NYT: Gulf rescue "chaotic"

Rolling Stone plowed most of this ground a week ago, but consider this New York Times report on the Gulf disaster a corroboration of incompetence.  When the Gray lady uses the word “chaotic” in its headline in a Democratic administration, even with the qualifying phrase “described as,” the narrative has definitely turned towards incompetence, confusion, and failure:

For much of the last two months, the focus of the response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion has been a mile underwater, 50 miles from shore, where successive efforts involving containment domes, “top kills” and “junk shots” have failed, and a “spillcam” shows tens of thousands of barrels of oil hemorrhaging into the gulf each day.

Closer to shore, the efforts to keep the oil away from land have not fared much better, despite a response effort involving thousands of boats, tens of thousands of workers and millions of feet of containment boom.

From the beginning, 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. As a result, officials and experts say, the damage to the coastline and wildlife has been worse than it might have been if the response had been faster and orchestrated more effectively.

“The present system is not working,” Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said Thursday at a hearing in Washington devoted to assessing the spill and the response. Oil had just entered Florida waters, Senator Nelson said, adding that no one was notified at either the state or local level, a failure of communication that echoed Mr. Bonano’s story and countless others along the Gulf Coast.

Rolling Stone focused heavily on the lack of oversight and corruption at MMS as a leadup to the Gulf disaster.  The Times’ Campbell Robertson looks more closely at the lack of preparation inside government and the industry for a disaster of this scope.  Robertson points out that several states have taken it upon themselves to require a response infrastructure that can handle this kind of contingency, or at least the worst-case contingencies that they are likely to see.  Alaska, for instance, requires the presence of equipment and ships that can scoop as much as 300,000 barrels of oil out of the water in 72 hours.

So why didn’t BP have those preparations in the Gulf?  The industry fights those requirements as unnecessary, and the federal government has mainly given them a pass under a number of administrations.  Even after the Exxon Valdez prompted Alaska to toughen its standards, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations did little to increase response preparations for off-shore drilling, probably because of the long stretch of years without any major incidents.

The lack of preparation was years in the making, and not totally the fault of the current administration.  However, that doesn’t absolve them from the uncoordinated, disjointed, and contradictory response given in the first seven weeks of this catastrophe, mostly problems of the Obama administration’s making:

At the very least, these plans, which devote pages and flow charts to command structure, were meant to have an efficient hierarchy in place as soon as a spill occurred. That structure has often been unwieldy, and to some, hardly evident at all.

“I still don’t know who’s in charge,” Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish, said at the Senate hearing on Thursday, seven weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank. “Is it BP? Is it the Coast Guard?”

Governance is inherently complicated by the players who are thrown together: BP officials work alongside federal officials who rebuke them publicly, and federal officials work closely with officials at the state level, who have been equally public in their condemnation of the response. …

The main problems, many here say, have been sluggish response times and a consistent impression that no one is in charge.

The Times’ report takes a more objective tone than Rolling Stone did in theirs, and refrains from reaching conclusions about who’s screwing up, and where.  However, the report clearly shows that few people know who’s in charge or even what’s going on at any time.  That’s a failure of leadership, and after seven weeks, it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.