Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Lottery

It's difficult to say exactly what the criticism of Michael Brown is. That he is held in contempt by members of the committee set up to investigate what went wrong in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is clear. That they have a specific complaint about what Brown should have done differently is not. Breitbart.com has this report on today's hearings:

Former FEMA director Michael Brown blamed others for most government failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina on Tuesday, especially Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. He aggressively defended his own role. Brown also said that in the days before the storm, he expressed his concerns that "this is going to be a bad one" in phone conversations and e-mails with President Bush, White House chief of staff Andy Card and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin.

And he blamed the Department of Homeland Security _ the parent agency for the Federal Emergency Management Agency _ for not acquiring better equipment ahead of the storm. His efforts to shift blame drew sharp criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike.

"I'm happy you left," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "That kind of look in the lights like a deer tells me you weren't capable of doing that job."

Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., told Brown: "The disconnect was, people thought there was some federal expertise out there. There wasn't. Not from you."

Brown appeared before a special congressional panel set up by House Republican leaders to investigate the catastrophe. "My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional," two days before the storm hit, Brown said.

Brown, who for many became a symbol of government failures in the natural disaster that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, rejected criticism that he was inexperienced. "I've overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters. I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it," he said.

Brown joined FEMA in 2001 and ran it for more than two years.

Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. told Brown: "I find it absolutely stunning that this hearing would start out with you, Mr. Brown, laying the blame for FEMA's failings at the feet of the governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans."

In a testy exchange, Shays compared Brown's performance unfavorably with that of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. "So I guess you want me to be the superhero, to step in there and take everyone out of New Orleans," Brown said.

"What I wanted you to do is do your job and coordinate," Shays retorted.

Criticized by Shays for failing to get better equipment to make communication easier among emergency agencies, Brown blamed those above him. "We put that money in our budget request and it was removed by the Department of Homeland Security" he said.

Brown said he was "just tired and misspoke" when a television interviewer appeared to be the first to tell him there were desperate residents at the New Orleans Convention Center. Brown said he learned a day earlier that people were flocking there.

He blamed "a hysteric media" for what he said were unfounded reports of rapes and murders. And he said Americans themselves must play a more active role in preparing for natural disasters - and not expect more from the government than it can deliver.

Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas told Brown: "I don't know how you can sleep at night. You lost the battle."

Brown in his opening statement cited "specific mistakes" in dealing with the storm, and listed just two. One, he said, was not having more media briefings.

As to the other, he said: "I very strongly personally regret that I was unable to persuade Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences, and work together. I just couldn't pull that off." Both Blanco and Nagin are Democrats.

In Baton Rouge, La., Blanco's press secretary, Denise Bottcher, responded: "Mike Brown wasn't engaged then, and he surely isn't now. He should have been watching CNN instead of the Disney Channel," Bottcher said.

Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., cautioned against too narrowly assigning blame. "At the end of the day, I suspect that we'll find that government at all levels failed," Davis said. He pushed Brown on what he and his agency should have done to evacuate New Orleans, restore order and improve communication.

"Those are not FEMA roles," Brown said. "FEMA doesn't evacuate communities. FEMA does not do law enforcement. FEMA does not do communications."

Brown said the lack of an effective evacuation of New Orleans before the storm was "the tipping point for all the other things that went wrong." A "mandatory" evacuation was ordered Sunday by Nagin, the mayor. However, buses were not provided and thousands of residents were stranded without transportation in low-lying areas.

The congresspersons are quite good at bullying and insulting. They seem less competent at actually pin-pointing problems. The article itself is an example of a bias against Brown. Every time Brown gives a reason for why FEMA didn't do what people thought it should do the reader is given the impression that he's just trying to shift the blame. It doesn't seem to matter that maybe he's correct to place the onus where he does. At least nobody on the committee seems interested in finding out. They'd much rather strut and preen before the cameras taking their kicks at their helpless victim to impress the folks back home.

The committee's "work" reminds one of the book The Lottery where citizens in a town draw lots and the loser is ritually stoned to death by everyone in the town. Michael Brown lost the lottery and the committee members, Republicans and Democrats, are determined to stone him with great relish.

PowerLine comes to a similar conclusion, but having watched the hearings, claims that Brown was the only person there who seemed to know what he was talking about. No surprise there.

