Note: The following entry was originally written on September 3 2005, as the date above the piece’s title shows, but because of a most unfortunate failure in Internet service I was unable to publish it before leaving on a two-week vacation to Taiwan, from which I have now returned. Thus, the late publishing date. The entry is written based on all information available to me on September 3 2005, and does not account for any new information, events, or actions since then. While I have not followed the topic closely enough in the past two weeks to give a definitive statement, I have not seen anything that challenges the basic premise of the piece.
September 3 2005
The Lessons Of Katrina
Hurricane Shows How Important Government And Readiness Really Are
What You Need To Know: A Summary For You Lazy Asses
· We saw Hurricane Katrina coming – and we should have done something to prepare for its impact.
· The federal government, in my opinion, has a mandate to take an active role in public affairs – including disaster preparation and relief, and activities that would have saved New Orleans.
· Instead, Republicans have allowed their anti-government philosophy to infect politics and policies at the national level, leaving the United States and millions of its people – including those who died and suffered in New Orleans – worse off.
· Being prepared and having a federal government that does something really pays off – and they’re the right things to do.
This past week, we got an awesome show of nature in the form of Hurricane Katrina. After giving Floridians a false alarm upon arriving as a Category One storm, it moved on across the Gulf of Mexico to hit Louisiana and Mississippi shores as a full-blown Category Four (or Five, it is still up for debate) hurricane. Most devastating was the effect the storm had on Louisiana’s largest and most famous city, New Orleans, home of Mardi Gras, delicious Cajun food and the French Quarter. The city is shaped like a bowl and is situated on soft soil that’s slowly sinking, putting the city effectively below sea level. The city is also wedged between the massive Lake Pontchartrain and the massive Mississippi River and is close to the Gulf, rendering it extremely vulnerable to storm surges and flood. Normally, a system of pumps and levees keeps the water at bay, but almost all the pumps and three of the levees failed when Katrina struck. Apparently, the levee system was not designed for anything greater than a Category Three hurricane and is nowhere near as sophisticated as the levee/dike system the Dutch use to protect their similarly low-lying cities.
New Orleans, Louisiana – before the floods, I presume. (Source: wikipedia.org)
The result was inevitable. When the levees broke, water from swollen lake, river, and gulf poured through, leaving eighty percent of New Orleans flooded. The death toll is likely in the thousands, with many thousands more homeless, hungry, dehydrated, and shocked at the sudden hell that has visited their lives. The property damage is most likely in the billions of dollars, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that Katrina’s ravages brought out the worst in people, as unscrupulous bandits seeking to take advantage of a beleaguered and overwhelmed police force broke into undefended shops and made off with non-essentials like TVs and DVDs. (You see why we have a Second Amendment?) New Orleans literally looked like a third-world country devastated by disease, famine and war, as people crowded into the streets or the partially flooded Superdome (which was hot, stinky and extremely uncomfortable as people poured in and air conditioning and many toilets all failed). Has the United States ever seen such devastation before? We expect this kind of stuff from Africa, or Europe during World War II, but even during the Great Wars the USA was always (Pearl Harbor notwithstanding, and Pearl Harbor was a pinprick compared to this) safe from harm, enveloped by the protective oceans. Well, now its those same oceans that have brought us to our knees. The draining and reconstruction of New Orleans is estimated to take years – just draining the city will take three to six months.
New Orleans after the floods. (Source: wikipedia.org)
The sad thing is that this tragedy and tragedies like it could be readily avoided if we put our faith in two things: being prepared, and government – state, local and federal. In regards to being prepared: last year, when Hurricane Ivan looked like it was about to hit New Orleans, everyone was in a tizzy about how vulnerable New Orleans was to flooding, and how it would be screwed if the hurricane actually hit. When it narrowly missed, the nation heaved a collective sigh of relief – and then went back to doing nothing. We knew this was gonna happen – not just a year in advance either. We knew about New Orleans’s vulnerability going back to at least fifty years. And what did we do? Nothing. Okay, I know this might be ridiculous coming from me, the Procrastination King, but at least I get the job done in the last hour/minute. This wasn’t even procrastination, because when you procrastinate, you still do it at the end. There wasn’t anything even done until after Katrina came! And it’s not like Katrina popped out of nowhere – we saw her coming at least a week in advance. Might it not have been a good idea to, say, dispatch pump and hospital ships to evacuate people in advance of the storm, and to stay in the area to evacuate more people and pump water out of the city once the storm passed (staying out of the storm’s path all the while, of course) instead of having a hospital ship dispatched from all the way in Baltimore two days after the storm hits? Shouldn’t we have done more in advance of the storm?
