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, FactCheck.org 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 Levees.org’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 Levees.org 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.”