Vol. 12, No. 2,856W - The American Reporter - March 18, 2006

On Native Ground

by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
Dummerston, Vt.

DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- President George W. Bush says he plans to investigate what went wrong with the federal government's response to the devastation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina.

Isn't that like O.J. Simpson's vow to find the "real killer" of his wife Nicole?

There have been many mistakes made since Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, but, to me, it all comes down to three things:

  • The decision to starve flood control efforts in New Orleans to pay for the war in Iraq.
  • The decision to fold the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the Department of Homeland Security and replace people with experience in dealing with natural disasters with clueless political appointees.
  • The total lack of federal leadership, from President Bush on down, in the early stages of the crisis.

Let's look at these things one at time.

We knew before the storm that the system of levees and water pumps that keep New Orleans above water needed repairs, but the federal money to do the work never arrived.

In 1995, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA). The Army Corps of Engineers spent more than $430 million shoring up sinking levees and building pumping stations. But by 2003, there was about $250 million of work still to be done and the SELA funding was slowly being drained away to pay for the war effort in Iraq.

"It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq," Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, La., told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in June 2004. "I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue."

The New Orleans-area emergency management agencies pleaded with the Bush administration in 2004 for more money to deal with sinking levees. No money was forthcoming. Despite the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season being the worst in decades, a Bush-league Congress cut funding for flood control work in New Orleans by 44 percent.

And now, it's too late.

There's no way of decisively knowing if the money that was not spent over the last two years to finish SELA would have made a difference in minimizing the destruction in New Orleans. But it is clear that what happened there is a prime example of domestic needs that have been neglected to pay for an unnecessary war in Iraq.

That leads us to the next failure - the merger of FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security.

It has been well documented that money that had once been earmarked for disaster preparedness was diverted to "the war on terror." Even though FEMA stated before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that a major hurricane destroying New Orleans was one of the three most likely catastrophic disasters this nation would face (a major earthquake in San Francisco and a terrorist attack in New York were the other two), FEMA lost its Cabinet-level status and had its disaster preparedness money cut.

According to the Los Angeles Times, three out of every four dollars that FEMA provides for first-responders and local disaster preparedness now goes to anti-terrorism activities. Key program were cut and emergency managers were replaced by political appointees with little or no expertise in responding to disasters.

At the heart of homeland security is the protection of citizens from disasters, man-made and natural. Hurricanes and floods are more likely and more destructive than terrorist bombings. But the Bush administration chose to ignore this. Cutting money designed to minimize the damage of a disaster that everyone expected would happen had deadly consequences for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

And the lack of leadership by the Bush administration in the first days of the disaster was nothing short of criminal negligence.

The National Guard units that would have been deployed in New Orleans were in Iraq, as was their equipment. It took five days for other units to reach New Orleans.

The scenes of anarchy in New Orleans almost paralleled what we saw in Baghdad in April 2003. The response by the Bush administration was about the same. It did nothing until it was too late.

Maybe it was because the Bush administration cared as much about the people of New Orleans as it did the people of Baghdad.

New Orleans is a city where half of the households earn less than $22,000, nearly 30 percent of the population lives in poverty, and it has some of the highest violent crime rates in America.

The people who didn't have cars, money or a place to go when the storm approached and evacuation orders were issued were left to fend for themselves, while the people who had the money and means to escape the storm did so.

This was a perfect illustration of how the taboo subjects of race and class are never far from the surface of daily life in the United States. The scenes of starvation, disease and death in New Orleans - scenes that should shame the Bush administration, except for the fact that none of them are capable of feeling shame - was a direct result of the schism of race and class. The well-off, who were mostly white, survived. The poor, mostly black, died by the thousands.

Why did this have to happen? And who should be held accountable?

It's been four years since the 9/11 attacks, and disaster preparedness has not only not improved, it has gotten worse. And unlike the 9/11 attack, Hurricane Katrina was a disaster that came with plenty of warning. What would happen in the case of another 9/11?

The Bush administration has no excuses. No amount of spin and lying can cover up the dereliction of duty displayed by the White House.

Why did it take until Sept. 2, five days after the storm, for President Bush or any other high-ranking official to set foot in the Gulf Coast? Why was FEMA turning away rescuers and supplies from New Orleans? Why did it take days for food and water to reach victims? Why does it seem like our federal government is no longer interested in providing the essential services of government - providing security, rescuing those in need and preparing for disasters before they happen?

These questions must be answered. The people who were responsible must be held accountable. And we must not have a repeat of the Bush administration's sorry performance the next time a storm or another disaster strikes.

Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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