Incompetence Sufficiently Advanced

In a display of the rapid response for which they are justly famous, the Bush team has mobilized to shield the administration from the political consequences of Hurricane Katrina. In parallel with the official effort to shift blame to local authorities, we are now receiving a pitch-perfect chorus of talking points from the usual apologists. One choice bit of misdirection is to say that any criticism of this administration’s performance is equivalent to blaming Bush for the hurricane.


Bush can’t be blamed for the hurricane, but he can be blamed, and rightly, for the failure of his administration to take any preventive action to mitigate the effects of a predictable disaster, and his failure to respond when the inevitable occurred. As voices were raised from all sides asking how Bush could have managed so completely to avoid fulfilling any of his duties in a time of crisis, he assured us on Thursday morning that the consequences of Katrina were … unforeseeable.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”

In fact, massive levee failures in the event of a major storm were predicted years before Katrina.
Scientific American even ran a feature article in October 2001 (hat tip PZ Myers for the reminder) with a chillingly accurate forecast of the disaster to come.

In 1999, the late Marc Reisner gave the keynote address at a conference on water use. He said at that time that the loss of land from the Mississippi delta, caused by channelization of the river and proceeding at a rate of 16,000 acres per year, was the most important environmental story in the US. More recently, research into storm dynamics led to an estimate that damage to New Orleans from hurricane winds could be increased by 25% due to the loss of the delta’s cushioning effect.
These predictions were uncontroversial at the time they were made. They were accepted by emergency planning agencies, including FEMA — which conducted its own simulation exercise just last year.
But was protecting New Orleans properly a Federal responsibility? And could the federal government have done anything about the threat? Yes, and yes. Responsibility for flood control along the Mississippi has for years rested with the US Army Corps of Engineers, which built the impressive levee system that channelized the Mississippi and caused the coastal erosion just mentioned. In 1995, the Corps was chartered in the SELA project with improving southeast Louisiana’s coastal defenses.
However, that effort had slowed to a crawl in recent years:

Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security — coming at the same time as federal tax cuts — was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

The linkage between this administration’s priorities and the lack of preparation for the current disaster could hardly be clearer. And this is just a single example (though the most horrifying in its effects) of the Bush team’s attitude toward unwanted advice from scientists. As Chris Mooney has noted, George W. Bush and his advisers have from their first day in power treated science as an unwelcome distraction and scientists as an interest group.
In today’s world, this approach cannot be regarded as just another style of governance. Given the importance of getting the best scientific advice available and acting on it, Bush’s failure to do so is simple dereliction of duty. The best summing-up I’ve seen is a twist on Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum:

Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

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