Here’s when we need that stitch in time

To be fair, it is beginning to look as if the response to the flooding of New Orleans, particularly from the federal government, is beginning to turn around.

National Guard troops from 20 states have been called in, and recovery efforts have been redoubled.

However, the initial response, along with subsequent spinning until President Bush finally vowed to improve matters, has raised justifiable questions about competence, particularly at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA.

It is past time for some accountability.

FEMA operatives took charge in New Orleans almost immediately. Some of their actions, however, raise serious questions.

Wal-Mart, according to Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, loaded three trucks with food and water. FEMA, which controlled access to New Orleans, turned them back.

A Coast Guard ship invited local authorities to get 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel, but FEMA ordered it to rescind the offer.

Volunteers from Lafayette, La., with 500 boats, headed for New Orleans to aid in rescue efforts, but FEMA turned them back.

Firefighters from Houston, Maryland and elsewhere were turned away by FEMA or assigned to PR work.

This is not to say state and local officials are blameless.

New Orleans had an evacuation plan involving enough school and transit buses to evacuate 12,000 people per run, but Mayor Ray Nagin did not use them.

State and local authorities kept the Red Cross out of New Orleans in the first days after Katrina.

The FEMA mistakes appear to be due to incompetence, a surprisingly lackadaisical attitude and the slowness with which large government bureaucracies typically make decisions and start acting.

It won’t solve all those problems, some of which may be endemic to government, but President Bush should make some changes at the top.

Michael Brown, now head of FEMA, appears to have been appointed because of connections rather than competence.
He was a roommate in college of Joseph Allbaugh, the former campaign manager the president first appointed to head FEMA.

News reports say Brown was eased out of his last private-sector job as commissioner of judges for the International Arabian Horse Association.

As much as President Bush values loyalty, it is time, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper has urged, to fire Brown and replace him with someone with experience dealing with large-scale events, who knows how to work with state, local and private-sector volunteers, and can motivate FEMA to get its act together.

As all the news stories and officials emphasize, whatever the failures so far, the recovery process for New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities has barely begun.

The next phase should begin with professionals at the helm.