Saturday, June 7, 2008

Something That Actually Brought Us Together

My first exposure to blogging was when Hurricane Katrina hit the US mainland in August, 2005. Up to that point, I had never commented on a blog, had only read a handful of things, and I was mainly not interested in anything blog related for one simple reason--the people all appeared to be morons. A new book by Paul Alexander, called Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove let's me tell the story of how I came to know Blue Girl.

I am never shocked to find morons commenting or adding content to blogs. I look at many, many blogs and I am always pleased when I find the good ones done by thinking people who know what they're talking about. My initial, visceral reaction to blogs--and to the blog commenters--was "how the hell do I know you know what you're talking about?"

Back when I first noticed this "Blue Girl/Global Citizen" person, she was fired up, angry and full of more operational knowledge and intelligence than virtually every other human being alive. SHE knew what she was talking about. SHE knew what was going on. SHE was a professional who KNEW what the most common trick of dishonest people was--bullshitting their way into a position of moral superiority. And SHE was an expert at puncturing that kind of thing. And she was right from day one on what was happening in New Orleans.

Touring the Superdome on Tuesday night, [Governor Kathleen] Blanco was disturbed by what she witnessed: in short, no federal assistance whatsoever. All she saw was the Louisiana National Guard and the Louisiana State Police -- certainly not enough of a law enforcement presence to be able to maintain order without additional guardsmen and troops.

If Bush had not seen what was taking place by Tuesday, Karl Rove had. The first evidence of Rove's involvement in the Katrina disaster occurred on Tuesday afternoon. "Rove understood what a nightmare this was for the president," Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana says, "so he went into high gear on the spin thing they're so good at in the White House. Rove had David Vitter, the Republican senator from Louisiana. I was at a press conference and David Vitter walked up to the mike and said, 'I just got off the phone with Karl Rove.' I looked at the governor and she looked at me, like, 'Why is David Vitter on the phone with Karl Rove?' I mean, he could have been talking to generals, the president himself, but Rove is just a political hatchet man."

Despite his expertise being politics, the administration had made Rove a central player in the handling of the disaster. "A light switch in the White House didn't get turned on without going through Rove," says Adam Sharp, an aide to Landrieu. "It was clear that Rove was the point person for the White House on this disaster."

So, go read the book. But remember--there were people screaming into the wilderness about these people long before it became popular and long before the hordes of apologists and defenders of this administration were able to scatter to the wind. One does not hear their voices anymore, but in the summer of 2005, people like Blue Girl were out there, and they knew what was going on and they were speaking up, and now we know why--because of this:

Instead of supplying relief to the city, Rove had devised a scheme whereby he could blame the failure of government to take action on someone besides Bush. "They looked around," Landrieu says, "and they found a Democratic governor and an African American Democratic mayor who had never held office before in his life before he was mayor of New Orleans -- someone they knew they could manipulate. Ray Nagin had never held public office and here he was the mayor of New Orleans and it was going underwater."

In short, Rove was going to blame Blanco for the failure of the response in Louisiana, and to do that he was going to use Nagin. He had already set the plan in motion on Tuesday with Nagin, who, even though he was a Democrat, was so close to the Republican Party that some members of the African American community in New Orleans called him "Ray Reagan." In 2000, Nagin had actually contributed $2,000 to Bush's campaign when he ran for president.

Rove knew of Nagin's ties to the Republican Party, so more than likely Nagin could be convinced to level his criticism at Blanco and to support Bush when he could. Here was Rove's strategy: Praise Haley Barbour, the Republican governor of Mississippi; praise Michael Brown and FEMA; blame Blanco, the Democrat. It was not a stretch for Nagin. He and Blanco so disliked each other that in Blanco's last race Nagin had endorsed her opponent.

Rove and Nagin were communicating through e-mail. "I heard Nagin was bragging about being in touch with The Man," Blanco says. "Nagin took the position that they were the people who could help the most to do what he wanted. People get highly complimented when they have contact with the White House." In this case the trade-off for Nagin was his willingness to cooperate with Rove. "I knew Ray Nagin could be easily manipulated," Landrieu says. "I could feel it. We were all working together in a relatively small building. We were in close proximity. But I could see where Rove was going. Blame Blanco. Blame the levee board. Blame the corruption in New Orleans. 'The reason the city is going underwater is because the city is corrupt,' Rove was saying. 'But don't blame the Republicans or George W. Bush or David Vitter. We are the white guys in shining armor, and we are going to come in and save the city from years of corruption.' That was their story and they sold it very well."

Rove sold the story, as he had in the past, through the media. On Wednesday, while Blanco was trying to get help from the White House, her staff began receiving calls from reporters questioning her handling of the disaster, almost all of them citing as their sources unnamed senior White House officials.

"One story," Blanco aide Mann recalls, "would say the governor was so incompetent she had not even gotten around to declaring a state of emergency when she had actually done so three days before the storm. It was obvious to us who was behind this attack based on inaccurate information that was being shoveled to Washington reporters who were identifying their sources as senior Bush administration officials." Blanco adds, "People at Newsweek told me the White House called them to say I had delayed signing the disaster declaration. The assumption was that their source was the political director -- Karl Rove." Not only was the attack on Blanco in print, it was also on television. "All of a sudden," Blanco says, "a whole lot of talking heads showed up on television repeating the misinformation over and over, making it the truth."

On Wednesday afternoon, Blanco called Bush and told him she needed "everything you've got." Since Bush promised to help, Blanco believed that assistance was arriving in the person of Army lieutenant general Russel Honore, who met with the governor. After a long and cordial discussion, Blanco asked Honore how many troops he had brought with him to Louisiana at the order of the president. "Just a handful of staffers," Blanco heard him say, much to her amazement. "I am here in an advisory capacity."

