In a perfect world--or, at least one not so imperfect--people who make the right call about important stuff would be rewarded and those who are wrong would not be. That's not how things work in Bushland. Remember those lovely medals George W. Bush handed to CIA chief George Tenet and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, even though both were responsible for tremendous miscalculations on Iraq? In recent days, there have been calls for the firing of Michael Brown, the FEMA director--who got his job because he was a college chum of George W. Bush's 2000 campaign manager. Like DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, Brown screwed the pooch, and both in recent days have issued CYA statements rather than acknowledge responsibility. Yet Bush praised his FEMA guy last week, saying, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job."
Let's consider an obvious comparison: Michael Brown and James Lee Witt, who Bill Clinton appointed head of FEMA. As has been widely noted, before joining FEMA, Brown was a lawyer for the International Arabian Horse Association. Before Witt was tapped as FEMA chief, he had served for four years as director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. Bush placed a crony--Brown was also an attorney for the Oklahoma Republican Party--in charge of FEMA (and permitted the agency's disaster work to be downgraded). Clinton gave the job to a fellow with years of experience in disaster management and maintained a close connection to Witt and FEMA, which then had Cabinet-level status.
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Hurricane Katrina, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts.
Brown, Chertoff and Bush were not prepared for this foreseen tragedy, but FEMA's lack of readiness was predicted. By Witt, it turns out. In March 2004, he testified at a hearing conducted by two House subcommittees. The issue at hand was DHS's plan to consolidate--that is, reduce the number of--FEMA's regional and field offices. Witt's comments were all-too perceptive. He practically predicted the mess to come in New Orleans. As you read his remarks--which I excerpt below--think about two things. First, disaster-management experts outside the administration were worried about FEMA long before Hurricane Katrina came howling. Second, the poor people of New Orleans might have been much better off had someone who knew about disaster relief been in charge during this tragedy. Here's a portion of Witt's testimony:
As you continue to examine DHS and its growth, I want you to know that I and many others in the emergency management community across the country are deeply concerned about the direction FEMA is headed. First, we are greatly concerned that the successful partnership that was built between local/state/federal partners and their ability to communicate, coordinate, train, prepare, and respond has been sharply eroded. Second, FEMA, having lost its status as an independent agency, is being buried beneath a massive bureaucracy whose main and seemingly only focus is fighting terrorism while an all hazards mission is getting lost in the shuffle.
I firmly believe that FEMA should be extracted from the DHS bureaucracy and reestablish it as an independent agency reporting directly to the President, but allowing for the Homeland Security Secretary to task FEMA to coordinate the Federal response following terrorist incidents. Third, the FEMA Director has lost Cabinet status and along with it the close relationship to the President and Cabinet Affairs. I believe we could not have been as responsive as we were during my tenure at FEMA had there had been several levels of Federal bureaucracy between myself and the White House. I am afraid communities across the country are starting to suffer the impact of having FEMA buried within a bureaucracy rather than functioning as a small but agile independent agency that coordinates Federal response effectively and efficiently after a disaster.
FEMA was assembled in 1979 in much the same way that the various agencies of DHS have been put together. Although the reorganization that brought the various agencies together under FEMA was on a much smaller and more manageable scale, it took our country close to 15 years to get it right. When FEMA was formed there were several cultures all being thrown together under one new roof. The dominant "top down" culture within early FEMA traced its roots to the days of civil defense. This culture was probably necessary for those types of national security oriented activities. As a State Director of Emergency Management, I was often on the receiving end of FEMA's "top down," rigid, and sometimes inflexible approach. It is for this reason that I was determined, as FEMA Director, to take the Agency in a new direction. I wanted to move towards becoming an organization where the needs of the stakeholders and employees were valued and heeded. DHS is struggling with growing pains similar to what FEMA struggled with for the first 15 years of its existence.
However, I continue to be concerned about the scope of the task that has been given to Under Secretary Hutchinson and Secretary Ridge. FEMA was an agency of 2,600 permanent employees and 4,000 disaster reservists and it took 15 years to get on the right track. The reorganization taking place with DHS is several scales above the FEMA reorganization and they are being asked to accomplish this massive effort in a world full of uncertainty regarding future terrorist activity and the certainty of future natural disasters. As you may know, I was not in favor of creating such a large Department all at once. I supported the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, but I do not think this was accomplished in the right way. I always thought we should start with the areas that needed the greatest and most immediate attention--specifically those activities involving the gathering, assimilation, and dissemination of terrorist intelligence to state and local officials. Also, I thought it made sense to engage in efforts to improve the security of our most vulnerable critical infrastructure and targeted industries. I felt that many of the pieces in place to manage the consequences of a disaster or terrorist attack were not broken and didn't need "fixing." I saw no need to reinvent the wheel on the consequence management side of emergency management--particularly when there were several other more pressing areas that needed to be addressed regarding counterterrorism efforts.
