Weighing in on the Katrina critique.

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 17, 2005

It's always a chuckle to watch my wife after we arrive in a new hotel room.

While I usually throw my suitcase in the corner and plop down on the bed, TV remote in hand, Glenna begins her nesting rituals, which involve unpacking, placing and arranging things in the precise orientation that makes her most comfortable. This usually occurs along with a running critique of the facilities, which I think of as motherly clucking.

This activity bothers me not a whit, and last week in Charlotte, as she did it once again, I reflected on how the nesting urge came into play in the Federal response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

When the Department of Homeland Security was formed, it combined several federal agencies under one new umbrella. Among these was the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, with whom many of you dealt after Hurricanes Floyd and Isabel.

During this federal transition, tens of thousands of government employees were displaced either physically or through having their pecking order disrupted.

Bureaucrats are world class nesters. They thrive on having their territory well defined, both in their physical arrangements and their job responsibilities. Surely, federal government employees coined the phrase, &uot;It’s not my job.&uot;

By defining and limiting the outer parameters of their jobs and being able to creatively argue them, some bureaucrats can effectively eliminate work altogether, blending into the great masses of civil servants, seldom noticed.

It has been four years since FEMA was sucked down the drain of a cabinet level organization to the bowels of the government’s largest single department. Those tens of thousands of FEMA employees found their nests badly messed, so they began the long, arduous process of reestablishing themselves.

I believe a contributing factor to the slow, ineffective response to Katrina was that the nesting ritual at FEMA was still underway and had helped divert civil servants from focusing on the job at hand, while they concentrated on getting re-insulated in the hierarchy.

A friend once worked at the Department of Energy. She used to regale us with stories of the dozens of people there who never did a lick of work, not for a few hours or days, but over a period of years.

It’s one thing for the occasional county commissioner to create a job for a political crony or to featherbed a special girlfriend, but imagine the magnitude of unproductive workers, taking the dozen of first hand experiences of one energy department employee, multiplied by the millions of federal workers worldwide.

Anyway, I know there are plenty who are hardworking and dedicated, and I mean them no offense; but it pushes the boundaries of propriety when, as my friend saw several times, these non-workers are actually running other businesses while not working at work.

Strange as it sounds, most natural disasters fall under the business as usual category for first responders and emergency agencies. There hasn't been a disaster in living memory so severe for rescue and relief workers that business as usual was swept from the operational options. Nothing about Katrina was business as usual, thus the response was doomed from the moment she made landfall that fateful Sunday night.

Subsequently, all kinds of other problems revealed themselves, leaving no senior decision-making participant completely in the clear.

The mayor of New Orleans ignored the history of other hurricanes in his city, when the Superdome failed as a shelter and the evacuation plan failed big time. He didn't understand his legal powers and failed to take advantage of evacuation options available, including later flooded school buses and an offer from Amtrak to cram as many as possible aboard equipment they were shuttling out of harm's way.

The governor of Louisiana failed to call out the National Guard in a timely manner, and according to sources at the highest levels of the Army, she ignored volunteer offers that came from several states, instead spending her time railing for help from the Feds.

The president did his part to screw things up long before the event by allowing his team to stuff unqualified campaign workers and well-heeled supporters into top jobs at FEMA. Later, instead of gazing down at the mess from Air Force One, he should've been issuing urgent and clear orders for help.

Let’s not forget Congress, our pious, finger-pointing brethren who created the Department of Homeland Security monster and consistently diverted needed flood control funds towards pork barrel projects of their own.

The mayor gets the last nod, though, for using city funds to send almost two-thirds of the police department to Las Vegas and other choice sites, for rest and relaxation. When asked if such a thing is appropriate, with hundreds of thousands of his constituents in dire straits, he said, &uot;New Orleans is a party town. Get over it.&uot;