Ten days after Hurricane Katrina trashed the Gulf Coast, a radio talk-show host in Los Angeles asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice if it was true that President Bush does not care about black people. (She said no.) A man standing in the ruins in Gulfport, Miss., told the Vice President, "Go f___ yourself." (He smiled.) And the mayor of New Orleans secretly decamped for much of the week to Dallas to install his family there, refusing most media interviews, although the bodies had only begun to be counted in his drowned city. Even as soldiers swarmed into the Gulf Coast and residents scattered onto dry land around the country, the anger at the government's response to Katrina did not abate. In a TIME poll of 1,000 adults nationwide, 52% said the government had done a poor job preparing for Katrina at all levels. And 62% said the government had responded too slowly to those hardest hit. In this sample at least, Americans did not single out blame but spread it far and wide.
The accused preferred a cleaner narrative. The President's supporters put out the word that the mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana had botched the response, and the feds were only cleaning up their mess. The locals seemed flabbergasted by such claims, insisting that the crisis had immediately overwhelmed their capacity and that the feds had failed to step into the vacuum.
Should blame be portioned out according to power--or proximity? And what about the legions of elected officials and bureaucrats stacked in between, the ones who are supposed to form a human chain from city hall to the Oval Office?
Already it's clear that this debacle was more than an act of God. This country's emergency operations, awesome in their potential, are also frighteningly interdependent. The locals are in charge--until they get overwhelmed. Then they cede control to the feds--but not entirely. The scarier things get, the fuzzier the lines of authority become. As TIME's investigation shows, at every level of government, there was uncertainty about who was in charge at crucial moments. Leaders were afraid to actually lead, reluctant to cost businesses money, break jurisdictional rules or spawn lawsuits. They were afraid, in other words, of ending up in an article just like this one.
The President's spokespeople have taken to calling this the "blame game." His critics call it "accountability." However you brand the process, you should get used to it. Republicans in Congress have announced a joint inquiry with Democrats. But the Democrats are refusing to cooperate because they want an independent commission. No matter how the reckoning goes, TIME's investigation reveals at least four places where the system broke down.