Now, as for government. Before I go into it, I want to set a disclaimer. There’s a breed of rabid right-wingers who knee-jerkedly go out of their way to accuse opponents of President Bush of blaming everything on him. They even put words in liberals’ mouths and said that liberals were blaming Bush for the storm! That’s not what I’m doing. Katrina is not Bush’s fault. Katrina isn’t anyone’s fault – it’s not like hurricanes are man-made (though, there is evidence that global climate change helps produce more hurricanes by making tropical atmosphere even warmer). I do think, however, that Katrina is a good example and a good lesson on how important government at all levels really is.
It was something that even MSNBC’s Chris Matthews noted, when he said (and I’m technically paraphrasing here, because I don’t have a transcript on me and I don’t want to get sued) “We talk a lot about states’ rights and how we should reduce the size of the federal government, but when disasters happen states are always looking to the feds for help.” Indeed, they do, as they should. In my view, the federal government has the responsibility to oversee the general well-being of the nation, including matters in individual states and localities. In the view of right-wing Republicans, the overarching view of “states’ rights” means that states take care of their own business. So, in other words, if the states’ righters had their way, Louisiana and Mississippi would be paying for their own reconstruction and would get no help from D.C. (Note: For those of you who want to attack me for playing partisan games, I know the Democrats were the states’ rights party back into the 1800s. Which is why I most assuredly would not have been a Democrat had I lived back then.) Can you imagine if we had a right-wing President who was actually consistent on principle (unlike President Bush) and said, “Sorry, but this matter is out of federal jurisdiction. You’re on your own.” Well, Republicans say that about a great many things. Thankfully, they’re not saying it for this case, because in this time of sorrow even the most die-hard Republican can’t bring him/herself to say, “As a matter of principle, the feds shouldn’t be doing this.”
Am I blaming Bush and the Republicans for the storm? No, but I do blame them for the poor response in the storm’s aftermath. When President Clinton took office in 1993, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was a mess. Their response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was roundly criticized in all quarters as horrific. Clinton appointed James Lee Witt to head the Agency and FEMA experienced a dramatic turnaround. Since Clinton left office and Republicans took power across all branches of government, FEMA has seen its budget slashed and its priorities redirected toward responding to terrorist attacks. Responding to terrorists is important too, but shouldn’t FEMA be able to respond to terrorists and natural disasters? Well, it probably can’t if it’s not funded properly. To be fair, FEMA did have at least something to offer, moving 18 search-and-rescue teams and 39 medical teams into storm areas once Katrina passed. And it did spend $250 000 last year on an eight-day killer hurricane drill that anticipated many of the same things now happening on the ground. But FEMA wanted to put together an evacuation plan this year, funding was cut, according to former FEMA disaster-response chief Eric Tolbert. Tolbert continued, “A lot of good was done, but it just wasn’t finished. I don’t know if it would have saved more lives. It would have made the response faster. You might say it would have saved lives.” A lot of good was done, but it just wasn’t finished. Or, put another way, good, but not good enough. This phrase describes not only the Republicans’ bungled handling on disaster response but also its underwhelming approach to education and homeland security. (For everything else, they’re just plain bad.) It’s not just FEMA either. Federal flood-control spending for southeastern Louisiana was cut from $69 million in 2001 to $36.5 million in 2005. Federal hurricane protection spending in that area for the Army Corps of Engineers was cut from $14.25 million in 2002 to $5.7 million in 2005. (As an aside, my source mentioned that Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu (La.) requested $27 million for 2005. Good for her – this almost makes up for her vote for ANWR drilling earlier this year.) In 2004, for the first time in 37 years, the Army Corps of Engineers stopped major work on the levees – the SAME levees that subsequently broke when Katrina hit – because it had to scrimp thanks to budget cuts. (Who says throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve it?) Most alarming of all, the Corps, lacking money, eliminated funds for a study on how to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 storm. Gee, what a difference that study might have made!
