Saturday, September 17, 2005

Katrina: Nature's Revenge, or Calling for a Return to Humane Government

Unfortunately it is always the poor who have to suffer and die the most before members of governments and society in general wake up to disasterous levels of incompetence.

(And oh, an edit: I forgot to complete this thought: the poor, in the US and all around the world, will also be the first to pay dearly for nature's revenge against gluttonous overconsumption, for which they are the least responsible. . .)

Two things here:

1) Lengthy segments from one of the best comments on the Katrina Governmental Disaster I have yet read;

2) A brief recounting of recent presidents and their responses to hurricanes (in comparison, GW deserves an F, which reflects how well he did as a Yale student in comparison to these other presidents as well. . .)

1) The article (emphasis again my own):

A Democracy Disaster – Time to File Criminal Charges

BY JOEL S. HIRSCHHORN - Teddy Roosevelt said many incisive things, including this: "To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day."

Nearly a century later – o-n-e h-u-n-d-r-e-d years, this unholy alliance is alive and well, and hurricane Katrina showed that it gets in the way of providing the most essential services that Americans have every right to expect from their government when natural forces lash out, especially when lives are at stake.

The 2005 Katrina catastrophe should go down in American history as a wakeup call about our government’s deterioration. . .

Emergency response failures were also evident, including: No city plans to evacuate some 125,000 mostly poor and African American residents who were known to lack the ability to leave on their own, to quickly evacuate the many hospitals in the city, to evacuate tourists, to maintain law and order, to use a school bus fleet to evacuate residents, and to pre-position necessary supplies and provide security in the city’s evacuation centers. The governor failed to move National Guard units into the city when it became clear a very strong hurricane would devastate the city. The Corps of Engineers did not even have a plan ready to implement when levees failed. There was no communications backup critical to emergency responders despite the predictable failure of land and cellular phone systems in such a situation. As the Washington Post editorialized: “Given the known risks, the response of government – local, state and federal – to the approaching storm was inadequate, uncoordinated and inept. …

Decades of politicians did not take the necessary steps to protect the below-sea-level city from inevitable flooding caused by a major hurricane. They did not serve the public interest; they failed to protect public health and safety, a prime government responsibility. Fittingly, in 2001 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the top three likely major disasters facing America. Also in 2001, an article in Scientific American was entitled “Drowning New Orleans.” Among the notable things it pointed out were: “A major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands. …New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. …A direct hit is inevitable. ..Thus far, however, Washington has turned down appeals for substantial aid.” A federal plan was created after a 1965 flood, but the project was never funded to completion. Mike Parker, former civilian head of the Army Corps of Engineers emphasized: “I blame a lot of our leaders over the past 40 years.” With more adequate funding, he said: “Levees would have been higher, levees would have been bigger, there would have been other pumps put in.” A senior Corps official admitted: “The design was not adequate to protect against a storm of this nature because we were not authorized to provide a Category Four or Five protection design.” Katrina was a Category Four when it hit New Orleans.

Nevertheless, President George W. Bush said this a few days after the calamity and awful government response was evident to the world: “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” Anybody? Was this an intentional untruth or was Bush’s staff ignorant of what every knowledgeable person knew?. . .The head of the National Hurricane Center has said that he notified local, state, and federal officials 32 hours before landfall that Katrina would be catastrophic with flooding virtually certain. Moreover, John Breaux, the former Democratic Louisiana senator and close Bush ally, said he talked to Bush about failure of the city’s levees last year.

Despite all the clear evidence of what was inevitable and required, there was a drastic cut in funding for the
New Orleans flood control system by the Bush administration because of the Iraq war funding needs, tax cuts, and corporate handouts. Funds that the Corps wanted for preventing a flood catastrophe were slashed by 44.2 percent from 2001 through 2005. In early 2005, the Bush White House opposed funding that the Louisiana congressional delegation sought for flood control. It also drastically cut funding for FEMA, perhaps explaining why there was no supply of satellite phones.

