important to this corporate president—the Federal government would have charge of all the rebuilding contracts, giving it $$$billions$$$ to hand out to its corporate sponsors.

4. There’s also the little matter of taking decisions about how and what to rebuild out of the hands of the people of New Orleans and putting them into the hands of people who see New Orleans as ‘Sin City’, effectively ensuring that New Orleans would never again be the Big Easy.

For my own part, I'd also add that it would give the feds the ability to limit press access to the city and classify information they didn't want out in the open, possibly on the grounds that it would reveal too much of our DHS infrastructure.

It makes sense of the Bush administration's repeated insistence lie that Blanco hadn't declared a state of emergency until Wednesday--it would give them ammunitition to take over for Blanco by blaming her for their own inaction.

Louisiana did not reach out to a multi-state mutual aid compact for assistance until Wednesday, three state and federal officials said. As of Saturday, Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said.

"The federal government stands ready to work with state and local officials to secure New Orleans and the state of Louisiana," White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said. "The president will not let any form of bureaucracy get in the way of protecting the citizens of Louisiana."

Finally, it provides a rationale for why the feds were pushing the 'armed looter' story so hard: it wasn't to blame the locals for what had happened to themselves; it was meant to be used to justify the invocation of the Insurrection Act and as a stick to beat Blanco into giving up control over the city because she couldn't secure it.

Here's how the Insurrection Act works:

Quelling Civil Disturbances: The Insurrection Act (10 U.S.C. § 331 et seq.)

State and local governments have primary responsibility for quelling rebellions (32 C.F.R. § 215.4(a).

The President may use the military (including the Federalized National Guard) to quell (1) civil disturbances in a State (upon the Governor's request), (2) rebellions that make it difficult to enforce Federal law, or (3) any insurrection that impedes a State's ability to protect citizens' constitutional rights and that State is unable to unwilling to protect these rights.

Before committing U.S. troops, the President must issue a proclamation for rebellious citizens to disperse, cease, and desist.

It doesn't take much of a stretch to see the feds' actions and statements as specifically tailored to invoke the Act. It's pretty damned obvious that if relief workers and the NG had been allowed into the city in a timely manner, order could have easily been restored without a complete federal takeover of the city.

As in Iraq, when the locals didn't follow the script and greet us with candy and flowers and coronate Ahmad Chalabi, there was no Plan B for New Orleans. DHS and FEMA didn't have any contingency worked out for the possibility that full martial law would not be imposed that would tell them to open the aid spigots. And there wasn't a way to quickly disseminate the new orders that wouldn't reveal that administration had dragged its feet. This further delayed relief, compounding the tragedy immensely.

I'd imagine there were a lot of people in the DHS/FEMA carrying out these bizarre orders who were not under the Bush political machine umbrella, and who are scratching their heads awfully hard about it. Perhaps some of them will come forward and tell the nation in the coming days and weeks exactly what went on that prevented them from saving the lives of their fellow citizens.