Paper Slams Feds for Response to 'The Big One'

The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper published an "open letter" this weekend blasting the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Alex Chadwick talks with James Amoss, editor of the Times-Picayune, about why he feels federal, state and local officials should have been better prepared for "The Big One."

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Along with concern and care for the still unknown number of victims of Hurricane Katrina, there remains a national sense of outrage at the bungled response to the disaster. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post both ran front-page stories today looking at who's responsible. The US Senate committee that oversees homeland security and disaster preparedness is beginning an investigation. We're joined by the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, James Amoss.

Jim, welcome to the program.

Mr. JAMES AMOSS (Editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune): Thank you. Good to be here.

CHADWICK: Is there going to be a question developing from Watergate days: What did they know and when did they know it? This, applying to government officials as to the likely effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. AMOSS: Absolutely. And certainly from the point of view of my paper in my hometown, it will be one of the major focuses of our work for who knows how long to come. You know, what do you call it when one of the greatest natural disasters in recent memory hits our country? And the response is so tepid and so tardy. It would be an utter dereliction of duty on the part of the press, both the local press and the national press, not to make this a major inquiry even once the spotlight of daily news has shifted away from New Orleans and to examine what I can only call an utter failure of leadership from the top of our country on down.

CHADWICK: I think a number of officials are saying now, `We have a disaster on our hands we're trying to cope with. Let's sort out the blame later.'

Mr. AMOSS: Who is at fault and whether the fault is a Republican fault or a Democratic fault is not so important as what flows prospectively for the nation from how we respond and whether it's something that's intrinsic to the way we're set up and structured and whether it can be avoided whenever the next disaster of this magnitude happens.

CHADWICK: Whether it happens in New Orleans or someplace...

Mr. AMOSS: Whether it happens in New Orleans or someplace else.

CHADWICK: Yeah. You know, the president said in the days after the storm that one could not have anticipated all that came about. Here he is.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm, but these levees got breached, and as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded and now we're having to deal with it and will.

CHADWICK: So the question of the levees failing, of the waters getting in, what is your response to that?

Mr. AMOSS: It's preposterous to say that this was unforeseeable, but not to toot our horn too much but we, for one, foresaw it. We published a major multiday series several years ago called Washing Away in which we laid out in very stark and clear and understandable terms what would happen if a hurricane of this magnitude approached New Orleans from a certain angle, as this one did, and pushed the waters of Lake Pontchartrain against the levees. And we showed in very graphic terms how the water would top the levees and inundate the city, the way in which the pumps would fail because of the loss of power, and how the inundation would stay in the city because of its geography and geology.

CHADWICK: Your paper ran a piece on Sunday with the director of the National Hurricane Center, Max Mayfield, saying that he was part of an electronic conference of emergency officials a day and a half before the storm hit with national disaster preparedness officials, Mr. Chertoff, the director of Homeland Security, Mr. Brown, the head of FEMA, on this call and that experts in this call predicted this was going to be a very bad storm and the levees might not hold.

Mr. AMOSS: Which makes it all the more inexplicable that help arrived so late. Not only was that conference held and what seemed to be the beginnings of a coordinated effort patched but the storm didn't really deviate from its path beginning from about Friday afternoon until it hit on Monday morning. At most, there was a vacillation of 20 miles east and west, and the impact would have been the same regardless of which path it took in that very minor vacillation.

CHADWICK: So you did know it was coming.

Mr. AMOSS: We knew it was coming. We knew what its consequences were likely to be. And the proof's in the pudding. Anybody who was well plugged into media in our city, and that tends to be people of means, affluent people, were out of there. The people who were most affected were people who perhaps aren't as plugged into the media and don't have means to evacuate.

CHADWICK: Poor people and black people.

Mr. AMOSS: Poor people of all races but predominantly African-American.

CHADWICK: Your papers wrote a very, very tough editorial on Sunday, an open letter to the president, accusing him of ignoring a situation that was developing, a disaster that was developing, but what about the responsibility of the city and of the state?

Mr. AMOSS: Certainly state and local officials are not blameless in this. There was always the possibility and it was discussed that the city could perhaps muster an armada of school buses, for example, to take people out in advance of the storm coming. Perhaps they like everyone else was waiting for the calvary, which is to say the federal government, to come in and do just that. It was baffling to everyone and perhaps them included why that wasn't occurring.

CHADWICK: Do you have any better sense now why the federal government did not respond more quickly than it did?

Mr. AMOSS: I don't. I can only speculate that there was just a bureaucratic paralysis. It's the kind of massive response that calls for being nimble and quick-thinking and decisive, and bureaucracies aren't famous for that.

CHADWICK: James Amoss, editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Jim, thank you.

Mr. AMOSS: Thank you.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. We'll have more as DAY TO DAY continues.

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