Commentary Magazine


The Cold Shoulder

My heart goes out to the people of Kentucky. A week ago, they suffered a massive ice storm, and they are still trying to dig themselves out and rebuild.

The problem with ice storms is magnitude. They cover vast areas, and the damage is systemic. They can wreak havoc on electric grids. Utilities can find themselves having to deal with thousands of broken lines and hundreds of broken poles. Fortunately, American utilities have a mutual assistance pact, which results in repair crews from all over the country rushing to afflicted areas as soon as they can safely get to work.

It’s been about a week  since Kentuckians got pounded, and they’re still digging out. Half a million people were still without power as of Saturday night, and almost half that many have no water. Emergency shelters are still open, and the governor has mobilized every single member of the National Guard to assist.

So, where’s FEMA? The Federal Emergency Management Agency is doing what it is supposed to do in cases like this: they are supporting the state and local officials. But travel is still difficult in the Bluegrass State — many roads are still covered in ice and blocked with debris, and the weather has been very inhospitable to aircraft and helicopters.

FEMA was never intended to be a first-response agency. In crises, the best people to manage the situation are those who are already on the scene and know the area best — the local officials. If city and town officials are overwhelmed, then it becomes the responsibility of the county and state. If they get overwhelmed the federal government takes the lead. But that violates the Katrina standard. According to that standard, if the disaster is great enough, and the local and state officials prove too inept, then all the blame falls squarely on FEMA and the federal government.

Which would mean this is President Obama’s fault.

And think of the optics: What was our president doing while Kentuckians were shivering in the dark? Why, basking in the “warm enough to grow orchids” White House and enjoying hundred-dollar steaks while watching the Superbowl in the White House theater. He hasn’t even traveled to the disaster scene to observe the damage and offer his full support to the suffering Americans.

If George W. Bush’s handling of Katrina was really such an executive catastrophe, then President Obama’s indifference to the suffering of Kentuckians is unforgivable. But since no one is objecting this time around, what does that say about the motives behind the outrage over Katrina?