water from Lake Pontchartrain spewed into New Orleans, residents were left scrambling to deal with dead bodies and the 22 million tonsof debris strewn around the Louisiana coast, including 350,000 auto-mobiles and 35,000 boats destroyed by the storm.FEMA’s inability to respond to the worsening situation in New Orleans, evidenced by its leaders’ panicked reactions, was a total fail-ure of an agency created at the height of the Cold War—believe itor not—to coordinate national relief efforts in the event of a Sovietnuclear attack on American cities. FEMA’s local deputy, Marty Bahamonde, admitted in congressional testimony that “there was asystematic failure at all levels of government to understand the magni-tude of the situation. The leadership from top down in our agency wasunprepared and out of touch.”
Arkansas senator Mark Pryor was lesskind: “When FEMA finally did show up, everybody was angry becauseall they had was a Web site and a flyer,” he testified in front of a bipar-tisan congressional committee.
FEMA’s disgraced director, MichaelBrown, resigned in September 2005. It didn’t help Brown that, beforehis appointment by the Bush administration, his most prestigiouspedigree had been commissioner of the Arabian Horse Association. While FEMA was fumbling for resources in Washington, DC, andtrying to decide whether it was safe to send supplies into New Orleans,its sister agency inside the Department of Homeland Security, theUnited States Coast Guard, was exerting itself doing what everyonehoped FEMA would accomplish: saving lives and restoring order.How the Coast Guard got there isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. By 2005, the 40,000-person-strong Coast Guard organization was stretched and partly orphaned. After the post-9/11 shakedownof the federal government, the Coast Guard was pulled out from theUnited States Navy and told to refocus its mission on port security and maritime interdiction, operating anywhere from California to thePersian Gulf. The great fear of the Department of Homeland Security at the time was that terrorists would smuggle a dirty bomb into a U.S.harbor (think Los Angeles or New York), and from 2002 onward, theCoast Guard was busy patrolling U.S. harbors and providing in-shore