In an effort to build other Directorates within DHS that need more help, vital pieces of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate--FEMA--are being moved or underfunded to prop up these other very critical areas. Programs--like the very successful Fire Grants--are being moved out of FEMA. And the Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) which provide the backbone to our emergency management systems are being cut and significantly restructured in a very detrimental way. In fact some estimates suggest that the 25-percent cap on personnel costs within the EMPG could result in more than half of the country's 4,000-plus emergency managers losing their jobs. By throwing all of these disparate pieces together in the DHS stew, we have not only diluted the concentration on some of the most critical parts of our counterterrorism efforts, but we are allowing scarce resources to be directed away from consequence management. Our Nation's emergency management system has often been held up as an international model; however, this country's well-oiled emergency management infrastructure--that has been built over many years--is now in great jeopardy as DHS attempts to build capabilities in other areas of the Department.
Imagine if Witt--or anyone with such expertise--had been running FEMA in recent years. How many less deaths would there have been in New Orleans and Mississippi? That question cannot be answered. But it is clear that Bush, Chertoff and Brown let FEMA slide. And the cost for that is dead bodies floating in the dirty waters of New Orleans. Now there's a debate over what investigation will come in Katrina's wake. Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman--who led the effort to create the DHS that swallowed up FEMA--announced on Tuesday that their government affairs committee would conduct hearings. Tom DeLay, though, seemed to say he was not eager to see any House committees do the same. And Bush vowed that he would look into "what went wrong" but did not endorse the creation of an independent investigation. As the Bush administration and the Republican Congress dither over this, here's a suggestion: at least one investigation should be independent of the administration, and it should be led by James Lee Witt.
As Republicans desperately cry out of one corner of their mouths to stop the blame game, they have been blaming everyone but themselves since this catastrophe. Let's look at their ever-evolving buck-passing strategies.
Blame the Victims: Both FEMA's Michael Brown and Homeland Security's Michael Chertoff, the Mutt and Jeff of this calamity, have blamed careless, destitute New Orleaners for not evacuating. "Those who got out are fine," Chertoff told NBC's Tim Russert. FEMA sought to excuse its delays in entering the city by blaming the looters.
Blame the Locals: In a stroke of political luck, both the New Orleans mayor and Louisiana's Governor are Democrats. As the New York Times reported, Karl Rove's PR strategy is to shift the blame to the state and city officials. All Sunday, White House officials and Fox News played this card. Expect more of this line of attack.
Blame the City: In perhaps the most bizarre excuse, Chertoff pointed the finger the city of New Orleans itself, saying, "It is a soup bowl. People have talked for years about whether it makes sense to have a city like that."
Blame the Media: Last week, Brown blamed media coverage for the perception that New Orleans had descended into lawlessness. "I actually think security is darn good.... It seems to me that every time a bad person wants to cause a problem, there's somebody with a camera to stick in their face."
Look on the Bright Side: As Americans continued to drown, Chertoff came up with this gem about the rescue efforts: "There were some things that actually worked very well. There were some things that didn't."
Ignoramus Defense: When FEMA's Brown, who was fired from his last job overseeing Arabian horse shows, said he was as "surprised as everybody else" to discover there were desperate people in the New Orleans convention center, CNN Soledad O'Brien asked, "How is it possible that we're getting better intel than you're getting?" But it was left up to our physically fit President for the whopper of the week: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."
It is likely this last defense will be scrapped for obvious reasons. If only we could do the same to this Administration for painfully obvious reasons.
Finally, we have discovered the roots of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."
On the heels of the president's "What, me worry?" response to the death, destruction and dislocation that followed upon Hurricane Katrina comes the news of his mother's Labor Day visit with hurricane evacuees at the Astrodome in Houston.
Commenting on the facilities that have been set up for the evacuees -- cots crammed side-by-side in a huge stadium where the lights never go out and the sound of sobbing children never completely ceases -- former First Lady Barbara Bush concluded that the poor people of New Orleans had lucked out.
"Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them," Mrs. Bush told American Public Media's "Marketplace" program, before returning to her multi-million dollar Houston home.
On the tape of the interview, Mrs. Bush chuckles audibly as she observes just how great things are going for families that are separated from loved ones, people who have been forced to abandon their homes and the only community where they have ever lived, and parents who are explaining to children that their pets, their toys and in some cases their friends may be lost forever. Perhaps the former first lady was amusing herself with the notion that evacuees without bread could eat cake.
