Sunday, September 04, 2005

LESSONS WE NEED TO LEARN FROM HURRICANE KATRINA


(caption- Katrino hits land as a Category 4 hurricane with winds over 140 mph)

“I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” President George W. Bush 9/1/05.

"When levees are below grade, as ours are in many spots right now, they're more vulnerable to waves pouring over them and degrading them," Al Naomi, the senior project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, quoted in the Times-Picayune of New Orleans in June of 2004. Naomi reported at the time that he was getting only half as much money as he needed and that much of the funding was being used to pay contractors for past work.

"All of us said, 'Look, build it or you're going to have all of Jefferson Parish under water,' And they didn't, and now all of Jefferson Parish is under water." former Louisiana senator John Breaux.

“In 2001, FEMA warned that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters in the U.S. But the Bush administration cut New Orleans flood control funding by 44 percent to pay for the Iraq war.... A year ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to study how New Orleans could be protected from a catastrophic hurricane, but the Bush administration ordered that the research not be undertaken.” Sidney Blumenthal, writing in Spiegel online.

“... disappointing was the lowest of the lows in partisanship- those who rose to try to lay blame on President George W. Bush for levee breeches [sic] that allowed New Orleans to flood.... Shame on anyone who tries to use this mammoth tragedy for partisan political purposes now, next year or in years to come.” unsigned Albany Herald editorial, 9/4/05 (note to Herald editor: "breeches" are short pants.)

We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. FEMA--we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. The Coast Guard said, "Come get the fuel right away." When we got there with our trucks, they got a word. "FEMA says don't give you the fuel." Yesterday--yesterday--FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in, he reconnects the line. He posts armed guards on our line and says, "No one is getting near these lines." Sheriff Harry Lee said that if America--American government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn't be in this crisis....”

We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history.... Why did it happen? Who needs to be fired? And believe me, they need to be fired right away, because we still have weeks to go in this tragedy. We have months to go. We have years to go. And whoever is at the top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be chain-sawed off and we've got to start with some new leadership.... “ Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, on Meet the Press, 9/4/05.

"You have watched during a period of 72 hours a modern city of New Orleans [become] a Third World country, and it is all because of the disintegration of infrastructure. Everybody is to blame -- it transcends administrations. It transcends party." Michael Parker, who was forced by President Bush to resign as assistant secretary of the Army for civil works after accusing the White House of shortchanging the Corps of Engineers.

*****

If you want insight into a human being’s character, observe what he or she does after a natural disaster. We saw in the wake of Katrina in New Orleans that some people will loot, rape, rob or kill when freed from civilized restraints. But millions upon millions of Americans, from coast to coast, lined up at Red Cross centers to donate blood and cash. Communities as far as a thousand miles from New Orleans are putting up hurricane victims. Diehard football fans in Alabama gave up their hotel rooms, and in some cases, their tickets, to refugees staying in hotels which had been booked for opening games. My ex-wife Dawn, an EMT in Phoenix, Arizona, called to tell me that her ambulance service sent two stocked ambulances (including her ambulance, “Daisy”) to Louisiana, and she is going to house two members of the Louisiana family of one of her co-workers. In communities from the East Coast to the West, relief efforts were organized to send food, water, and clothing to the victims.


We respond to disasters better than we prevent them


As wonderful as we can be to our brethren after disasters strike, it’s sad that too often it takes a disaster to get us to do what we should have done in the first place. People build homes and schools downstream from unsafe dams (my home town of Johnstown was destroyed in 1889 when the South Fork Dam burst; the Kelly Barnes Dam Flood of November 6, 1977, near Toccoa, Georgia, killed 39 near Christian and Missionary Alliance College), live too close to active volcanoes ( Mt. St. Helen's, Washington, exploded on May 18, 1980, killing 57), or cram expensive vacation homes and condominiums check by jowl on the beaches in areas regularly hit by hurricanes (hello, Florida and South Carolina!). When (not if) a huge earthquake strikes portions of California where millions live on fault lines, Kristina may be relegated to a footnote in history.

But unfortunate as it is when individuals’ thoughtless lifestyle decisions cause needless deaths, it is unforgivable when deliberate political decisions are made that leave citizens at risk and exacerbate the loss of life. In early 2001 (before the 9-11 attacks), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ranked a major hurricane strike on New Orleans as "among the three likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country," directly behind a terrorist strike on New York City. (The third is another San Francisco earthquake.)