Is anyone here as outraged as I am? In a more perfect Union, where the concept of the federal government playing an active role in domestic affairs – including spending and doing whatever it takes – is unquestioned, New Orleans could be sitting dry and whole, its people battered but no worse for the wear. Instead, the city now looks like Bangladesh. Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, noted dryly, “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.” Actually, Maestri is only partially correct. The price New Orleans, one of the greatest and oldest cities in the country, paid this week was the price of not only the war in Iraq, but the price of budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, the price of Republican-driven budget cuts in just about every area except defense and corporate welfare, the price of sending Republicans to Congress and the White House, and, most of all, the price of a quarter-century’s worth of anti-government ideology.
To be fair, Democrats are to blame too – they’re to blame for not making more noise about these and other budget cuts to begin with. Every budget season (January to April or May) Republicans submit a budget freezing or, more likely, cutting domestic spending and increasing the deficit via wars and tax cuts for the rich. And every budget season, Democrats release press statements saying how bad the budget is, etc. and then go back to their offices. Or go back to sniping at Tom DeLay or whatever the issue du jour is. The budget, which in my view is the most important political issue out there because it affects pretty much EVERY other issue, hasn’t really been used as a major dividing line since the Gingrich-Clinton showdown in 1995. Oh sure, George W. Bush feuded with first Al Gore and then John Kerry over tax cuts, and Bush tried to promise the people everything with his campaign proposals in 2000, but when is a Democrat or two (or forty four, or two hundred forty six) going to stand up and say, “We have a budget proposal, and it calls for MORE federal government!” and show it to the American people? Do we really need a national tragedy like a killer hurricane to get up on our feet and proclaim that the federal government can and should do more?
Now, as far as I know there’s only two people who actually read my political columns in their entirety on a regular basis (and bless your hearts!) and both are quite liberal. But there might be some right-wing nuts lurking around here, and maybe more will come in the future. I hope they do, and I hope they see this column, and I hope they take a few minutes to comment on this and other columns and give me a piece of their mind. But what I don’t hope is to get some stupid or inflammatory remark studded with swear words and non sequitors. And I just know some right-winger will read this or a similarly-themed piece and go, “You’re a slimy bastard! You’re taking advantage of a tragedy to promote a political agenda and score political points!” First of all, it wouldn’t be the first time that’s been done, on either side of the aisle – look how right-wing guys like Jerry Falwell and William Kristol were pushing agendas in the immediate wake of 9/11. And apparently Republicans have no compunction against using 9/11 to tear down a great man named Bill Clinton and talk up a small man named Rudy Giuliani. Second of all, I admit that I’m sounding overwhelmingly partisan in the wake of a truly sad occurrence, and I don’t advise any Democratic elected officials saying the kinds of things I’m saying until this whole thing settles down somewhat. But really, what I’m trying to get at is that being prepared and having a federal government that does something really pays off – and they’re the right things to do. And Katrina is just one example, albeit a very sorrowful one, of why that’s true.
All my sources are from the September 1 2005 edition of the San José Mercury News Section A due to my lack of reliable access to the Internet. The articles I used are as follows:
“Costly Focus On Terrorism: Shift Allegedly Left U.S. Unprepared For Storm” by Seth Borenstein, 1A
“What’s Ahead: Evacuation Begins; Bailing Out Could Take 3-6 Months” by David Ovalle, Phil Long and Martin Merzer, 1A
“Looters exploiting city’s lawlessness” by Felicity Barringer and Jere Longman, 6A
“How The Water Rose In New Orleans” graphic, 7A
“ ‘Engineering Nightmare’: Draining a city” by Curtis Morgan, David Ovalle and Carol Rosenberg, 7A