At the very least, she was expressing a measure of empathy commensurate with that evidenced by her son during his fly-ins for disaster-zone photo opportunities.
On Friday, when even Republican lawmakers were giving the federal government an "F" for its response to the crisis, President Bush heaped praise on embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown. As thousands of victims of the hurricane continued to plead for food, water, shelter, medical care and a way out of the nightmare to which federal neglect had consigned them, Brown cheerily announced that "people are getting the help they need."
Barbara Bush's son put his arm around the addled FEMA functionary and declared, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Like mother, like son.
Even when a hurricane hits, the apple does not fall far from the tree.
Mark Naison on Race, Class and the Disaster
As Joan Walsh wrote in Salon last week, "The horror in New Orleans exposed the nation's dirty secrets of race and poverty." But as she went on to say, it not only revealed "the desperate poverty of the city's African-American population...but also the poverty of political debate in the US today." While, nearly a third of New Orleanians live below the poverty line, and conditions are even worse for children--fully half of the kids in Lousiana live in poverty----the poor are barely mentioned by our leading politicians. (The only state with a higher child poverty rate is Mississippi, another victim of the hurricane.) As if to underscore the poverty of our politics, the same week the hurricane devastated the poorest regions the Census Bureau released a report that found the number of Americans living in poverty has climbed again--for the fourth straight year under President Bush. It is now clear that any reconstruction effort--amidst the widespread poverty in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast--will require a massive infusion of relief money. Yet, in an obscene display of distorted priorities, the White House and Republican Congress vow that permanent repeal of the estate tax--a windfall for millionaires--remains at the top of the agenda when they return to Washington this week. (Write your congressperson and demand that instead of repealing the estate tax, those funds be used to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.)
For a powerful analysis of how the disaster's impact has revealed "the fault lines of a region and a nation rent by profound divisions" of race and class, read Mark Naison's open letter. It is one of many articles, statements, letters on this theme, that have been circulating in cyberspace in these last days. Naison is a professor of African-American studies at Fordham University in the Bronx.
?As I feared the first day the levees broke in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina will turn out to be the worst environmental catastrophe in modern American history, far dwarfing Hurricane's Andrew and Camilla and equalling, if not surpassing, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in its destructive impact. The flooding, and physical destruction of a historic American city, coupled with the complete destruction of homes, stores, businesses, roads and bridges along 80 miles of Mississippi coastline presents a humanitarian challenge of unprecendented proportions, with consequences that will be felt for years by those who lost loved ones, homes, businesses, jobs, and any sense of comfort or security.
?But this catastrophe also reveals, far more than September 11, how deeply divided our nation is and how far our social fabric has been strained, not only by the war in Iraq, but by policies which have widened the gap between rich and poor and left many poor people in American feeling marginalized and alienated.
?When the full tally of the dead from this storm and its aftermath, which includes those who will die from diseases contracted due to heat, starvation and contaminated water as well as the storm itself, we will see what TV photos of rescue operations are revealing--that the greatest loss of life, and the greatest suffering, was occurring among Louisiana and Mississippi's black poor. Look who we see wading through the the floodwaters in New Orleans streets, look who we see lining up to get into the Superdome, look who we see being taken off roofs. And look who we see being arrested for "looting." Unlike September 11, which revealed a city united in pain, and grief, and determination to rebuild; this crisis reveals communities which are profoundly divided by race and class, and in which the black poor in particular, bear levels of hardship which far exceed those of any other group.
?Not since the great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 have the economic and racial isolation of the black poor been revealed in such stark relief by an environmental catastrophe. What the images Americans on the evening news reveal about who is dying, who is trapped, who is without food, who is drinking contaminated water and yes, who is looting, should give all of us pause. Is this what the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement fought to achieve, a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws.
?One other thought comes to mind. If the American armed forces, including the national guard and army corps of engingeers, were not bogged down in a needless, unprovoked war in Iraq, would the response to this catastrophe have been quicker? Would the levee repair have taken place more quickly and effectively, more food and medicine delivered, more troops sent to preserve order? When all is said and done, many Americans will question whether the response to this catastrophe was hampered by the strain the Iraq war has exerted on our military's rapid response ability in the United States.
?I make these observations not in any way to detract by the heroism of tens of thousands of rescue personnel and ordinary people who have saved, and continue to save lives through their actions. Every one of us needs to give them, and the people of the affected states, or complete support, economically, politically, spiritually, and by any act of personal generosity that can ease someone's suffering.
