Update on the Precautionary Principle

Gary Farber has been doing an impressive job of compiling a wide variety of reports on the situation in New Orleans, particularly from The Interdictor, who is blogging from within New Orleans.

One thing I’ll take back about my original entry is the assertion that the only real failure here was to have ready-state relief resources dedicated to New Orleans well-funded and poised during hurricane season, that the money issue is the only issue. I know it’s easy to criticize from this distance, but avoidable incompetence, especially at FEMA, is now very obviously a part of the problem. Like a number of readers, I was particularly astonished at the claim in a Washington Post article that one of the broken levees was plugged by a private contractor who got tired of FEMA’s dithering and just went out and did it, but also by the recent report that officials in Houston just decided, after buses started arriving, that they can’t accomodate most of the refugees in the Astrodome after all. I understand their reasoning (fire safety) but why couldn’t they decide that earlier?

Gary Jones and I appear to disagree about some things, particularly at the level of particular emphasis or intensity of assessment, but I think he’s absolutely right that this crisis is exposing more than just simple incompetence, and absolutely right to find my earlier post lacking in this sense. My earlier argument that we just need more funding, better applications of the precautionary principle, or smarter forms of expertise isn’t sufficient. There’s something far deeper wrong here, certainly something deeper than a particular President’s actions (though come on, he hasn’t even done even remotely well the few small things that could be done right in this crisis by a President, hasn’t demonstrated any of the decisiveness that ought to be his forte as a leader, if you listen to his cult-of-personality devotees).

Development experts, when their latest plans or schemes fail in some fashion, either complain that they were almost there when someone yanked out the rug from underneath them or they blithely move on to the next fad or fashionable development plan and forget whatever the last one was. Just suggesting, as I did, that all this system needs is more money or more effective leadership, comes close to doing the same thing. There were lots of plans, lots of knowledge, lots of resources, even if the plans fell short, the knowledge was insufficient, and the resources too limited when the crisis came. When a local contractor can just head out and plug a gap in a levee that a gigantic lumbering bureaucracy paralytically just contemplates, it becomes clear that what is missing is a kind of common sense, that the whole system is immensely fragile for all that it is huge and powerful. The reforms we need most are structural reforms, not just funding or a better executive director for FEMA or a different President. Gary’s right: the whole system of managing our lived relationship to environments and coping with catastrophes or problems needs a vastly more robust, distributed character, the same kind of shift that Bruce Schneier has urged in our approach to security issues.

Later addendum: Michael Brown, director of FEMA, may or may not be incompetent in technical terms. But blaming people for not evacuating, and that’s exactly what he’s doing in this interview, is just a shitty, mean little thing to do. It’s a kind of whining, an anti-leadership. What, he thinks it is not appropriate to talk now about why megamillions in contingency planning failed so grotesquely but it is appropriate right now to scapegoat people who mostly lacked the means to evacuate and were provisioned with no meaningful assistance in evacuating? Yes, some people just decided to stay, for a variety of reasons. However, look at the people we’ve been seeing on television: it’s plain that many of them could not get out unless someone expressly helped them get out. There was no consistent provision of such assistance.

There’s the one conversation that some of us are having about what could or could not have been done systematically, about how disaster planning works or doesn’t work. There’s another thing altogether, and that’s about the ability of political and bureaucratic leaders as well as pundits and ordinary folk to show a kind of common-sense decency in grappling with the situation, in understanding its meaning to us as human beings. That’s not so important when it comes to concretely solving or fixing problems, but it is important in terms of defining the character of the American people. There are many leaders and observers and ordinary folk who are making me proud to be American. Michael Brown makes me feel the opposite. Jonah Goldberg, cracking cheap jokes about Waterworld and then making a non-apology apology that’s almost worse, makes me feel the opposite. Whomever the deranged assholes are who are shooting at helicopters and threatening to loot hospitals make me feel the opposite. There are two tests here: can we do better as a society in understanding and solving major problems, and can we be decent, can we demonstrate character.

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7 Responses to Update on the Precautionary Principle

  1. I was shocked by Michael Brown, and by Chertoff on NPR yesterday (“What convention center? New Orleans has a convention center? Let me assure you, we are doing everything we humanly can…”)

    I was listening to that live, and nearly stopped the car in disbelief. Doesn’t this guy have some obligation to at least be current?

    Thanks for the pointer on the private contractor that plugged the breach. I hadn’t heard about it. Here’s to hoping the levee pumps work!

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, yeah, Chertoff! Holy SHIT, what an asshole. “Our MAGNIFICENT response”. We only just this minute heard about the convention center. There’s some leadership for you.

    The Post article is interesting on the pumps: sounds like one faction of experts on the scene fully expect them to work, and another faction is skeptical.

  3. bbenzon says:

    The way I see it, the nation — considered as an abstract geopolitical entity responsible for the welfare of its citizens — has failed. Just how that failure is to be apportioned among individuals and organizations of all kinds, that is a difficult matter to figure out. But the fact of national failure is obvious.

    This should not have happened. It was preventable given our expertise, knowledge, and resources. This failure is evidence that we are not ready for life in the 21st century.

    As for the soul searching and reoganization in the wake of 9/11, had the nation been healthy, that would process would have made us less vulnerable to a natural force like that embodied in Katrina. Instead, it looks like that exercise had all the effectiveness of the Keystone Cops.

    As for the comments I’ve been reading and seeing on network TV about New Orleans looking like a third-world disaster area — that’s the ugly truth about structural poverty in this country. The geo-social fabric of the country is riddled with third world enclaves while CEOs make 100s of times what their employees do.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s right. It feels like a failure, a failure that we all share.

    When the World Trade Center fell, it felt like we’d all been attacked, all been targets. I’ve written about that before: it made a visceral, palpable connection in my head with my visions of my father’s death.

    This feels equally collective and shared, but it’s a sense of shame this time, not anger and pain that we could be hurt so by someone who bears us ill will. And it makes the shame all the greater and dirtier and more humiliating when political leaders, the people who are supposed to speak for and with us, try to run like cowards from that shame, and talk shit like “our response has been magnificent” and “we only just found out there’s a problem” and “it’s the fault of the victims”. Or when some spoiled brat like Goldberg mocks and makes light of it all.

  5. jadagul says:

    Bbenzon: New Orleans’s similarity to a third-world country goes much deeper than poverty and wealth issues. We really are structured like a lousy third-world country–incompetent administration, corrupt bureaucrats and cops. On some level, I’m actually surprised by how competent the local response has been: I would have expected New Orleans politicians to rise to much greater and more impressive levels of incompetence.

  6. hestal says:

    How will history write about this tragedy? Will it write that a combination of social, political and economic currents resulted in an inadequate response to an obvious weakness? Or will it write that an inadequate man, placed in power by the judicial fiat of five individuals, produced an inadequate response to an obvious weakness? I vote for the latter, because historians write about persons whenever they can. And in this case, they would be right.

    Common sense is not very helpful in situations like this. Intellection is.

  7. I don’t feel ashamed, I feel frightened and angry. Some large proportion of Americans have shown themselves to have much more common sense decency than the government does.

    The debacle in New Orleans definitely shows a systemic problem, but I don’t see it running through the whole culture.

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