NEW ORLEANS -- There was a moment after Hurricane Katrina when New Orleans felt wholly alone in its frustrations with the federal government.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was at once ignoring the great suffering here and dismissing our anger as misplaced. FEMA was not a failure, or so went the argument; our municipal and state governments were. FEMA was the undeserving target of all of our anger.
When the federal agency's sins became too obvious for anybody to deny, there arose the phrase "failures at all levels of government," which had the distinction of being both true and misleading. True because none of our elected officials qualified for a Manager of the Year Award.
But misleading because lumping all those failures together wrongly implies that all those failures were equally consequential. If officials elected in Louisiana had done everything right and the federal government had done an equal number of things wrong, the aftermath of Katrina would have looked about the same. The federal government had the most money and the most power. Therefore, its failures were the most significant.
While we may have initially felt alone in our frustrations, it now feels that we are the founding members of a fraternity of disaster victims, all of whom are fed up with FEMA. It's not a regional brotherhood. All over the country -- from California to Kentucky -- state and local officials who've looked to FEMA to step in after disaster have found the agency to be far less helpful than it's supposed to be. Or are those people guilty of expecting too much, too?
I asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to explain just what the American public should expect from FEMA, an agency that falls under her purview. She seemed eager to take the question, especially following two February editorials in this newspaper that repeated criticisms of FEMA made by Texas and Kentucky officials.
She thought the criticisms coming out of Kentucky were unwarranted, she said, especially the complaints that FEMA was absent and unresponsive following January's crippling ice storm. Agency employees were sent into Kentucky quickly, she said, even though "they may not have been wearing FEMA on their windbreakers."
At the same time, she said, FEMA found it impossible to satisfy one of Kentucky's early requests for generators because nobody in state government could say what size generators they needed. Once that state's government officials got specific about their needs, she said, FEMA immediately responded.
Nothing that has happened since 2005 has changed the fact that FEMA expects that the "first responders will be the cities." Local officials should expect their state governments to help them, she said. "FEMA comes in as a back up to that. . . when resources are strained past the breaking point."
Thinking that every disaster obligates FEMA is "not a correct expectation," she said. She pointed out, though, that Hurricane Katrina was beyond the scale of anything this country had ever seen. In other words, we were not out of place to expect the agency to be quick and effective in coming to our aid.
It's possible that Napolitano is defending FEMA's response during the Barack Obama administration and criticizing its response during the George Bush administration because one response is defensible and the other one isn't. Or it could be that she's picking and choosing because she was in charge in 2009 and wasn't in 2005.
Whichever it is, it's going to take more than an anecdote about generators to convince New Orleanians that FEMA is reformed. We're going to have to see FEMA doing its job on the ground. We don't have to see them wearing windbreakers. If a disaster's here and it's hot, FEMA T-shirts will suffice.