October 01, 2006

Truth, Accountability, and Hurricane Katrina

by John Payton

America needs a commission to look into the tragically inadequate planning for and disastrously incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. It permanently transformed a significant region of the country and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Most of those will never return to their homes or their lives as they knew them. This has had a devastating impact not only on the people displaced but also on the communities they left and the communities in which they now find themselves. New Orleans, despite all of the rhetoric of rebirth, will never be the same.

Just about everyone believes that the victims of Katrina have been very badly served by various governmental and nongovernmental entities that had collective responsibility for planning and coordinating the response to that natural disaster. But the “everyone failed the victims of Katrina” refrain has had the perverse effect of holding no one really responsible. It has taken the form of assuming that the magnitude of the disaster was such that the government and other responders were inevitably overwhelmed—that somehow failure was to be expected.

That is certainly not correct. Katrina was a natural disaster that was not just foreseeable but that was actually foreseen. No one ought to escape scrutiny because of the enormity of the failure.

Failure must not be the legacy of Katrina. After September 11, 2001, a very high-profile and independent commission was formed to look into just what had happened. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission, was set up by Congress, was adequately funded, and—very significantly—was granted subpoena powers. It held public and nonpublic hearings. The 9/11 Commission report was well publicized and well received. It helped identify the truth that was necessary for some national closure. It also served an accountability function that hopefully will affect governmental actors in future circumstances.

The 9/11 Commission was not unique. A similar function has been performed by other inquiries over the years, including the Iran-Contra hearings, the Watergate hearings, and the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders. Those inquiries looked into events that affected our nation and that were precipitating a crisis in confidence in our governmental institutions. In many other countries, a similar function is performed by truth and reconciliation commissions, the most well known of which is the South African commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu that looked into the myriad issues surrounding apartheid.

We need a Truth Commission on Katrina. A commission composed of prominent and well-respected people who would bring credibility to the effort to learn the truth. A commission that would have adequate funding and the necessary subpoena power to conduct the appropriate inquiry. (The ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities is likely to sponsor a resolution in the near future calling on Congress to create such a commission.)

What did the officials in charge at all levels of government know, when did they know it, and what did they do with that knowledge? And, once the foreseeable was upon us, what did these officials do to respond to the disaster? How did the nongovernmental entities perform during this crisis? The more we avoid these hard questions, the greater the tendency to blame the victims for their horrible circumstances. This is already happening.

Finally, a Katrina commission should be forward looking. Hurricanes are regularly occurring disasters. Future disasters are foreseeable today. We must be better prepared for them. Therefore, we need to learn from the experience of Katrina so that we never have a governmental and nongovernmental default like it again. That ought to be the legacy of Katrina.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2006, Vol. 33, No. 4, p. 7

John Payton

John Payton is a partner at WilmerHale LLP in Washington, D.C. His practice ranges from complex commercial matters to civil rights cases.