By the way, we read that New Orleans police superintendent Eddie Compass is resigning. What we'd like to know is when Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco are going to do the honorable thing and step down themselves? It's too bad that government relief aid to Louisiana can't be made contingent upon the resignations of the two people whose actions and inactions did the most to insure that chaos would follow the storm.

No Kidding

This is the quality of argument that the Intelligent Design folks are up against in Harrisburg:

"Intelligent design is not a science and therefore it cannot be construed as a science whatsoever." - Ken Miller, Brown University biology professor, the only witness to testify Monday.

ID is not science therefore it is not science. Very compelling. And then there's this:

A group calling itself the Campaign to Defend the Constitution created a Web site to promote the teaching of evolution and attack what it defines as the "religious right."

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, and former ACLU executive director Ira Glasser are among the group's leaders.

The group said in a news release that on Thursday it will release a letter, signed by Nobel laureates, leading scientists and clergy, that urges governors of all 50 states to ensure science classes teach evolution and "base curricula on established science, not ideology."

The release of this letter would be a strange move for people interested in arguing that ID should not be taught in science class because it's not testable and because it's inherently religious.

As we wrote the other day in Viewpoint:

Thirty eight Nobel winners might sound like a powerful voice on behalf of evolution, but we shouldn't be too hasty to allow ourselves to be impressed. The letter contains these words:

"Logically derived from confirmable evidence, evolution is understood to be the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection."

Thirty eight Nobel winners, 34 of them scientists, signed off on this definition. Why is this remarkable? Two reasons: The first is that this statement accurately defines Darwinian evolution, but it does not define a scientific theory. How can the claim that evolution is unguided and unplanned ever be subjected to testing? What experiments or observations would count for or against it? The answer, of course, is that there are none. These brilliant scientists are in effect calling for schools to teach metaphysics in public school science classes while at the same time demanding that a competing metaphysical theory, Intelligent Design, be banished from science classes because it can't be scientifically tested.

The Nobel winners, by signing this letter, also signed off on a theological claim. If life is the result solely of "unguided, unplanned processes" then by teaching evolution, schools are, by implication, teaching that God has nothing to do with life on earth. To the extent that this definition for evolution will be presented to students, they will be taught that evolution makes God irrelevant. This is exactly what the Dover school board was seeking to avoid by crafting the statement to be read to students that evolution is not necessarily the truth of the matter.

The irony of this lawsuit is obvious. The plaintiffs allege that it is illicit for some people to claim that an intelligent designer, or even God, did have a role to play in the emergence of life but that it's not illicit for others to deny that any designer or God was involved. Why is the former claim considered an unacceptable conflation of church and state but the latter is not?

We hope Dover's attorneys ask these questions of the plaintiff's witnesses.

Chaos in New Orleans?

Since everyone wants to find who underperformed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina perhaps we should look at the reports put out by officials and amplified through the media. Talk about incompetence, consider this:

NEW ORLEANS - After five days managing near riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Following days of internationally reported murders, rapes and gang violence inside the stadium, the doctor from FEMA - Beron doesn't remember his name - came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.

"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalled the doctor saying. The real total?Six, Beron said. Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the handoff of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice.

State health department officials in charge of body recovery put the official death count at the Dome at 10, but Beron said the other four bodies were found in the street near the Dome, not inside it. Both sources said no one had been murdered inside the stadium. At the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, just four bodies have been recovered, despite reports of heaps of dead piled inside the building. Only one of the dead appeared to have been murdered, said health and law-enforcement officials.

That the nation's frontline emergency-management officials believed the body count would resemble that of a bloody battle in a war is but one of scores of examples of myths about the Dome and the Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the news media and even some of the city's top officials, including the mayor and police superintendent.

The vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees - mass murders, rapes and beatings - have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law-enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.

"I think 99 percent of it is [expletive]," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. "Don't get me wrong - bad things happened. But I didn't see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything ... 99 percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved."

Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state Health and Human Services Department administrator overseeing the body-recovery operation, said his teams were inundated with false reports. Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said authorities have only confirmed four murders in the entire city in the aftermath of Katrina - making it a typical week in a city that anticipated more than 200 homicides this year.

"I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two sites," he said. "It's unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories saying crime had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn't the case. And they [national media outlets] have done nothing to follow up on any of these cases; they just accepted what people [on the street] told them. ... It's not consistent with the highest standards of journalism."

