By David Brooks, New York Times Op Ed
On Tuesday, The Times ran a front-page article on the chaotic efforts to clean up the oil washing around the Gulf of Mexico. Campbell Robertson reported on an incident in which boats that were supposed to be laying boom were, in fact, anchored on the wrong side of a bay in Louisiana. They were helpless as oil oozed in from the gulf, and BP had no way of contacting the workers to get the boats moving.
The article described a cleanup operation that is overwhelmed. “From the beginning,” Robertson wrote, “the effort has been bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials, as well as BP.”
Some of the chaos was inevitable, once this much oil started gushing into the coastal waters. What was not inevitable, however, was the sense of insult and rage local officials now feel.
If you talk to elected leaders from Louisiana to Florida, they fill your ears with tales of incompetence — of advice that was not heeded, of red tape stifling effective operations, of local knowledge that was cast aside and trampled.
If you read the local news media from the gulf region, this anger flows out in article after article. “The information is not flowing,” Senator Bill Nelson of Florida told a Senate hearing. “The decisions are not timely. The resources are not produced. And as a result, you have a big mess, with no command and control.”
Tony Kennon, the mayor of Orange Beach, Ala., waited helplessly as federal planners failed to protect his town’s beaches. “It was a very discombobulated and discoordinated effort. It still is,” he told The Press Register of Mobile last week. “And they’ve had five weeks to plan this.”
The most common complaint you read in the local papers is that lines of authority are either tangled or opaque. “If you asked me today, ‘Who was in charge: the Coast Guard, BP or their subcontractors?’ I couldn’t look you in the eye and tell you who was making the decisions,” Billy Nungesser, the president of Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
Local officials in Magnolia Springs, Ala., drew up plans to protect the Magnolia River. They sent the plans up the chain of command for approval in mid-May, and it took weeks of confusion before they heard back. “This is the biggest damn mess I’ve ever seen,” Gib Hixon of the Fish River/Marlow Fire and Rescue Department told Jay Reeves, a reporter for The Associated Press.
Others describe times when the cleanup plans were effective, but there was no follow-through. An article in The Advocate of Baton Rouge, La., described how federal, state and BP officials fly over coastal areas and recommend where cleanup work should be done. But then the plans don’t get executed.
“It’s drawn up right. It’s just not happening that way,” said Louis Buatt of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.
Leaders in Okaloosa County, Fla., had a state-approved plan to protect their waterways, but then the Coast Guard raised a fuss, and now they’ve got to start over, according to The Northwest Florida Daily News of Fort Walton Beach.
The Times-Picayune reported this week that state officials claim “Louisiana’s efforts to attack oil approaching coastal wetlands have repeatedly been stymied by BP and federal officials.”
Many locals say that they are perpetually in the dark. “Calls go into a maddeningly circuitous string of dead ends, as local residents, businesses and Herald reporters can attest,” declared an editorial in The Bradenton Herald of Bradenton, Fla.
In Louisiana, Deano Bonano, a Jefferson Parish administrator, has tried to get information on marsh cleanup plans. “I cannot get an answer,” he e-mailed The Advocate of Baton Rouge.
In article after article, you see local officials exploding in anger. Bill McCollum, Florida’s attorney general, has called himself “absolutely appalled.” Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said this week, “We are not winning this war.”
The county commissioners in Okaloosa County, Fla., got so fed up with outside interference that they unanimously voted to give their emergency management team the power to do whatever it wants. “We made the decision legislatively to break the laws if necessary,” Chairman Wayne Harris told The Northwest Florida Daily News.
Some of this rage is unavoidable when you have a crisis that no one can control. But it’s also clear that we have a federalism problem. All around the region there are local officials who think they know their towns best. They feel insulted by a distant and opaque bureaucracy lurking above.
The balance between federal oversight and local control is off-kilter. We have vested too much authority in national officials who are really smart, but who are really distant. We should be leaving more power with local officials, who may not be as expert, but who have the advantage of being there on the ground.