Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Hurricane Wrap-Up

So after initially saying I wasn't in a position to say much about the hurricane, I guess I've said a fair amount... Here's my last go 'round.

Two articles caught my eye yesterday, both linked to by the Corner.

One is about FEMA insanity sending highly trained fire fighters to sensitivity training for eight hours before deploying them, and then only asking them to hand out information to help people contact the FEMA response line:

In a document that went out from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the agency asked for firefighters with very specific skills and who were capable of working in austere conditions. When they got to a center in Atlanta, they found out their jobs would be public relations.

"Our job was to advertise a phone number for FEMA," said Portage Assistant Fire Chief Bill Lundy. "We were going to be given shirts and hats with a phone number on it and flyers, and sent to shelters, and we were going to pass out flyers."

Lundy and Calhoun said they don't want to bash FEMA or its mission, Rogers reported. They said they only want to help, and that there were plenty of other firefighters in the room who felt the same way.

"There was almost a fight," said Portage Assistant Fire Chief Joe Calhoun. "There was probably 700 firefighters sitting in the room getting this training, and it dawned on them what we were going to be doing. And then it got bad from there."

Lundy and Calhoun's first task was an eight-hour course on sexual harassment and equal opportunity employment procedures, Rogers reported. Neither firefighter would be involved in technical rescues of trapped people or any of their other specialties.

The other is from the Washington Post, about how Louisiana receives far more Army Corps of Engineers money for civil works than any other state in the union (California comes in second with 1.5billion to Louisiana's 1.9billion) but much of that money was diverted to local pork barrel projects by the congressional delegation:

Much of that Louisiana money was spent to try to keep low-lying New Orleans dry. But hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to unrelated water projects demanded by the state's congressional delegation and approved by the Corps, often after economic analyses that turned out to be inaccurate. Despite a series of independent investigations criticizing Army Corps construction projects as wasteful pork-barrel spending, Louisiana's representatives have kept bringing home the bacon.

For example, after a $194 million deepening project for the Port of Iberia flunked a Corps cost-benefit analysis, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) tucked language into an emergency Iraq spending bill ordering the agency to redo its calculations. The Corps also spends tens of millions of dollars a year dredging little-used waterways such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the Atchafalaya River and the Red River -- now known as the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway, in honor of the project's congressional godfather -- for barge traffic that is less than forecast.

The Industrial Canal lock is one of the agency's most controversial projects, sued by residents of a New Orleans low-income black neighborhood and cited by an alliance of environmentalists and taxpayer advocates as the fifth-worst current Corps boondoggle. In 1998, the Corps justified its plan to build a new lock -- rather than fix the old lock for a tiny fraction of the cost -- by predicting huge increases in use by barges traveling between the Port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River.

In fact, barge traffic on the canal had been plummeting since 1994, but the Corps left that data out of its study. And barges have continued to avoid the canal since the study was finished, even though they are visiting the port in increased numbers.

Pam Dashiell, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, remembers holding a protest against the lock four years ago -- right where the levee broke Aug. 30. Now she's holed up with her family in a St. Louis hotel, and her neighborhood is underwater. "Our politicians never cared half as much about protecting us as they cared about pork," Dashiell said.

Now, when Jonah posted the FEMA story to the Corner with the comment "Your government at work..." Rod Dreher (always good for a critical response) demanded, "And exactly who has been responsible for that branch of the government since January 20th, 2001?" This pretty clearly is also the kind of thinking Mark Shea has had going on at some length since his return to blogging earlier this week.

Now, as any reader here could attest I'm certainly one for looking at the politics of a situation. However, one of the things that has struck me in relation to a number of different issues lately (responses to the hurricane, the situation in Iraq, the governing of the Catholic Church especially in dealing with the recent abuse scandals, etc.) is that most people seem to have a very simplistic idea of how authority works in an institution. When the diocese of San Francisco made a court filing using the phrase "engaging in unprotected sex" in regards to a paternity suit against a Redemptorist priest, lots of people immediately started talking about "Archbishop Levada telling women to use birth control". This isn't just a defense of people I like either. Remember all the accusations that went around about "Clinton ordered this" and "Clinton was responsible for that" back during his administration?

Maybe I'm being overly forgiving here, but even in the moderately well run large organizations that I've been a part of, there is a lot that goes on under the authority of a leader that has nothing to do with his actual wishes. E.g. the VP of a division says "We need to cut operating expenses" and next thing you know some mid level manager is saying, "Based on the VP's instructions, you must now fill out this form and get approval before buying new staples."

I'm a big fan of some of the WW2 era British authors like Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. Now, like many others, I'm a big admirer of Churchill, but read any account of what it was like to live in Brittain during the war years or serve in the army and you realize what how much money, energy, time and sometimes even lives were put into totally idiotic things. The opening chapters of Brideshead Revisitted (and just as much so Nick Jenkins' experiences in the war years of Dance to the Music of Time) deal with the absolutely soul numbing pretenses that made up much of army life.

I'm not sure exactly what to draw from all this beyond "humans have an amazing capacity to muck things up" but I think there's always a balance to be looked for in judging the performance of high level leadership. One wants to see some sort of administrative sanity enforced all the way down from the top to the bottom, but it seems that even among great leaders, when you're dealing with a huge organization like a government, the best you can often hope for is a good overall direction and perhaps the appointment of a few good upper to mid level subordinates. Then the Kenneth Widmerpools of the world take over, and whether anything else functional befalls us is very much in question.

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