As floodwaters forced tens of thousands of evacuees into the Dome and Convention Center, news of unspeakable acts poured out of the nation's media: People firing at helicopters trying to save them; women, children and even babies raped with abandon; people murdered for food and water; a 7-year-old raped and killed at the Convention Center. Police, according to their chief, Eddie Compass, found themselves in multiple shootouts inside both shelters, and were forced to race toward muzzle flashes through the dark to disarm the criminals; snipers fired at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises.

In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of "babies," and Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of "hundreds of armed gang members killing and raping people" inside the Dome. Other unidentified evacuees told of children stepping over so many bodies "we couldn't count." The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, overwhelmingly African-American masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. The mayor told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost animalistic state."

Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of murdered bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines assert that, while anarchy reigned at times and people suffered indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened. "The information I had at the time, I thought it was credible," Compass said, admitting his earlier statements were false. Asked the source of the information, Compass said he didn't remember.

Nagin frankly acknowledged he doesn't know the extent of the mayhem that occurred inside the Superdome and the Convention Center - and may never. "I'm having a hard time getting a good body count," he said. Compass conceded that rumor had overtaken, and often crippled, authorities' response to reported lawlessness, sending badly needed resources to situations that turned out not to exist.

Military, law-enforcement and medical workers agree that the flood of evacuees - about 30,000 at the Dome and an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 at the Convention Center - overwhelmed their security personnel. The 400 to 500 soldiers in the Dome could have been easily overrun by increasingly agitated crowds in the Dome, but that never happened, said Col. James Knotts, a midlevel commander there. While the Convention Center saw plenty of mischief, including massive looting and isolated gunfire, and many inside cowered in fear, the hordes of evacuees for the most part did not resort to violence.

"Everything was embellished, everything was exaggerated," said Deputy Police Superintendent Warren Riley. "If one guy said he saw six bodies, then another guy the same six, and another guy saw them - then that became 18." Inside the Superdome, where National Guardsmen performed rigorous security checks before allowing anyone inside, only one shooting has been verified - and even that shooting, injuring Louisiana Guardsman Chris Watt of the 527th Engineer Battalion, has been widely misreported, said Maj. David Baldwin, who led the team of soldiers who arrested the alleged assailant.

Watt had indeed been attacked inside one of the Dome's locker rooms, where he entered with another soldier. In the darkness, as they walked through about six inches of water, Watt's attacker hit him with a metal rod, a piece of a cot. But the bullet that penetrated Watt's leg came from his own gun - he accidentally shot himself during the commotion. The attacker was sent to jail, Baldwin said.

Inside the Convention Center, Jimmie Fore, vice president of the state authority that runs the center, stayed in the building with a core group of 35 employees until Thursday. He said thugs hot-wired 75 forklifts and electric carts and looted food and booze, but he said he never saw any violent crimes committed, nor did any of his employees. Some, however, did report seeing armed men roaming the building, and Fore said he heard gunshots in the distance on about six occasions.

Rumors of rampant violence at the Convention Center prompted Louisiana National Guard Col. Jacques Thibodeaux to put together a 1,000-man force of soldiers and police in full battle gear to secure the center around noon on Friday. It took only 20 minutes to take control, and soldiers met no resistance, Thibodeaux said. They found no evidence, witnesses or victims of any murders, rapes or beatings, Thibodeaux said.

One widely circulated story, told to The Times-Picayune by a slew of evacuees and two Arkansas National Guardsman, held that "30 or 40 bodies" were stored in a Convention Center freezer. But a formal Arkansas Guard review of the matter later found that no soldier had actually seen the corpses, and that the information came from rumors in the food line for military, police and rescue workers in front of Harrah's Casino, said Col. John Edwards of the Arkansas National Guard, who conducted the review.

Reports of dozens of rapes at both facilities - many allegedly involving small children - may forever remain a question mark. Rape is a notoriously underreported crime under ideal circumstances, and tracking down evidence at this point, with evacuees spread all over the country, will be nearly impossible. The same goes for reports of armed robberies at both sites.

While numerous people told The Times-Picayune that they had witnessed rapes, in particular the rape of two young girls in the Superdome ladies' room and the killing of one of them, police and military officials say they know nothing of such an incident.

Between Nagin and Compass it's little wonder that New Orleans was such a mess. These guys bear a lot of responsibility for making their city look bad, and the media bears a lot of responsibility for being so willing to run with stories based on rumor with no first hand confirmation. If this is the best the media can do in reporting a disaster then maybe they should be kept out of the next one. They apparently do more harm than good.