Monday, August 29, 2011

'Federal Family' is Term du Jour after Hurricane Irene

The onset of Hurricane Irene and its dominance of the news stories over the last weekend was a shadow cast on another storm - Hurricane Katrina. On this day in 2005, the city of New Orleans was devastated when the levees broke and flooded parts of the city, including the 9th Ward. The southern coast of Mississippi was demolished and swept out to the Gulf of Mexico. Parts of Alabama received major damage, too.

Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, destroying beachfront towns in Mississippi and Louisiana, displacing a million people, and killing almost 1,800. When levees in New Orleans were breached, 80% of the city was submerged by the flooding. About 20% of its 500,000 citizens were trapped in the city without power, food, or drinking water. Rescue efforts were so delayed and haphazard that many were stranded for days on rooftops and in attics before help arrived. The city became a toxic pool of sewage, chemicals, and corpses, and in the ensuing chaos, mayhem and looting became rampant—about 15% of the city's police force had simply walked off the job. The 20,000 people who made their way to the Superdome, the city's emergency shelter, found themselves crammed into sweltering and fetid conditions. At a second shelter, the convention center, evacuees were terrorized by roaming gangs and random gunfire. Relief workers, medical help, security forces, and essential supplies remained profoundly inadequate during the first critical days of the disaster.

It was bad. Hurricane Katrina brought home a message all too often forgotten by those dependent on the federal government - the red tape and bureaucracy makes government at the national level a slow and inefficent beast.

The Bush administration was lambasted and permanently damaged after its response to that storm - some deserved criticism and most not. With that in mind, Team Obama was determined to not be caught asleep at the wheel. The President and the First Family returned home about twelve hours early from their tony vacation on Martha's Vineyard and the mission was to establish that President Obama was on it - he was briefed and made statements throughout the weekend.

The administration made a concerted and coordinated effort to introduce a new phrase into the national conversation - one meant to comfort all into thinking the federal government will blanket you will protection, so fear not. The term is "federal family". Really. I'm not making it up. In order to remove the very unpopular word of "government" these days, we are to think of it in terms of a family.

How quaint. How utterly cynical from this uber-cynical administration.

Local and state officials errored on the side of full alert for this monster storm. That was a good thing, as lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina played out. The storm may have been more of a rain or wind event for some but for others it was devastating. It is always better to err on the side of safety.

But the storm had all the makings of a catastrophe: large, slow-moving and pointed at the heart of the nation’s largest city. It was not hard to imagine that the low-lying central part of Manhattan would be swamped like New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Not only would there have been scores of lives lost, but the beating heart of America’s financial industry would have been stifled.

In the end, though, the storm was nothing like Katrina and the small number of dead and isolated property damage will be lamented now, but soon swept from the front pages. It takes a lot to hold the nation’s disaster fascination: ask the still-struggling folks in Alabama and Joplin.

But before Irene fizzled, the Obama White House wanted to make sure that Irene was no Katrina and that, in fact, the president and his aides would be seen in compassionate command of the situation.

Hence the introduction of what may be the most condescending euphemism for the national government in its long history of condescending euphemizing: “federal family.”

This new phrase was supposed to, Power Play supposes, make anxious East Coasters feel the love of a caring federal government -- tender squeeze from the Department of Homeland Security, a gentle embrace from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The phrase was a centrally distributed talking point, appearing in op-eds, press releases and statements from across the administration.

President Obama, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and FEMA Director Fugate were all on board with this nonsense. We care, we are family, depend on us.

Do we all feel better now?

My comfort came from witnessing news reports of local officials and state governors taking the lead and acting quickly. That is where storm response is centered - the local and then state level. The people of Louisiana suffered far greater death and aftermath tragedy than was necessary thanks to the sheer incompetence of New Orleans Mayor Naguin and Governor Blanco. President Bush beseeched them to act and his pleas were set aside, often for the political optics of bucking the Republican president. Lives were lost and families destroyed because of their posturing.

Governor Barbour in Mississippi took an early lead and took care of evacuating people along the coast. He didn't wait for federal response. He realized that the feds can only do so much before the storm actually hits. FEMA supplies have to be positioned out of the path of a storm so that when the conditions allow supplies to move in - when the waters on the road recede so that trucks can pass - the process can begin.

The federal government is not your family, no matter how many times President Obama utters the phrase. The federal government is a bureauocracy. Your family consists of capable human beings. Dependence on any governmental entity deminishes personal freedom and responsibility.

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