06.22.2010 0

A Messy Response to an Oily Disaster

By Rebekah Rast –

President Obama gave a speech in October of 2009 promising the people of New Orleans that they would not be forgotten, that efforts of reconstruction would continue after the catastrophic event of Hurricane Katrina just four years earlier.

In that speech, Obama also set a top priority for himself and his cabinet. “When I took office as President, one of the first things I did was tell my cabinet and senior staff that our Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts and our disaster response efforts were going to be top priorities for this White House. I wanted to get it right and I wanted us to be ready.”

It doesn’t seem like his cabinet or senior staff got that message. If they did get the message, then those words spoken by Obama are damning evidence of his inability to lead a country amidst a crisis.

Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government (ALG) reacts to Obama’s speech by saying, “Unfortunately the people of Louisiana are realizing Obama is a man of all words and no action.”

After 60-plus days of oil spewing from the Gulf, it is time to evaluate what the proper response should have been from our federal government. It is important to look at what went wrong and how best to learn from mistakes that should never happen again.

President Bush admitted a delayed response when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf and spent $140 billion, including tax credits, throughout the rest of his presidency to help reconstruct the area.

Part of that relief effort was led by Paul Conway, federal coordinator and chief of staff of The Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding. The Office of the Federal Coordinator was set up after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005. Conway led the effort starting in April 2007 until April 2009. He was on the ground helping victims rebuild their lives and preparing the Gulf in case another disaster should strike.

The Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding closed March 31, 2010. Weeks later, disaster struck the Gulf again on April 20th when an oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana. What followed was weeks of inaction on the part of the Administration.

Ironically, in a speech given at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, in February of 2008, Obama fed the crowd exactly what they wanted to hear, “We can talk about levees that couldn’t hold and a FEMA that seemed not just incompetent but paralyzed and powerless, about a President who only saw the people from an airplane instead of down here on the ground trying to provide comfort and aid. We can talk about a trust that was broken, the promise that our government will be prepared, will protect us and will respond in a catastrophe.”

It seems doubtful that the cheers Obama received in February of 2008 would be as loud now. He has failed the people of the Gulf Coast and has done exactly everything he said he would not do.

Just weeks after the shutdown of the Gulf Coast Rebuilding agency, Obama failed to call on the experts at rebuilding the region to help with reconstruction — leaving Conway scratching his head and wondering what is going on.

People in the Gulf were just getting their lives back together. Fishermen were able to fish again. The shrimp industry was picking back up. Restaurant cliental was on the rise. Now, because of the oil spill disaster, fishermen are forced to stop fishing. Those who work oil rigs for a living are left with no work due to Obama’s six-month moratorium on drilling. The American citizens who work and live in the Gulf are losing hope in the federal government.

“The Gulf people are good people,” Conway says in an exclusive interview with ALG. “There are hard-working people down there that are not going to believe that Obama went to work for them day one of the oil spill. It is not good for the country when people step back and have to say, who is going to help us?”

That is exactly what these people are asking. Where was the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, civil servants and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) day one of this disaster? What took them so long to respond?

“The accountability for the federal government’s reaction rests with the President and his team,” Conway says. “Unfortunately in the eyes of the American public, hard-working civil servants, federal employees, Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA and the Coast Guard looked ineffective because the federal leadership failed to use their knowledge in a crisis. That’s too bad because these people know how to respond.”

Maybe Obama received bad counsel, or maybe he realized his lack of experience at being a leader. Whatever the cause for the unresponsive, almost negligent, reaction that was given to this crisis needs to be evaluated and studied. This cannot happen again.

“The President should want his own review so he is not put in this position again,” Conway advises. “Something’s just not right. Something is broken.”

Conway knows the crisis training the federal government goes through to prepare for a disaster even before one strikes. A lot of money is spent by the government to get things right the first time.

What would a proper response have looked like? Conway gives an explanation of what should have happened.

“Here are some personal insights based on my experiences with three high level members of the Bush Administration and years of experience supporting White House decision-making processes in an emergency. In each position I held, if a breaking news story came across the television, the first and most immediate questions these leaders asked was, what is our role? What can we do to provide immediate recommendations to the President and his crisis team? This would occur within minutes and hours — not days. As standard operating procedure, we would immediately call the White House or the impacted Governor and offer expertise and intelligence from our sources on the ground.

“If you have a seasoned team, when an incident or major crisis occurs, the White House will call a Governor and say, what do you need Governor? Or, if a Governor calls to ask for assistance, the federal response should be to clear the way for the request. In this crisis situation, there are clear instances where the Obama Administration has delayed responding to practical requests by the governors, disputed other requests or simply failed to clear bureaucratic barriers. Governors play a critical role and usually have a strong sense for what’s needed in a disaster. ”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal reached out to the Administration days after the spill pleading for supplies and help. His pleas went unheard for weeks — and even then the Administration only delivered a portion of what he requested to get the job done.

The people of Louisiana will always wonder if Obama had answered Gov. Jindal’s request immediately, giving him all he needed, if they would be in better shape than they are today.
“60 days is a lifetime — that’s a long time,” Conway replies. “It is not a good thing when Americans lose confidence in elected government. President Obama has a problem. People don’t believe him anymore.”

We see his response to the Gulf Coast echoed in the flooded capital city of Nashville, Tenn. Victims there are still waiting for the federal government’s help. This begs the question, what would the outcome be if another disaster were to strike America’s soil? What if another hurricane devastates our states? What if another earthquake shakes California? Or God forbid, what if another terrorist attack strikes our nation?

Is our federal government prepared to handle another assault, whether natural or man-made?
“Looking at incidences over the past 10 years, like the Sago mine disaster, Sept. 11, Katrina and the Katrina response, the job of the immediate crisis team around the President is to bring about the best resources and ideas of what should have been done,” Conway states. “It didn’t seem like there was any of this in the initial stage of crisis.”

This Administration needs to reinvent the way it will handle future crises. It’s not a matter of if another disaster will strike America, but when. There is no excuse for the federal government’s actions these past two months. A game of golf should never take precedence over an elected official’s plea for assistance. A fundraiser or vacation should never outweigh the lives of suffering Americans.

“How the government responds in a crisis is a direct reflection of the government,” says Bill Wilson. “Obama and his Administration were merely spectators the first few weeks of this crisis.”

It would be wise for Obama to review his speeches from February 2008 and October 2009. A president’s words should always be followed by his actions.

Rebekah Rast is a contributing editor to ALG News Bureau.

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