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On the evening of Aug. 30, 2005, more than a day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, then–Federal Emergency Management Agency director Mike Brown met with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. He told her that the federal government had 500 buses on standby, which could help rescue the 100,000 people trapped in the city. “I promise you we will get you those buses,” Brown told her.
There were no buses.
Days passed, and tens of thousands of refugees gathered at the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center. Little food, water, or medical supplies were available. No buses appeared. Nor did airdrops of supplies. As this paralysis and the resulting suffering became glaringly obvious, outrage and hand wringing grew about then-president George W. Bush’s disengagement, and the horrific spectacle of a global superpower unable to rescue its own citizens. The evacuation did not begin in earnest until Sept. 2, after National Guard troops arrived.
Today, as an overwhelmed Trump administration — and a president clearly out of his depth – struggle to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the government faces a “missing buses” scenario on a vastly greater scale. Healthcare workers lack masks, other protective equipment, and, most crucially, ventilators needed to handle rapidly expanding numbers of critical cases. Shortages of test kits persist and hospitals are rapidly becoming overwhelmed. Yet, even as appeals from governors, mayors and other officials have grown louder, President Donald Trump and the government he leads have failed to take the lead in ways that eerily parallel the presidential-level failures of Katrina.
As the death toll increases, the bumbling response in the early weeks of the crisis will look worse and worse. But it’s not too late to learn from what happened almost 15 years ago in New Orleans.
First of all, think about those missing buses.
“You know, we’re not a shipping clerk,” Trump said last week, criticizing appeals from governors for crucial medical supplies. In some sense, though, that’s exactly what the federal government needs to be right now. Logistics, carried out on a national level and led by the White House, are key to mobilizing public and private resources to avert mass death and suffering.
Procuring buses in a national emergency was the job of two federal agencies. FEMA was supposed to make requests to the Department of Transportation. At the last minute before Hurricane Katrina hit, a FEMA official did make an inquiry, but DOT counterparts did not follow through and request buses from their contractor. An overwhelmed FEMA never followed up – even as hungry, thirsty displaced residents waited for help. The request got lost in a paralyzed bureaucracy.
Brown took a lot of blame for the whole botched response, and Bush’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” became a catchphrase for incompetence. But the real fault lies with the Bush White House, which had marginalized FEMA and degraded its capacities.
Under Bush’s predecessor Bill Clinton, FEMA had been given the clout to respond effectively to disasters, really for the first time since its creation under Jimmy Carter. But Bush downsized the agency and turned its leadership into a patronage post. Post-9/11, it was folded into the newly created Department of Homeland Security, where its core mission — mobilizing diverse government departments with White House backing — became unworkable in a big crisis. (At the time, possible terror attacks were the government’s obsession, not hurricanes. And, ironically, on Aug. 30, then–DHS secretary Michael Chertoff blew off New Orleans to attend a CDC briefing on the threat of avian flu.) As a result, when the time came it was impossible to expedite urgent, lifesaving requests.
The failures in both Katrina and the coronavirus pandemic point back to the specific decisions and character of each leader — and their party’s hostility to government. Bush’s FEMA decisions were based half on the general principle of undoing things Clinton had done, half out of a Republican idea that the federal government should cede the lead on disasters to the states. Katrina showed that was nonsense: states can easily get overwhelmed; the federal government must be prepared to step in.
This points to another principle of national disaster response, the most important one right now: When catastrophe hits, only presidential leadership can fully mobilize national resources as events unfold.
The White House is the one American institution that commands resources and clout on a national scale, across state and international lines, and in both the public and private sectors. Put simply, a call from FEMA, or the CDC Director, or from a governor or mayor, won’t work like a call from the White House. Bush could have gotten those buses running in short order had anyone put him on the case.
This means the White House must be organized, on a war footing. What’s needed is nothing less than a massive, national logistics operation to ramp up manufacture and distribution of key supplies now and over the coming months. There must be established lines of authority across agencies, and clear goals. Without them, breakdowns are inevitable and lives will be lost. Even with them, things will go wrong, and the president — or those close to him in the chain of command – must know whom to call, when, and exactly what to ask for to solve problems as they arise.
Nothing like that is happening now. The White House’s considerable powers are simply going unused. As with the Bush White House, you have fast-moving events, weak organizations, and a basic inability to coordinate action. Add to that the lack of recognition that this is a problem — the result of Trump’s personal ineptitude, transactionalism, and maliciousness. Trump’s crisis management style is essentially improvisation based on personal whims, not a response to concrete problems. This has made it impossible for the White House to centralize control and coordinate an effective response. Instead, governors are on a mad scramble to procure whatever they can from wherever they can.
In New York, the national epicenter of the outbreak, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has been begging Trump to send ventilators. As of Tuesday, it had received a tiny fraction of the need: “400 ventilators? I need 30,000 ventilators. You want a pat on the back for 400 ventilators?” Cuomo said. Later, Vice President Mike Pence announced 4,000 more were on the way. Obviously, the federal government has the power — through the Defense Production Act, among other things — to compel the rapid manufacture and distribution of ventilators. But that’s not Pence’s job. Asked about governors’ requests, Trump said: “It’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well, also. They can’t say, ‘Oh, gee, we should get this, we should get that.’” But that’s exactly what they should be saying, and the White House should jump in response.
The worst of the Katrina humanitarian disaster played out over a week. The worst of COVID-19 is yet to come, and the void at the top remains one of our greatest weaknesses.
John McQuaid is a Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist and the co-author of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.