Murder by Bureaucracy in St. Bernard?
(If you've never heard of St. Bernard Parish, please check out where it is on my helpful map.)
Here's how the process works in St. Bernard:
People found wading through the floodwaters, which by Saturday had become nearly black in color and smelled like a mixture of sewage and rotten fish, are first taken to the BellSouth parking lot to shower under a blue tarp. After that school buses take them to "Camp Katrina'' as the Chalmette slip has been dubbed by rescue workers. From there they are taken by ferry about five miles upriver to Algiers Point, where the U.S. Coast Guard shuttles them onto shelter-bound buses.
Unfortunately, the process did not start out so smoothly. At one point last week, there were more than 3,000 people stranded at the Chalmette slip, waiting for help. You never saw them on CNN, so I guess FEMA didn't know about them, either.
According to U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, who represents that parish, about 1,500 people were stranded on the slip last Thursday afternoon, where 100 had already died from exposure and other illnesses waiting for help. According to the T-P accounts, St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens and other local officials turned the parish prison into "a makeshift medical center until the wounded and sick could be flown to safety."
The main problem?
"We never had any communication from anybody," said Parish President Henry P. Rodriguez. "Anything that has been done in St. Bernard has been done by local people. We never had any goddamned help."
Their power was out, their phones were down, and they couldn't get through to anyone for days.
Their congressman tried. Congressman Melancon tried to get the word out about what was happening in St. Bernard. (He and Mary Landrieu are the only people I heard mention the parish in national news accounts before Aaron Broussard did on Meet the Press yesterday.)
On Thursday, the T-P included these harrowing details from Rep. Melancon:
Many of those at the slip were evacuated from a shelter set up at Chalmette High School that suffered massive flooding as the waters rose during Hurricane Katrina.
Melancon said people are being plucked out of their water-surrounded houses, but the effort to get them out of Chalmette and provide them with sufficient sustenance is the problem.
On Friday, when President Bush was down in the delta, Melancon tried to get in to talk to him, to let him know that all the good people in St. Bernard could not get the attention of FEMA officials -- the ones with the authority to bring in the helicopters and the boats and the food and the water. He didn't get the chance. Here's what happened instead:
And to make matters worse, Melancon said in a telephone interview, he was unable to deliver that message to President Bush during his visit to New Orleans on Friday because the president's security detail couldn't clear him in to meet with Bush on Air Force One.
After waiting 90 minutes while a U.S. marshal using a satellite phone repeatedly tried, and failed, to contact Bush's plane -- located just 300 yards away at New Orleans' Armstrong airport -- a disgusted Melancon left.
"After an hour and a half of that, and two hours to get down there, I am now back on my way, without seeing the president, not accomplishing anything in my mind today. I've wasted time while people are dying in South Louisiana," he said. "It's not personal to the president. It's just that this whole thing has been handled terribly."
Now someone no doubt is gonna make hay about how Rep. Melancon is a Democrat. I dare you to tell me that anything he did in this is a partisan political attack. How could he even think about politics with all those citizens from Chalmette and Arabi and Violet and Poydras weighing on his mind?
I am hoping some enterprising and resourceful journalist will go down and talk to all these local officials from St. Bernard, to put a timeline together. Because it sure as hell looks like the feds had no idea that St. Bernard was even on the map until at least four days after the storm.
I pulled the map on this site off of Wikipedia -- it's not brain surgery to figure out you might want to check on the areas near New Orleans -- particularly if you can't put a call through to any single official there.
Yesterday, on Meet the Press, Jeff Parish President Aaron Broussard gave his take on the mortally slow federal response to Katrina:
MR. RUSSERT: Jefferson Parish President Broussard, let me start with you. You just heard the director of Homeland Security's explanation of what has happened this last week. What is your reaction?
MR. AARON BROUSSARD: We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. I am personally asking our bipartisan congressional delegation here in Louisiana to immediately begin congressional hearings to find out just what happened here. Why did it happen? Who needs to be fired? And believe me, they need to be fired right away, because we still have weeks to go in this tragedy. We have months to go. We have years to go. And whoever is at the top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be chain-sawed off and we've got to start with some new leadership.
It's not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now.
"Bureaucracy has committed murder" -- those are damn strong words.
But, if the facts as I've strung them together hold up, that may well be exactly what happened to hundreds of people in St. Bernard.-8:45 P.M.
UPDATE, 9/5/05, 9:20 P.M.: I don't mean to overlook Broussard's allegations regarding Jefferson Parish. Andrew Sullivan, among others, are keeping the eye to the west of New Orleans as well. I think it's interesting how the networks replayed the clip of Broussard breaking down in tears -- rather than his substantive charges about FEMA's failures.