?But we also cannot shrink from what this tragegy reveals about us as a nation at this stage in history. If September 11 showed the power of a nation united in response to a devastating attack; Hurricane Katrina reveals the fault lines of a region, and a nation, rent by profound social divisions.
Dr. Mark Naison
August 31, 2005
And for a powerful comment on how the tragic events in New Orleans have laid bare the bigotry and lie of equal opportunity, read Gary Younge in Monday's Guardian.
An Appeal to Support the New Orleans Times-Picayune
Dear friends and colleagues,
The impact of Hurricane Katrina on working journalists in Louisiana has been overwhelming. In particular, the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune brought the country the story while losing their own homes and neighborhoods and workplace. It's because these courageous local journalists risked their lives to remain on-scene that we learned of the catastrophic failures of our government.
Now the staff of the Times-Picayune faces an uncertain future. As many as half lost their homes, and it is not clear whether the paper will continue to publish.
The journalists and support staff of the Times-Picayune need our help. Please pass this appeal to others who might be interested.
As many as half of New Orleans Times-Picayune staffers--from senior editorsto receptionists and printers--and their families apparently lost theirhomes in the horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They lost everything.
Newhouse Newspapers, which owns the paper, has extended salaries for aperiod of time and offered other benefits, whether or not employees can makeit to work. Heroically, the paper continues to publish on the web(www.nola.com) and now in print.
But what our friends are facing is staggering, unimaginable.
Please help by contributing whatever money you can. Please note, thatbecause we had to set up this fund in a hurry, contributions are not yet taxdeductible. You can send money via electronic transfer from your bank or bycheck to:
"Friends of the Times-Picayune"
With checks payable to Sterling Bank, Account #151027625
Bayou Bend Office
5757 Memorial Drive
Houston, Texas 77007-8000
Please forward this note to others in your news organization, friends,professional groups or websites for posting.
I posted the below on my blog: www.davidcorn.com. Please visit that site for other items on Hurricane Katrina and other matters.
I confess: I have a hard time saying William Rehnquist, rest in peace. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist, who died on Saturday night, spent much of his adult life trying to restrict the rights of American citizens and to empower further the already-powerful. He rose to prominence as a right-wing attorney who decried the Earl Warren court for being a hotbed of judicial activism (left-wing judicial activism, as he saw it). He then became, as a Supreme Court justice, a judicial activist of the right-wing sort, overturning laws made by Congress (that protected women against domestic violence, banned guns near school property, and prohibited discrimination against disabled workers) and steering the justices into Florida's vote-counting mess in 2000 (an act that only coincidentally--right?--led to George W. Bush's presidency). In that case--Bush v. Gore--Rehnquist, for some reason or another, placed aside his much heralded belief in state sovereignty, which led him on other occasions to grouse about limits on the abilities of states to execute criminals. When it came to states frying prisoners, he advocated a hands-off approach. In vote-counting, he was all for intervention.
But let's be clear: in recent years there has been no other Supreme Curt justice who had a personal history so loaded with racism--or, to be kinder than is warranted, tremendous insensitivity to racial discrimination--as did William Rehnquist. As a law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson in the early 1950s--when the Court was considering the historic Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case--Rehnquist wrote a memo defending the infamous 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the separate-but-equal doctrine. Rehnquist noted, "That decision was right and should be reaffirmed." In other words, he favored continuing discrimination and racial segregation. During his 1971 confirmation hearings, after he was nominated to serve as an associate justice on the Supreme Court, he said that memo merely reflected Jackson's view not his own. But few historians have bought that shaky explanation.
It's not hard to conclude that Rehnquist was on the wrong side of history and then lied about it--especially given actions he took later. In 1964, Rehnquist testified against a proposed ordinance in Phoenix that would ban racial discrimination in public housing. As The Washington Post notes in today's stories on his death, Rehnquist wrote at the time, "It is, I believe, impossible to justify the sacrifice of even a portion of our historic individual liberty for a purpose such as this." In other words, people are not truly free if they are not free to discriminate. In his 1971 hearings, Rehnquist repudiated that stance. But did he really mean it? Twelve years later, he was the only justice to say that Bob Jones University--that hotbed of racial discrimination and religious bigotry--had a legal right to keep African-Americans off its campus.
"He Lived for The Law"--that's how AOL headlined the story on Rehnquist's death. But it's not that Rehnquist had a blind spot on race. He was an active proponent of discrimination. Yet this fellow--without truly making amends--became chief justice of the highest court of the land. Only in America.
