NEW ORLEANS--In a Monday blog post, WashPost's Al Kamen reports that the incoming Obama administration will bring back James Lee Witt, who successfully whipped FEMA into shape under Bill Clinton, to...whip FEMA back into shape. Obama, according to Kamen's sources, also plans to liberate FEMA from the Homeland Security bureaucracy. What's not to like?
Well....FEMA was the poster child for federal incompetence, according to the consensus media narrative of the 2005 New Orleans flooding disaster. And it's undeniable that FEMA's lack of alacrity (and of advance planning) made a horrible situation worse. But the true poster child for federal incompetence, in the eyes, at least, of New Orleanians was and is the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, tasked by a 1960s Congress to protect New Orleans from severe hurricanes, failed, by its own standards, and according to its own post-mortem. More independent observers, like the UC Berkeley ILIT team, had an even harsher verdict. Yet who's blithely going about fixing that which they screwed up so royally? The Corps. Who's reviewing their work? If anybody, engineers approved and paid by...the Corps.
President-Elect Obama has talked recently of investing in infrastructure. The program to restore the Louisiana coastal wetlands--this region's buffer against hurricane severity, and a resource profoundly damaged by decades of Corps- and oil-company-sponsored canal and pipeline building across delicate marshes--was estimated in 2000 to cost $14 billion. At the time, that figure was regarded as impossibly huge. Flash forward eight years, when hundreds of federal billions are being flung at profligate banks. It would be welcome news if coastal wetlands restoration, currently a major state responsibility, received serious federal help. It would be even more welcome, not only to Louisiana but to every state where the Corps has done its work (and that's every state) if independent peer review of Army Corps designs and plans were given equal priority with reforming FEMA. FEMA, after all, only cleans up the messes after they happen.