Global Warming increases the strength of hurricanes


The Bush Administration’s response to the hurricane threat to New Orleans was, unfortunately, no better than its actions to prevent a terrorist attack on New York. Long term, it has consistently opposed efforts to reduce global warming, refusing to sign the Kyoto Treaty and saying that it needed more proof before acting because (it contends) scientists were in disagreement as to whether human activity had any impact on the phenomenon. (Mr. Bush didn’t apply the same logic prior to invading Iraq.) This year oceanographers have reported that the Gulf of Mexico is two degrees warmer than usual, which provided the heat energy Katrina used to regroup from the Category 1 hurricane that weakened over land in Florida to the Category 5 hurricane it became off the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. Hurricanes start in the warm waters of the South Atlantic, and the season doesn’t start until mid year when the ocean water temperature rises sufficiently. In short, whether or not global warming sends us more hurricanes, those that occur will be more intense as ocean temperatures rise.

The Bush budget cut Army Corps of Engineer funds for Louisiana levees

Since the 2001 FEMA warning about the danger to New Orleans, budget cuts caused by the War in Iraq and by large tax cuts led to elimination of the funds the Army Corps of Engineers had budgeted to maintain and improve levees and canal walls to keep Lake Pontchartain from flooding the city. Pulitzer Prize winner Will Bunch noted in Editor and Publisher that the city’s premier newspaper, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, had regularly run stories warning of the disaster that actually occurred:

“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 [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] 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. 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."”

As it turned out (Sixty Minutes reported on September 4th in an interview with a member of the Army Corps of Engineers), the levees didn’t break- but the canal walls (only two feet thick!) ruptured, letting the lake in to flood the bowl that New Orleans has become over the years.

Bush’s policies helped eliminate the wetland buffers

When he came into office, President Bush pledged to uphold "no net loss" wetland policies of his predecessors, including the first President Bush. Instead, he gutted federal wetland policies, ordering federal agencies to stop protecting 20 million acres of wetlands and waterways. The Washington Post reported last year that four environmental groups issued a joint report showing that administration policies had allowed "developers to drain thousands of acres of wetlands." The result was to leave New Orleans in greater danger of catastrophe from a hurricane, as the wetland areas south of the city were essential buffers to defuse the power of a hurricane before it hit.



(caption- New Orleans survivors wait on roof for help that was late in coming- note the "SOS" written at bottom)

When Katrina hit, America’s treasury, National Guard troops, and equipment were in Iraq

Two days after Katrina hit, Jefferson Parish’s Emergency Services Chief told CNN’s Aaron Brown that the community of half a million was unsafe because urgently needed Louisiana National Guard troops were in Iraq. Meanwhile, New Orleans descended into chaos as the Guard units, depleted by assignments in Iraq and declining enlistments, took over four days to arrive in force. Even before the hurricane hit, local officials decried the President’s decision to permanently mobilize reservists and National Guard troops (including many police, firefighters, and first responders) out of their home states and send them and their equipment to Iraq , leaving local governments without the resources needed to meet disasters like a Katrina.

The Washington Monthly reported that because of the drain of resources to Iraq, in the summer 2004, FEMA denied Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. Said Jefferson Parish flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue: "You would think we would get maximum consideration....This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it."
When the Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans was slashed in June of 2004, Jefferson Parish emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri commented: "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."

Our government is now run by men who want to “drown it in a bathtub”

It’s said that we get the government we deserve, so one can only conclude that we are suffering our just consequences for entrusting the reins of power to America’s self proclaimed “conservatives” (motto: no wilderness is too pristine to strip mine or drill). Our government is now run by acolytes of Bush advisor Grover Nordquist. Nordquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and the Republican strategist behind the Bush tax cuts on the superwealthy (average Americans currently don’t pay significant, if any, taxes on interest, capital gains, or estates), unashamedly calls for the elimination of the Food and Drug Administration, the IRS, and other government agencies, explaining:

"My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."


Even in the wake of the unprecedented need for federal funds to alleviate suffering and rebuild in the wake of Katrina, Nordquist has urged Congress to stay the course and vote next week on a permanent repeal of estate taxes on millionaires. (Estates under a million dollars were already scheduled to be fully exempt from federal estates taxes.)

FEMA has been run by Bush cronies with no experience in disaster management

"It's such an irony I hate to say it, but we have less capability today than we did on September 11," said a veteran FEMA official involved in the hurricane response. "We are so much less than what we were in 2000," added another senior FEMA official. "We've lost a lot of what we were able to do then." The Washington Post, 9/4/05.