What will George W. Bush do now? Elevate Antonin Scalia to chief justice? Appoint someone who's not already on the court to the job? Will he wait until after the hearings on John Roberts to name his pick? That would be good politics. It would be foolish to add any other factor to the Roberts confirmation process, which, from a White House perspective, is going rather well. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, might Bush look to Edith Clement, a conservative federal appellate judge from New Orleans? Or how about Janice Rogers Brown, an African-American woman and sharecropper's daughter who is now a far-right California state judge (who seems to hate the federal government)? After all the recent talk about poor black people being shafted in New Orleans by the US government, Bush might enjoy standing in the Oval Office with Brown and talking about her personal story. [UPDATE: I know. Bush has tapped Roberts to replace Rehnquist as Supreme Court jefe. Some Dems are asking Bush to announce his choice for the Sandra Day O'Connor vacancy before they have to vote on Roberts, But it's unlikely the White House will yield to this request. The smart political move on Bush's part is to get Roberts confirmed and then pick a new fight.]
No doubt, Bush will make a selection that's better for him than the country--and he will announce his choice at a time and in a manner that best serves his administration. In the meantime, as Rehnquist's impact on America is considered, it ought not be forgotten--particularly at a time when we see how the poor of New Orleans have been neglected--that Rehnquist was at times all too willing to forget about the rights of those less fortunate than he.
On Friday, during a special session to provide relief money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Representative Dennis Kucinich delivered a powerful indictment of the Administration's disgraceful priorities and issued a stirring call to rebuild a truly secure America.
"This amount of money is only a fraction of what is needed and everyone here knows it. Let it go forward quickly with heartfelt thanks to those who are helping to save lives with necessary food, water, shelter, medical care and security. Congress must also demand accountability with the appropriations. Because until there are basic changes in the direction of this government, this tragedy will multiply to apocalyptic proportions.
"The Administration yesterday said that no one anticipated the breach of the levees. Did the Administration not see or care about the 2001 FEMA warning about the risk of a devastating hurricane hitting the people of New Orleans? Did it not know or care that civil and army engineers were warning for years about the consequences of failure to strengthen the flood control system? Was it aware or did it care that the very same Administration which decries the plight of the people today, cut from the budget tens of millions needed for Gulf-area flood control projects?
"Countless lives have been lost throughout the South with a cost of hundreds of billions in ruined homes, businesses and the destruction of an entire physical and social infrastructure.
"The President said an hour ago that the Gulf Coast looks like it has been obliterated by a weapon. It has. Indifference is a weapon of mass destruction.
"Our indifferent government is in a crisis of legitimacy. If it continues to ignore its basic responsibility for the health and welfare of the American people, will there ever be enough money to clean up after their indifference?
"As our government continues to squander human and monetary resources of this country on the war, people are beginning to ask, 'Isn't it time we began to take care of our own people here at home? Isn't it time we rescued our own citizens? Isn't it time we fed our own people? Isn't it time we sheltered our own people? Isn't it time we provided physical and economic security for our own people?' And isn't it time we stopped the oil companies from profiting from this tragedy?
"We have plenty of work to do here at home. It is time for America to come home and take care of its own people who are drowning in the streets, suffocating in attics, dying from exposure to the elements, oppressed by poverty and illness, wracked with despair and hunger and thirst.
"The time is NOW to bring back to the United States the 78,000 National Guard troops currently deployed overseas into the Gulf Coast region.
"The time is NOW to bring back to the US the equipment which will be needed for search and rescue, for clean up and reclamation.
"The time is NOW for federal resources, including closed Army bases, to be used for temporary shelter for those who have been displaced by the hurricane.
"The time is NOW to plan massive public works, with jobs going to the people of the Gulf Coast states, to build new levees, new roads, bridges, libraries, schools, colleges and universities and to rebuild all public institutions, including hospitals. Medicare ought to be extended to everyone, so every person can get the physical and mental health care they might need as a result of the disaster.
"The time is NOW for the federal government to take seriously the research of scientists who have warned for years about the dangers of changes in the global climate, and to prepare other regions of the country for other possible weather disasters until we change our disastrous energy policies.
"The time is NOW for changes in our energy policy, to end the domination of oil and fossil fuel and to invest heavily in alternative energy, including wind and solar, geothermal and biofuels.
"As bad as this catastrophe will prove to be, it is in fact only a warning. Our government must change its direction, it must become involved in making America a better place to live, a place where all may survive and thrive. It must get off the path of war and seek the path of peace, peace with the natural environment, peace with other nations, peace with a just economic system."
