The Disaster President

The Disaster President

The incompetence revealed by the response to Hurricane Katrina can be traced to a twenty-five-year project, begun in the Reagan era, of discrediting government.


As the fourth anniversary of September 11 approached, Americans were increasingly disquieted by the costly quagmire in Iraq, rising gas prices and an economy that benefits only CEOs. Then the destruction visited upon the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, and the grossly negligent government response to the flooding that followed, exposed the full scope of George W. Bush’s misrule. The failures were so outrageous they roused even our embedded media from its slumbers.

But the incompetence revealed by the response to the hurricane is deep-rooted, and can be traced to the twenty-five-year project, begun in the Reagan era, of discrediting government, “starving the beast” of resources and exalting private markets and faith-based charities. Tax cuts for the wealthy and Congressional corruption have drained government of the imagination and resources to address human needs. Katrina has brutally exposed Americans to the costs of this folly.

The spending squeeze that delayed the strengthening of the levees in New Orleans–despite repeated warnings from experts–reflects this Administration’s skewed priorities: money for war and occupation in Iraq but not for protection of life at home. With one-third of the troops and half the equipment of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard in Iraq, Americans saw stark evidence of the domestic price of the war this President has chosen to fight on credit. And the chilling scenes of calamity visited on the most vulnerable exposed to the world America’s reality: a country ever more divided by race and class.

The Gulf Coast looked, said Bush, like it had been hit with “the worst kind of weapon.” The President is right, responded Representative Dennis Kucinich. “Indifference is a weapon of mass destruction.” While most of the affluent of New Orleans left by car or plane, the poor had no way out. They were told to go to the Superdome and convention center, where–unbelievably–there were inadequate supplies of food and water, no electricity, befouled sanitation facilities and no police protection. When it came time to rescue and relocate the displaced, the Bush Administration placed the onus on state and local officials and called on citizens to give to charities. But faith-based disaster relief is no substitute for an effective, organized, rapid government response.

Since New Orleans is a major center of oil imports and refining, Katrina roiled already tight energy markets. Gas companies, wallowing in record profits, took the occasion to gouge Americans at the pump. The companies’ rapacity and the country’s vulnerability are direct results of Bush’s Big Oil energy policy, his failure to lead a drive for energy independence by investing in conservation and in renewable and diverse energy sources. Instead of calling for an excess-profits tax on oil companies to help pay for the rebuilding, Bush immediately asserted that no tax increase was necessary.

The staggering incompetence of the Department of Homeland Security–which disregarded its own forecasts–exposed this Administration’s glaring failure to prepare for emergencies after September 11. In the chaotic reorganization of DHS, the powers of FEMA, the agency in charge of natural disasters, were weakened and its budget slashed.

Now, in the wake of Katrina, America must begin rebuilding from the ruins caused by nature and policy. A massive public works project is imperative for New Orleans and neighboring communities, one with affordable housing and adequate planning for flood and storm protection. We must restore the wetlands and barrier islands that have been degraded by canals and levees.

The disaster requires a thorough investigation into what went wrong, by an independent commission with subpoena power. It should also lead now-furious Americans to re-examine a generation of backward priorities. The debate about the role of government in the service of public good has been reopened. The hurricane revealed not only the desperate poverty of the region’s African-American population but also the poverty of our federal policies. For too long our leaders have abandoned our cities, our poor, our public infrastructure. We need a government dedicated to serving the unemployed, the ill fed and the ill housed. It’s time to end the dismantling and begin the rebuilding.

There is nothing in George Bush’s policies or actions to suggest that his Administration has the leadership or the values for the task. To recover from this government’s follies, Americans need a relocation and reclamation project in Washington, DC, in addition to the massive one beginning in Katrina’s wake.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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