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Were New Orleanians caught in political crossfire?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

In the aftermath of the disaster in New Orleans, questions have arisen as to whether the Bush administration withheld the deployment of troops and other assistance pending an agreement by the Louisiana Governor, Kathleen Blanco, to authorize the invocation of the Insurrection Act, which would have legally allowed Bush to declare martial law and take control of the rescue and rebuilding effort.

The NY Times on Sept. 8 reported that "As New Orleans descended into chaos last week and Louisiana's governor asked for 40,000 soldiers, President Bush's senior advisers debated whether the president should speed the arrival of active-duty troops by seizing control of the hurricane relief mission from the governor." But how this step would have improved the response time is not clear.

It is also unclear as to why such a move would be considered at all as no legal requirement was at issue, leading to the question of whether this was what some fear to have been a political power grab.

Landing craft leaves USS Bataan Aug 31.

The same Times article quotes unnamed official(s) saying that "no active-duty forces could have been sent into the chaos of New Orleans on Wednesday or Thursday without confronting law-and-order challenges." But though the law does bar US Military forces from law enforcement duties absent a declaration of martial law, there are no restrictions on their use in other capacities. Bush authorized more than 7,000 additional active duty troops on September 3 to join the more than 21,000 National Guard troops and more than 4,000 active duty forces deployed to the ravaged gulf region on September 1st and 2nd, law-and-order challenges taking a back seat to the urgency of the rescue mission.

Navy helicopters were over the city on August 30th and landing craft busy the following day. More than 400 members of the Army Corps of Engineers were on site, working to repair the levee system in New Orleans and removing floodwaters from the city. By September 2nd, 113 DoD helicopters, about half from the National Guard and half from active-duty Navy, Army and Air Force units, were continuing to support search and recovery missions.

The National Guard, which remains under the authority of the Governor of the state, are legally authorized and trained for law enforcement duties and the Times article goes on to say that "Pentagon officials said even the 82nd Airborne, which has a brigade on standby to move out within 18 hours, could not arrive any faster than 7,000 National Guard troops, which are specially trained and equipped for civilian law enforcement duties."

The Louisiana National Guard was conspicuously absent following the flooding and four days passed without relief. Several states offered emergency supplies, equipment and units from their National Guard. "New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson offered Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco help from his state's National Guard on Sunday, the day before Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. Blanco accepted, but paperwork needed to get the troops en route didn't come from Washington until late Thursday."

Similarly, FEMA has been roundly criticized for its own failure to fulfill its emergency command and control mandate during the same period of time. Though on-site before the hurricane struck, many stories of manpower, equipment and supplies being refused have surfaced. Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard has accused FEMA of cutting their local communication lines in the midst of the crisis. FEMA chief Mike Brown was ultimately removed from his post on Friday Sept. 9th.

Also on Friday National Guard units arrived in force and brought food and water, medical personnel, and quickly quelled the rampant looting that had beset the city during the previous days.

Without a full investigation, it is impossible to say what caused these delays. This disaster was unprecedented in scope and hit an area long known to be exceptionally vulnerable to catastrophic damage from a hurricane. But the length of the delay and the breadth of the failures have been widely condemned and demands for an explanation have come from both sides of the political aisle.

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