HELP ACORN Fight for Hurricane Relief for All
At a time when this Administration failed to adequately mobilize to help the largely poor and minority communities of the Gulf Coast, please help ACORN, whose national headquarters are in New Orleans. The dedicated community leaders of Lousiana ACORN have long been at the forefront of efforts to win economic justice. ACORN President Maude Hurd writes: "To our friends and supporters around the country, I ask your help: we need your support to open a temporary national headquarters in Baton Rouge, LA, and, as soon as possible, reopen our offices in New Orleans. As we get up and running, we will work to help secure the housing, community services, and other relief our communities will badly need." So, please consider a contribution to the ACORN Hurricane Recovery and Rebuilding Fund. Tax-deductible checks can be sent to ACORN Institute--Hurricane Recovery and Rebuilding Fund, 739 8th Street SE, Washington, DC, 20003. Or donate online by going to www.acorn.org.
In 1975, when New York City teetered on the brink of financial default, the refusal of then-President Gerald Ford to back an aid package inspired the famous New York Daily News headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."
There was a measure of hyperbole in that headline, and it was at least a little unfair to Ford.
But in light of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's suggestion that rebuilding hurricane-ravaged New Orleans "doesn't make sense to me," it would not be a stretch to headline a report: "Hastert to City: Drop Dead."
Before the bodies had been pulled from the flood waters that have filled the streets of the Crescent City -- at least in part because of the failure of a Hastert-led Congress to allocate the funding needed to modernize the city's levees -- the Illinois Republican was displaying his brand of compassionate conservatism by saying of New Orleans: "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed."
Most significantly, Hastert said that Congress ought to ask "some real tough questions" about whether to allocate federal funding for the job of restoring one of America's most beloved cities. The House Speaker's suggestion that "it makes no sense" for Congress to rebuild a city that is seven feet below sea level might sound like a warped version of conservative "tough love" if the man who is is second in the line of succession to the presidency after Vice President Dick Cheney had been similarly dismissive of plans to rebuild coastal areas of Mississippi and Alabama.
Unlike New Orleans, a 300-year-old city with a rich history but not a particularly rich populace, some of the hardest-hit areas of Mississippi and Alabama were upscale waterfront communities that have been built up in recent years, as real-estate developers have claimed more and more coastal wetlands for their oceanview projects.
But those Republican-leaning areas, which are home to people like former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, were spared Hastert's talk of "tough questions."
Could the calculus really be this dark? Could the Speaker of the House really justify dismissing one community while caring for another for purely parisan purposes? Anyone who has watched this Speaker in action knows the answer to that question.
Hastert is about as crass a political player as you will find in Washington. Along with his political godfather, House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the Speaker has made the House more partisan, and crude, than at any time in its history.
Hastert and DeLay keep vulture eyes on the political map. To the them, New Orleans is little more than a Democratic town full of African Americans, Latino immigrants, gays and lesbians and a few remaining pockets of southern white liberalism. Republican strategists have long been frustrated by New Orleans, a city so blue that it has often tipped the political balance in an otherwise red state. It was New Orleans that gave Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu her narrow first win in 1996 and her only slightly more comfortable reelection victory in 2002. Votes from New Orleans helped make Louisiana one of the few southern states to back Democrat Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection, and they kept Democrat Al Gore competitive with George W. Bush in 2000. In 2003, overwhelming support from New Orleans gave Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco a come-from-behind win in the state's 2003 gubernatorial contest.
Notably, both Mississippi and Alabama have Republican governors and senators and have voted solidly Republican in presidential contests for decades. While Bush lost New Orleans by a 3-1 margin in his two presidential runs, he carried the Congressional districts that make up southern Alabama and Mississippi by margins of almost 2-1.
Hastert's honest initial statement of his views regarding New Orleans was an embarrassment to Republican Congressional leaders, but who didn't want to be seen as insensitive when they were busy pulling together votes for a face-saving aid package. So Hastert issued a backtracking press release, while his allies circled the wagons and began peddling the line that, "Hey, Denny's just a gruff old wrestling coach with a tendency to be blunt" -- much as they did in 2004 when Hastert announced shortly before the presidential vote that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network was pulling for the election of Democrat John Kerry.
Don't believe it. Hastert and DeLay see everything in political terms. And in the political calculus of the House Republican Leadership, New Orleans and cities like it have for a long time been written off as expendable. That's why New Orleans didn't get the infrastructure assistance it needed when the city's aging levies could have been strengthened to withstand a storm even as powerful as Hurricane Katrina. And that's why, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, it made no sense to Denny Hastert to give any hope at all to the people of New Orleans.
