Revisiting New Orleans

Revisiting New Orleans

It took Gustav to make Hurricane Katrina a campaign issue.


Facing warmer oceans, more frequent hurricanes, dubious levees and depleted wetlands, New Orleans depends more than ever on the changing winds of weather and politics. Yet even though this year marks the first presidential election since more than 80 percent of the city went underwater, it took Gustav to make Katrina a campaign issue.

The Katrina disaster and recovery earned just glancing mentions in the prime-time speeches at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The Republican convention was retooled in Gustav’s wake, but had the hurricane fizzled the Republicans would certainly have accorded Katrina even less attention than the Democrats. John McCain repeatedly sets himself apart from George W. Bush’s handling of the tragedy, yet three years ago he was a mirror image of the detached President. A now infamous photo–still located on the White House website–shows the two men celebrating McCain’s birthday as people in New Orleans were fighting their way out of attics.

Furthermore, McCain’s words often collide with his actions–and sometimes with each other. He told reporters he wanted to revisit the conversation about the fate of the Lower Ninth Ward: “Rebuild it, tear it down, you know, whatever it is.” Shortly thereafter he said he didn’t remember making those remarks and that it was “inspiring” to witness the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth. Also, notes that McCain told a New Orleans reporter that he “supported every investigation” into government missteps during Katrina, when in fact he twice voted against establishing a commission–while none other than Joe Lieberman was accusing the White House of thwarting the Senate’s efforts.

On some key issues for New Orleans both McCain and Barack Obama get middling marks. Neither has signed on to the New Orleans advocacy group’s call for an independent commission to determine just how the levees failed. “Neither candidate had heretofore–as far as I could see–made any statements of commitment to protect the coast with any real specifics, any real teeth,” says founder Sandy Rosenthal. Both candidates have stated their general support for levees that protect against a hundred-year storm, as well as an entire flood protection system–including levees and wetlands–that offers protection against a Category 5 hurricane. Obama’s promise is part of a five-page Gulf Coast position paper available on his website. Neither has been specific about the cost or how to pay for it. McCain has come closest, says Rising Tide author and outspoken wetlands advocate John Barry. Following Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s estimation that it would cost “tens of billions of dollars,” McCain replied, “To protect the lives of American citizens, we can always find the money.”

Here again, McCain’s actions cast doubt on his promise. The Senate record doesn’t offer much to go on: neither McCain nor Obama voted on the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, which became law over Bush’s veto and, among other provisions, authorized more than $3 billion for coastal restoration. Yet one month after Katrina, McCain’s was one of the loudest voices arguing for fiscal restraint as initial New Orleans reconstruction efforts got under way. While he did not directly oppose reconstruction, he warned against imposing a debt burden without first finding offsets–a position that contrasts with his less conditional support for Iraq War spending.

More broadly, there is a marked difference in the way the two candidates understand the lesson of Katrina. To McCain, Katrina represents an isolated failure of government–which he promises to improve by his good efforts and, more ominous, by privatizing relief and turning it over to “FedEx or Wal-Mart or Home Depot,” as he reportedly said at a Florida campaign stop. In doing so, he’s following a common Republican script: first, gut a functioning government agency or program; then turn operations over to the private sector.

For Obama, Katrina extends far beyond New Orleans. He developed this argument on the floor of the Senate just days after he visited the Houston Astrodome, which was lined with Katrina evacuees. In the Astrodome, he said, he met a woman who described how they had nothing before the hurricane and now had “less than nothing.” He went on to pen this conclusion in his foreword to the book It Takes a Nation: “In the end, we rise and fall as a nation depending on our ability to harness that spirit to do and care for others–not just in response to a hurricane or a terrorist attack or a tsunami but in response to the everyday Katrinas so many of our neighbors quietly and desperately live with.”

Obama honed this theme of quiet storms at a speech earlier this year in New Orleans, as well as in a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, during which he connected the Gulf Coast with the Rust Belt. In the fall of 2005, he backed up his talk about federal compassion with a bevy of votes to provide relief, including measures to provide emergency healthcare and extend unemployment insurance for people who’d gone through the storms. The measures mostly split along party lines; McCain generally joined other Republicans in opposition.

In the days following Gustav, New Orleanians, whose homes were mostly spared, returned to wonder about the next time and to listen, once again, to a renewed national conversation about their lives. By all rights, that conversation should now last through the election and beyond. A historic rebuilding could still begin in New Orleans; Obama alone offers the promise that it wouldn’t end there.

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