Despite the facts, soon after the Katrina disaster hit White House spokesperson Scott McClellan claimed that “flood control has been a priority of this administration from day one.” This lie matched the Bush lie for chutzpah and disrespect for the public’s intelligence. The framing of the event by the Bush administration was that it was the nation’s largest and worst natural disaster, designed to excuse the administration’s neglect and incompetence. Better framing is: Hurricane Katrina did not destroy
New Orleans as much as bad politicians and bureaucratic bungling did. Nature throws us hazards; people turn them into disasters. The hurricane could not be stopped, but the flooding should have been prevented and when it wasn’t the government should have provided faster aid. Thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of terribly disrupted lives, and a cost over $100 billion could have been prevented by spending some $20 billion for both wetlands restoration south of New Orleans and beefing up the city’s levee system.

Only on Internet blogs was a connection made between the Katrina disaster and the failure of elected representatives in American democracy to serve the public interest; here are two examples:

Democracy is a bit of a crude instrument. Public officials have strong incentives to direct funds away from dull-but-worthy endeavors and toward well-financed interest groups. …Unless voters and the press demand the heads of officials who screw up, future screw-ups are guaranteed.

The destruction of
New Orleans represents a confluence of many of the most pernicious trends in American politics and culture: poverty, racism, militarism, elitist greed, environmental abuse, public corruption and the decay of democracy at every level.

Katrina should become a metaphor for America’s failed representative democracy. Americans need to remember that government is a necessary good and not a necessary evil as right-wing conservatives and Republicans believe. When our corrupt or incompetent leaders fail and cause loss of life they should be prosecuted for criminal negligent homicide. In this case it means prosecuting the Mayor of New Orleans, the Governor of Louisiana, the head of FEMA, and President George W. Bush.
Joel S. Hirshhorn is a Contributing Writer to Newtopia. His current book is Sprawl Kills – How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money. Email him through

Originally published in Newtopia Magazine, Tuesday, September 13, 2005 - 02:45 PM.

Full article here.

All text and images © Joel S. Hirschhorn unless otherwise noted. SOME RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License. To view a copy of this license, click here.

2) Recent Presidents and their responses to hurricanes in recent US history:

President: Nixon

Category 5 Hurricane
*Camille* (August 1969)

Area: About the same area as that affected by Katrina
Response: Nixon prepared the National Guard in
advance, ordering rescue ships from Tampa, FL and
Houston, TX to stand waiting along with over a
thousand regular military, 24+ helicopters to assist
the Coast Guard and National Guard about as soon as
the hurricane passed.

President: Bush (the Elder)

Category 5 Hurricane *Andrew* (August 1992)
Area: Florida

Response: In the middle of a re-election campaign,
Bush ceased campaigning the day before the hurricane,
went to Washington, and assembled one of the largest
military forces ever mustered on U.S. soil. 7,000
National Guard and 22,000 regular military were sent
in with the necessary equipment shortly after the
hurricane passed through.

President: Clinton

Category 3 Hurricane *Floyd*
(September 1999)

Area: Virginia and Carolinas

Response: Meeting with China's president Jiang in New
Zealand, Clinton immediately declared the
hurricane-affected areas as federal disasters,
allowing the military and National Guard to move in
and help.
Clinton flew home immediately, one day
before the hurricane hit, to help coordinate the

President: Bush (the Lesser)

Category 5 Hurricane *Katrina* (August 2005)

Gulf Coast

Response: National Guard troops are down about 8,000
members because they are in
Iraq with much of the
needed rescue equipment. Bush was on vacation, riding
his bike for two hours the day before the hurricane landed.
On that day, Bush attended a birthday party for John McCain.
The levees began to crack. While emergency 1.5-ton
sandbags were ready to be placed to strengthen the levee
and exclude water, there were insufficient helicopters and
pilots to set them before the levees broke. New Orleans
Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded for federal-level assistance and got
none. Bush went to
San Diego to play guitar with a country
singer and ended his vacation early -- but not until the next
day, because he had tickets to a San Diego Padres game.

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