Don't doubt for a second that, in his heart of hearts, Hastert believes New Orleans and other big cities are expendable, just as he believes that federal dollars should be poured without limit into the reconstruction of the coast-hugging upscale developments of conservative southern Mississippi and Alabama.
In the months and years to come, as questions arise about whether the federal government is caring equitably for all of Hurricane Katrina's victims, people of good will should never forget Denny Hastert's first reaction. If the Speaker is not held to account at every turn, there is every reason to fear that he will return to it -- and that New Orleans and its citizens will be victimized once more.
Numerous Nation readers have written us asking for suggestions on where they can send funds to help those devastated by Hurricane Katrina. For straight donations, the American Red Cross is probably as good an outfit as any in the field currently taking contributions. ARC volunteers have been deployed to the hardest hit areas of Katrina's destruction, supplying hundreds of thousands of victims left homeless with critical necessities. Click here to make a dedicated donation to this relief effort.
The Mercy Corps has also assembled a team of relief experts in Louisiana to assist in immediate humanitarian efforts and to plan a long-term strategy to help the most vulnerable survivors of Hurricane Katrina rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Click here to help this longtime progressive relief agency respond effectively to the short-and long-term needs of hurricane survivors.
Our friends at MoveOn.org have spearheaded another innovative way to help. HurricaneHousing.org encourages people to donate a short-term place to stay for those made homeless by the disaster. Already, more than 50,000 beds have been offered to our new American refugees. Places in the Southeast are most useful but people anywhere in the US can participate.
It's also worth supporting a group of progressive congressional Democrats who have introduced legislation to protect the thousands of people left financially devastated by Hurricane Katrina from being penalized by anti-debtor provisions contained in the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. This unfair law, designed to protect the rich at the expense of the poor, is scheduled to take effect on October 17, 2005. Click here to let your own elected reps know that you expect them to support this bill.
Finally, for a sense of the magnitude of the tragedy, listen to an incredible radio interview with Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, who pulls absolutely no punches. This is as real, and raw, and as heartbreaking as it gets.
With this post, I depart for my summer vacation. I'll be back in this space on Saturday, September 10. In the meantime, my colleague Joan Connell will update this post, if necessary, to ensure that we're highlighting the most effective relief efforts underway.
How convenient for the oil industry that Hurricane Katrina hit just before the traditional Labor Day-weekend hike in gas prices. Now, instead of having to fake up some absolutely absurd excuse for jacking up gas prices, the industry can try and dupe Americans into thinking that they are suddenly paying $3.25 a gallon because of a storm.
The oil industry's response to Katrina has provided a reminder of why it is so exceptionally profitable.
Even before a start had been made on assessing the damage caused by the tropical storm, energy corporations were cashing in. And every indication is that they plan to continue doing so--perhaps taking prices over the $4-a-gallon mark, according to James DiGeorgia, editor and publisher of the Gold & Energy Advisor and author of The Global War for Oil.
No one debates the fact that the hurricane has done significant damage to oil rigs, refineries and delivery systems along the Gulf Coast, a region that accounts for roughly 10 percent of US refining capacity. But roughly 90 percent of US refining capacity remains fully functional and, it should not be forgotten, the US has not stopped importing oil.
Additionally, the Bush Administration jumped to the aid of the oil companies long before the relief effort was in full swing.
The Environmental Protection Agency suspended summertime antipollution measures, lifting the requirement that refiners lower fuel volatility and cut sulphur levels. At the same time, the Administration moved to release oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which was created more than three decades ago with the precise purpose of boosting fuel supplies in order to keep a lid on rising wholesale gasoline prices in a circumstance such as the one that has now developed.
Despite all the aid they are getting, however, the oil companies are not giving anything back. There is no evidence of a willingness on the part of these highly profitable corporations to sacrifice in a time of national emergency.
Make no mistake: These corporations should be able to absorb a hit. Over the past year and a half, the four largest oil companies--ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Royal Dutch/Shell Group and BP Group PLC--have pocketed close to $100 billion in profits. During the first quarter of 2005 alone, those firms pulled in a cool $23 billion.
But instead of sharing the pain, they appear to be moving to squeeze every cent they can out of the crisis.
With oil-industry friends in charge of the White House and the Congress, don't expect much of a response from the federal level.
But this is one case where states have an ability to intervene.
Three years ago, in a move to protect against gouging, Hawaiian officials enacted legislation that allows state officials to set price caps on gasoline.
Now, as gas prices are skyrocketing in the aftermath of Katrina, a California legislator wants to give a state agency broad authority to regulate the cost of fuel.
