Monday, September 5, 2005

Steph's out, and Bush should be too

We'd been waiting for a week to hear from Steph, who is a lifelong New Orleans resident and who lived Uptown. She finally called to say she was OK. She and her mom fled last Sunday to Alabama, where her brother put them up. They're looking at apartments in the building he's in. Barnes & Noble is still paying her even though the store is pretty much ruined.

It's still numbing to think of the enormity of this. Everyone has, at one time or another, talked about New Orleans disappearing under the sea. I just didn't think that I would actually see it happen. An entire city destroyed and lifeless. When's the last time something like that happened, and happened so suddenly? Atlanta and Richmond were evacuated during the Civil War. Pompeii was destroyed as a city thousands of years ago. I didn't watch any of those happen on TV, from the first Jim Cantore report to the last evacuations.

Fortunately, the federal government has swung into full emergency mode. No, not to rescue survivors from Katrina's aftermath - to rescue the president from FEMA's gross failures. All weekend, we've seen photo ops and interviews of officials who claimed, time and time again, that "local red tape" was to blame for everything. Rove saw the problem, and he and Bartlett are now "Swift Boating" Blanco and Nagin.

The problem with this is going to turn out to be threefold. First, a disaster of this scale is beyond the scope of a city or even a state. Second, since this was spread across four states, how will they be able to blame Blanco for the disaster without also tainting Haley Barbour? And third, the story has just begun. There are hundreds of thousands of people without homes now. This is going to get worse when the middle class maxes out their credit soon enough. We could be staring in the eye of major social upheaval. Are we going to claim that New Orleans be responsible for housing its own citizens? Where? With what?

The whole FEMA debacle of the past week shows the folly of having a "CEO presidency" like Bush has tried. I don't think that he ignored what was going on in the Gulf region. He did what he thought any good CEO would do: he delegated the responsibility to the team he'd identified as the right one. Then he went to bed satisfied that he had kept on top of things. Unfortunately, he's really not a very good CEO, as shown by three things.

First, Mike Brown of FEMA was a startlingly shitty hire. As they say at Microsoft, "B's hire C's." People who aren't top notch hire someone they see as good enough for the job during normal circumstances.

Second, the administration has created a culture of hiding the bad news. This is exactly the opposite of effective. Anyone who challenges a particularly stupid view or position is humiliated, demoted, or fired by Bush's team. There are so many examples of this that you can just google them up. The opposite side of this is that loyalty, no matter how shitty, is rewarded. I have no doubt whatsoever that Chertoff and Brown will be in line for special commendations at some point.

Third, he didn't demand accountability in the first, critical days. He settled for delegation without verification. And that's because everyone knows to sit on the bad news.


On an unrelated note, we went to the Hamptons Classic horse show on Saturday. The excitement came during a jump-off in the main show area. I managed to fight the tiny crowd and stood at the front railing with my camera. One of the riders came over the jump, the horse lurched forward, and the two of them went spilling onto the turf. The rider rolled around, holding body parts in obvious pain. Cordelia yelled "The horse is OK!!!"

Here's what a spill looks like up close. (Saved as a lower quality JPEG and shrunken down from 3000x2000. Click for the bigger view.)

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