It was the same with the outbreak of swine flu last year, and with the tens of thousands of Americans stranded this year with no warning in airports because of ash from a volcano eruption.
The federal government was quicker off the dime in responding to the earthquake in Haiti -- and to the killer tsunami in the Indian Ocean, for that matter -- than it's been in responding to disasters that target Americans. That's because in both cases the U.S. military was quickly given the lead role in mustering a response. It was the same with 9/11. The slowness of the civilian federal government to react to surprise disasters points to an entrenched systemic problem, which cuts across political boundaries.
It hardly needs saying that the problem extends to the civilian government's ostrich-like response to the war along the Mexican-U.S. border spilling into the USA.
May 1, 2010
BP Is Criticized Over Oil Spill, but U.S. Missed Chances to ActAlso see the New York Times May 1 companion report, In Gulf Oil Spill, Fragile Marshes Face New Threat
by CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and ERIC LIPTON
The New York Times
NEW ORLEANS — As oil edged toward the Louisiana coast and fears continued to grow that the leak from a seabed oil well could spiral out of control, officials in the Obama administration publicly chastised BP America for its handling of the spreading oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet a review of the response suggests it may be too simplistic to place all the blame for the unfolding environmental catastrophe on the oil company. The federal government also had opportunities to move more quickly, but did not do so while it waited for a resolution to the spreading spill from BP.
The Department of Homeland Security waited until Thursday to declare that the incident was “a spill of national significance,” and then set up a second command center in Mobile, Ala. The actions came only after the estimate of the size of the spill was increased fivefold to 5,000 barrels a day.
The delay meant that the Homeland Security Department waited until late this week to formally request a more robust response from the Department of Defense, with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledging even as late as Thursday afternoon that she did not know if the Defense Department even had equipment that might be helpful.
By Friday afternoon, she said, the Defense Department had agreed to send two large military transport planes to spray chemicals that can disperse the oil while it is still in the Gulf.
Officials initially seemed to underestimate the threat of a leak, just as BP did last year when it told the government such an event was highly unlikely. Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, the chief Coast Guard official in charge of the response, said on April 22, after the rig sank, that the oil that was on the surface appeared to be merely residual oil from the fire, though she said it was unclear what was going on underwater. The day after, officials said that it appeared the well’s blowout preventer had kicked in and that there did not seem to be any oil leaking from the well, though they cautioned it was not a guarantee.
BP officials, even after the oil leak was confirmed by using remote-controlled robots, expressed confidence that the leak was slow enough, and steps taken out in the Gulf of Mexico aggressive enough, that the oil would never reach the coast.
On Friday, the company drew sharp new criticism from federal officials for not stopping the leak and cleaning up the spill before it reached land. They called the oil company’s current resources inadequate.
“It is clear that after several unsuccessful attempts to secure the source of the leak, it is time for BP to supplement their current mobilization as the slick of oil moves toward shore,” Ms. Napolitano said pointedly.
Geoffrey S. Morrell, deputy assistant secretary of defense, said in a statement that the government would hold BP accountable for the cost of the department’s deployment, which as of Friday night included the Louisiana National Guard to help clean up coastal areas once the oil comes ashore.
Meanwhile, one official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a widely distributed warning on Friday, said the oil flow could grow from the current estimate of 5,000 barrels a day to “an order of magnitude higher than that.” The NOAA document, first obtained by The Press-Register in Mobile, was described by an agency spokesman as simply a possibility raised by a staff member, not an official prediction.
Some oil industry critics questioned whether the federal government is too reliant on oil companies to manage the response to major spills, leaving the government unable to evaluate if the response is robust enough.
“Here you have the company that is responsible for the accident leading the response to the crisis,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. “There is a problem here, and the consequence is clear.”
But it is still the government, in this case the Coast Guard, that has the final say. A law passed a year after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster makes the owner of a rig or vessel responsible for cleaning up a spill. But oversight of the cleanup is designated to the Coast Guard, with advice from other federal agencies.
Rear Adm. Robert C. North, retired, who was commander of the Coast Guard’s Eighth District from 1994 to 1996, said that decisions in these situations are made collectively, but that the buck essentially stops with the federal coordinator — in this case, Admiral Landry. “The federal on-scene coordinator is kind of the one individual to say, ‘I think we need to do more’ or ‘That’s adequate,’ ” he said.