So who was ultimately responsible for the government’s inept reaction to Hurricane Katrina? “Frontline” offers a dispassionate, methodical but ultimately thoroughly damning account of the federal response, providing vital historical context about the dismantling of FEMA and an interview with its former head Michael Brown that carries the timely reminder it’s important to know when to shut the hell up. Paired with a “Nova” documentary about the science of the storm, this meatier half of the night won’t ease PBS’ left-leaning image among conservative critics, but it’s still must-see TV.
Correspondent Martin Smith leaves few stones unturned in an hour that opens and closes with disturbing homevideo of the disaster’s toll. While Brown apparently hasn’t learned to quit when he’s behind — becoming testy when Smith asks how he could have “misspoken” three times regarding the feds’ knowledge of the conditions in New Orleans — Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and President Bush notably declined to be interviewed.
Given the politicization of the disaster, with fingers darting in every direction, any examination of its roots promises to be loaded. Still, the most sober and damaging observations come from former FEMA chief of staff Jane Bullock, who says formation of the Dept. of Homeland Security marked FEMA’s “death knell” and that she “could never figure out who was in charge” during the initial days of the hurricane aid effort, or lack thereof.
Smith also goes back to the election-year disaster of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which undermined the first Bush administration. “The Storm” also dredges up almost eerie footage of President George H.W. Bush saying, “I don’t want to participate in the blame game” — a line that would be recycled, if not really followed, in Katrina’s aftermath.
What seems clear is that FEMA’s solid record during the Clinton years, under savvy political operator James Lee Witt, unraveled amid political cronyism, budget cuts and the administrative reorganization, despite the well-regarded response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
While neither New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin nor Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco appears blameless, Brown continues to do his impersonation of a man falling down stairs in slow motion. Nor does former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge seem able to answer Smith’s questions about deficiencies in “interoperable communications” that might have ameliorated Katrina’s impact as well as future disasters.
PBS, of course, finds itself caught in its own kind of storm, indicative of the poisonous environment that made discussion of the Katrina response less about competence, whatever one’s allegiance, than about seeking to gain leverage amid the aforementioned finger-pointing and political fallout.
However, Smith’s authoritative approach conveys a meticulous journalistic throughline that all but the most partisan hacks will be hard-pressed to convincingly parry.
At least, that should be true until the next disaster — complete with that year’s edition of “the blame game” — blows into town.