In keeping with his governing philosophy of putting old friends in high places, President Bush appointed a Texas crony, Joe Allbaugh, to head FEMA in 2001. The problem was that Allbaugh had no experience in disaster management. This didn’t deter the President, possibly because his budget director, Mitch Daniels, already had a plan to “privatize” much of FEMA’s work:

“April 2001: Budget Director Mitch Daniels announces the Bush administration's goal of privatizing much of FEMA's work. In May, Allbaugh confirms that FEMA will be downsized: "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program...." he said. "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level." Washington Monthly online, 9/1/05.

Allbaugh left FEMA in December of 2002 to head up a private company to get government contracts for rebuilding an Iraq that had not yet been reduced to rubble. Bush then appointed Mike Brown, who also had no experience in disaster management, to head the federal agency charged with anticipating and preparing for national disasters. Brown, a loyal Republican, came from Colorado where he practiced law in the area of estate planning. His only managerial experience came as the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association(!) where he was “asked to resign” after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures.

Brown’s incompetence became readily apparent on September 1st, with his nationally televised comment that he was unaware that thousands of New Orleans residents were stranded in the Convention Center- even though anyone with access to a television set or the internet had already seen pictures of those unfortunates who were reduced to begging for food, water, and police security:

[CNN’s] Paula Zahn: “Sir, you're not telling me — you're not telling me that you just learned that the folks at the convention center didn't have food and water until today, are you? You had no idea that they were completely cut off?”

Brown: “Paula, the federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today.”


Since then, many of the top officials in the Bush Administration have been engaged in damage control- not dealing with the survivors of the hurricane, but attempting to deflect the storm of criticism it has weathered for its slow response in responding to the disaster. On September 4th The Washington Post reported that high officials were blaming the Governor of Louisiana for not declaring a state of emergency as of Friday, September 3rd. The only problem with that statement was that it was false- in fact, Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco had declared a state of emergency August 26th- three days before the storm hit. The Post then identified the real problem with Homeland Security’s inadequate response to the disaster- if the Bush Administration can’t handle the effects of a natural disaster four years after the 9-11 attacks, then how can we expect them to properly respond to a terrorist attack on a major city?

"’This is what the department was supposed to be all about," said Clark Kent Ervin, DHS's former inspector general. ‘Instead, it obviously raises very serious, troubling questions about whether the government would be prepared if this were a terrorist attack. It's a devastating indictment of this department's performance four years after 9/11.’”

Can we learn our lesson?

The lesson of my home town, Johnstown, Pa., is that sometimes an ounce of prevention is worth a thousand pounds of cure. The 1889 Johnstown flood (more like a tidal wave when an upriver earthen dam burst) virtually destroyed the city, killing thousands. Within years Johnstown was rebuilt, but it endured a second, less serious flood in 1936, caused by overflow from the two rivers which meet in the valley. After the 1936 flood, the Army Corps of Engineers built retaining walls to contain the rivers. We were lucky- no Grover Nordquist was around in those days to try to drown the federal government in a bathtub.

Unfortunately for residents of New Orleans in 2005, because the Administration failed in every regard to deal with a disaster of “national significance”- before, during, and after Katrina hit, and because it failed to budget needed funds to upgrade levees and canal walls to avert or reduce the damage from a catastrophe predicted by FEMA in 2001 , President Bush has already had to ask Congress for over $10 billion to clean up the disaster- and that’s just a down payment. This should not be a total surprise from an administration that has budgeted over $200 billion to rebuild and safeguard an Iraq which it destroyed in an unnecessary invasion, two years after top officials claimed that the war would “pay for itself” from Iraq’s oil fields.

In the earliest years of our nation, Ben Franklin counseled against being "penny wise and pound foolish." What Ben didn’t know was that no American politician can get elected in the age of television and talk radio by being penny wise- so we get stuck with leaders who are just plain foolish.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are too generous.
I have become to believe that this administration is truly evil.
We are now living on the Titanic and we have hit an iceberg.

It too late for learning lessons, we will just have to accept that we are now in the last act of "Die Götterdämmerung".

The rich folk somehow think that they won't have to go down with the ship.
The joke will be on them.

Funny I don't feel like laughing.

10:59 PM  
Blogger James Finkelstein (Ga.) said...

I'm a realist and an optimist, and I don't think it's too late to learn. As bad as things have got, this country has opened up with an outpouring of help- real, concrete actions on the part of human beings in every state. We have to recognize that that is who we are as much as the political leaders who manage to get elected and re-elected.

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Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.

I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

Thank you - and keep up the thoughts!

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