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July 19, 2010

Feds Haven't Treated Spill Like National Disaster

By

Aug. 29, 2005. It was the worst of times.

At 6:10 a.m., Katrina made landfall near Buras-Triumph, La., winds howling at 125 miles an hour. Within hours, it destroyed or degraded most of infrastructure in a 90,000-square-mile area and disrupted the lives of millions.

Emergency responders faced a logistical nightmare. Everything essential to speeding aid -- transportation networks, power and communications -- was wiped out. A veteran responder likened the challenge to "landing an army at Normandy, with a little less shooting."

When catastrophes occur, rescue, relief and remediation resources must respond immediately. Moreover, the people must have confidence that their leaders, at all levels of government, are on top of the situation and doing the right things to make matters better.

In the wake of Katrina, the national effort fell short. Washington was slow to respond. But once the feds got their act together, they turned in a pretty impressive performance.

The Coast Guard performed magnificently, rescuing more than 33,000 victims under harrowing conditions. Tens of thousands more, including those at the Superdome and Convention Center, were evacuated before dehydration, hunger, exposure or disease could exact a toll.

Hundreds of thousands were sheltered around the country. And billions in recovery assistance poured in.

The leadership of New Orleans and Louisiana state officials, on the other hand, proved completely ineffectual.

What a difference a half of a decade makes. The response of state and local leaders to the Gulf oil spill would make the Founding Fathers proud. (Federalism works!)

This should come as no surprise. After all, the locals are the people closest to the problem. They have the most at stake. They care.

And this time, they were prepared.

After Katrina, Louisiana transformed its disaster response system from one of the nation's worst into one of the best. The Louisiana National Guard has been particularly impressive. A few weeks ago, it had more than 1,000 soldiers deployed and working on oil containment and cleanup.

After Katrina, Louisiana transformed its disaster response system from one of the nation's worst into one of the best. The Louisiana National Guard has been particularly impressive. A few weeks ago, it had more than 1,000 soldiers deployed and working on oil containment and cleanup.

This time, it's the federal leadership that has been pathetic. Indeed, the White House's lethargic and pettifogging response to the situation has exacerbated the disaster.

The trick to fighting the spill is to keep oil from getting ashore and into the marshlands and estuaries. That means moving fast.

Instead, the federal government opted for a centralized response that requires multiple layers of approval before a slick can be sucked up.

After weeks of pleading and cajoling by state officials, the feds finally allowed them to set up Forward Operating Branches -- teams of state and local experts in each parish that can provide a quick assessment and response. That has helped some.

But state and local officials are still pulling their hair at what seems to them like Washington's peacetime attitude to wartime conditions.

The poster child of federal ineptness has been the multilayered and time-consuming permit process that state and local officials are forced to go through before they can erect oil barriers or start cleanup operations in newly contaminated locations. Locals who know what to do and want only to "get on with the job" must first run a gauntlet of review-and-approval by numerous federal agencies who seem more concerned with preserving the sanctity of their regulations than containing and capturing the oil before it kills more wildlife and poisons the ground.

Today, after three months of leaks, the wellhead appears to be capped. But unless Washington starts treating the 180 million-gallon spill like the disaster it is, it may yet succeed in turning it into a catastrophe that will cripple the entire Gulf region's economy and way of life for years to come.

James Carafano is the Deputy Director for The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Washington Examiner

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