On Thursday, as New Orleans remained underwater, with countless thousands of people stranded in their homes, on their rooftops, or at the Convention Center or Superdome, there was still no federal help. What continued unabated, though, was the assault on Blanco, questioning her handling of the disaster. "We were in life-and-death mode and every minute counted," Blanco says. "I found my staff having to do public relations in the middle of the most disastrous days Louisiana has ever experienced. The talking heads had been turned on. My staff was saying, 'My God, governor, they are crucifying you politically.' I finally pulled all of my staff together and said, 'We are wasting our energy. We do not have a stable of talking heads. We cannot control the national media. We have lifesaving missions to accomplish, so let's do it.' My staff was upset with me."

Had we known all of these things then, we would have screamed louder. But we were already screaming louder, because our hunch turned out to be correct, and this book is vindication for us. Katrina was what brought us together, and we will never forget how we met, why we met, and why we do what we do--so that this kind of thing never happens again.

UPDATE: Blue Girl remembers, too

I remember that time vividly, too. I had started commenting at Political Animal as the Schaivo psychodrama played out. I had been reading blogs for a few years, and participating in discussion boards and forums, but I hadn't really commented on blogs before that moment. It also coincided with me starting a blog. I thought I should probably comment on other people's blogs if I wanted them to comment on mine.

So while I occasionally commented between the Schiavo story and Hurricane Katrina, I wasn't really comfortable in that element yet. Then two things happened simultaneously. The first was the storm. Some of what went wrong was stuff I had first hand experience with. Working all those years in health care, I have participated in a lot of mass casualty drills and a couple of real mass casualties, including the Andover Tornado of 1991. I know first hand that the communications link is always the one that breaks. The second thing that happened was I met my partner, and started wheedling him almost immediately to come aboard. We formed an instant alliance. Having that blog-buddy helped me find my voice in the comments section. I was new to blogging and newer to commenting, and it was a sea-change moment to make that connection with someone half a continent away who had similar experience and frame of reference that could bring out the best in me and help me focus my outrage, and to endourage me to write what I know and not worry about being too technical, if I feel I'm getting too wonky, just make it clear enough that it will be google friendly. He has encouraged me to keep screaming about the communications problems even though it's not even a blip on most folks radar.

I know a thing or two about comms and casualties, and have archives full of rants about the lack of standardization in the emergency response comms systems. The current system really is nuts.

I live in a city where the emergency radios have literally cost the lives of emergency personnel. I've been on the trauma team and had the ambulance show up with a patient that took four to the chest and their radios went dead and we had no warning a level I trauma was on the way.

I took part in one last Mass Casualty Drill a couple of years ago before leaving the hospital, and it was fraught with missteps - because the communications broke down. We were using our private cell phones by the mid-way point because the radios weren't communicating properly. Mass Casualty Drills among emergency response personnel are the equivalent of war games for the military. You mobilize your resources to reveal the weaknesses so you are prepared should the unthinkable happen. It is our job to think of the unthinkable and protect the citizenry not just from the event, but from themselves and panic.

I know first-hand that interoperable communications are screwed up royally. Many FDNY personnel probably lost their lives on September 11, 2001 because they didn't hear warnings to get out of the World Trade Center that the Police radios broadcast; warnings that the buildings were crumbling.

The chaos and tragedy that can be compounded by faulty communications equipment and lack of a standard was illustrated again when Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flooding crippled New Orleans in 2005.

Communications is the link that always breaks. In the event of the real thing, the satellites are going down, and we all know it. Relying on any form of communication that depends on satellites in a drill is a wink & nudge proposal, and we all know that, too.

We are not the only members of the “we-can-shoot-down-satellites” club anymore, either. Hell, you don’t even have to actually blow one up – blow something up in it’s path and create a debris field, and chances are pretty damned good that you can disable your target. The math could be done by a smart high schooler. Definitely by a college sophomore majoring in physics or astronomy.

My point is – their solution to this problem is no solution at all. When the link breaks, for the last decade or so, we have been falling back on our own phones. If we know that a mass casualty is planned, we make sure we have our chargers, because we know electricity isn’t going away in the hospitals – we have generators, so charging our phones does not cheat the rules. Except that if the real deal takes place, either terrorists on the ground will take out relay towers, the satellites will be compromised, or the air will be ionized.

We know damned good and well that those who wish us ill are aware of this problem. A problem that those of us who use the damned system have been aware of and bitching about for years, only to have the politicians who control the pursestrings listen politely, mouth some platitude or another, and then resume ignoring us, and give the contracts to their friends, and it ends up costing the lives of our co-workers.

Every major city in the country has a study on some shelf in city hall or police headquarters that is collecting dust. If Homeland Security wants to do something that would make sense and justify their existence, they should collect those reports and start an analysis, and they should take the steps to mandate a standardized communication system. It’s absolutely stupid that we don’t have that. It’s frankly a no-brainer. This is one of those things that is just too damned important to be left to the vagaries of the free market. But that is exactly what has happened, and it has cost the lives of men and women who serve you first-hand here at home, the people who show up when you call 911.

The party that gets us a working comm. system that won’t crash immediately if something we think about so you don’t have to comes to pass - will have the endorsement of every police, firefighter and nurses union in the country for decades.

And the person who reads a rant like that and encourages more of the same rather than heading for the hills screaming is a natural ally. The circumstances that bought us together sucked royally for millions of people - but at least one good thing came out of it - the partnership that makes this blog kick ass and take names and keep demanding accountability.

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