State Senator Joe Dunn, a Democrat, has introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow the state Public Utilities Commission to require mandatory fuel reserves, set profit margins for oil and gas companies and order the construction of new pipelines. The measure would also bar agreements between energy corporations to reduce competition.
Dunn's amendment would allow the California Public Utilities Commission to cap prices, although the senator told reporters that step would only be taken as a last resort.
Dunn brings a refreshing bluntness to the discourse. Speaking to the Associated Press, he accused the oil industry of creating a dysfunctional market in California, in which competition is essentially eliminated. That, he explained, is why states need to step up their use of regulatory powers.
"Two years ago, when gasoline cost $2 a gallon, the industry said to give it time and prices would settle down. Now, we're seeing $3 a gallon," Dunn said. "People in California are no longer believing the excuses of the industry. If they can't fix their market behavior, we'll fix it for them."
It is certainly true that consumers should take steps to reduce their use of petroleum products--not just because of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico but because of the human, economic and environmental tolls this country's reliance on imported petroleum products has imposed. But petroleum companies should sacrifice as well. And if they are not willing to do so, states should remind them of their patriotic duty.
I just spotted Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, on CNN arguing with anchor Miles O'Brien. O'Brien was suggesting that the federal government dropped the ball in terms of preparing for Hurricane Katrina. Barbour kept defending the federal government--that is, the Bush Administration. He seemed to suggest that the hurricane was not that powerful when it first approached land and that there had not been enough time to do more preparation. Of course, Barbour did not note that before becoming governor of Mississippi he was head of the Republican Party and, therefore, not of a disposition to speak critically of an Administration that has gutted FEMA, slashed funding for flood control and sent many National Guard reserves to Iraq. (By one estimate, about one-third of the Louisiana National Guard is in Iraq now.) O'Brien pushed his point about as hard as is permitted on cable television. But he neglected to raise these specifics or to question Barbour about his previous work as a corporate lobbyist who, on behalf of his well-paying clients, fought fiercely against the Kyoto accords. (Recent scientific research suggests that global warming has led to more destructive hurricanes.) And, as I noted previously (click here), Barbour led the GOP when it was waging war on Big Government. Now he's all for it. O'Brien didn't query him on this conversion.
Liberal bloggers have banded together to raise money for the hurricane relief efforts and to help our Red State neighbors. (See the ad at my blog: www.davidcorn.com.) The goal, as the ad says, is to raise $1 million. Please consider clicking on the ad (or going straight to the donation page) and doing what you can. In the meantime, I propose putting off the GOP effort to kill the estate tax for millionaires and to devote a portion of those funds for reconstruction in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. I ask my fellow liberal bloggers to join me in this call, and to raise this question: Will Haley Barbour endorse our campaign?
As the New York Times editorializes today, a moment like this shows Bush's weaknesses. He was late to respond (again!) and his rhetoric was hollow (no surprise). Yesterday he declared, "America will be a stronger place for it." Puh-lease. Did he ask his speechwriters for the most empty platitude they could concoct? Then today he proclaimed there would be "zero tolerance" for looters. But if I were stuck in New Orleans, waiting for help from a government that had failed me, and my family was without water, food or clothes, I'd grab what I could from where I could. I'd worry about payment later. Sure, some looters are criminals exploiting the emergency. But many are people trying to survive. Who would watch their kids go hungry rather than break a window at a Winn-Dixie? Not me. Call me pro-looting-when-it's-necessary.
And if you haven't already seen my college chum Will Bunch's piece on why this disaster did not have to be as bad as it has been--due to federal cutbacks in funds for flood control--check it out here. Bunch works for the Philadelphia Daily News, and he mainly reviewed stories from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Here's an excerpt:
New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.
Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.
Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.
Newhouse News Service, in an article posted late Tuesday night at The Times-Picayune Web site, reported: "No one can say they didn't see it coming....Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation."
In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to a Feb. 16, 2004, article, in New Orleans CityBusiness.
On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and 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 for us."
Hmmm, a security issue. Flooding? Weather? Global warming? This is far too nuanced a view. I mean, isn't the real threat the terrorists in Iraq who want to destroy America because they hate our freedom (even though they don't seem to mind the freedoms enjoyed by people in, say, Finland)? Hurricane Katrina illuminates bad choices and bad policies. It may have been an act of God. But its devastating impact was also determined by the folly of our leaders.
It also makes me wonder, Can this government deal with one of the nightmare scenarios? A biological weapon? A nuclear detonation? The Bush Administration, according to numerous studies, has not fully funded first responders. Hurricane Katrina shows why this is foolishness.
Enough of a sermon from me. Please give to the relief fund.