By Rosa Brooks
NERO FIDDLED while Rome burned.
President Bush, who's not big on the classics, probably wasn't thinking
about this when he mugged for the cameras Tuesday, playing a guitar
presented to him by country singer Mark Wills.
But with the photo now Exhibit A for many liberal bloggers, he may find
the comparison hard to shake.
True, while Bush enjoyed his vacation and strummed his new guitar, a great
city was being devastated by water rather than fire.
And unlike the Emperor Nero, who was accused by the historian Suetonius of
having deliberately started the fire that destroyed much of Rome in AD 64,
no one is accusing President Bush of planning Hurricane Katrina.
But the Bush administration deserves substantial blame for the scale of
the catastrophe in New Orleans.
An excellent article this week by Will Bunch in Editor & Publisher points
out that it was the cost of the Iraq war that led the Bush administration
to defund efforts to shore up the vulnerable city's levees.
After flooding in 1995 killed six people in New Orleans, the Army Corps of
Engineers started work on a massive civil engineering project designed to
strengthen the region's levees and improve the pumping system that
regulates water levels.
The work got off to a good start, but in 2003 federal funding started to
run dry, leaving many projects — including a planned effort to strengthen
the banks of Lake Pontchartrain — on the drawing board.
As early as 2004, the New Orleans Times-Picayune began to report that
local officials and Army Corps of Engineers representatives attributed the
funding cuts to the rising cost of the war in Iraq.
Facing record deficits, the Bush administration cut costs — and cut
corners — by including in its 2005 budget only about a sixth of the
flood-prevention funds requested by the Louisiana congressional
The war in Iraq also has made recovery from Katrina slower and more
challenging. The Army National Guard units normally available for domestic
disaster relief found rapid emergency response unusually difficult since
so many of their personnel are deployed in Iraq. Although more units were
dispatched later in the week, the manpower shortage was painfully evident
during the crucial first hours.
The Iraq war is not the only reason for insisting that the Bush
administration deserves some blame for the magnitude of the
After 9/11, the president promised that the nation would never again be so
unprepared in the face of disaster. The Department of Homeland Security
was created with a view to ensuring that every American city had adequate
emergency plans in place for the kind of large-scale crisis that could
accompany either a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.
It was an empty promise.
Four years after 9/11, the fiasco in New Orleans underscores our nation's
ongoing inability to cope with serious threats.
Take public health, for example: Hurricane preparation plans — supposedly
prepared with the involvement and approval of Homeland Security officials
— were grossly inadequate for ensuring a continued supply of medication to
the sick and for the evacuation of the ill and disabled, for cleaning up,
ensuring safe drinking water or preventing the spread of disease.
With floodwaters, broken sewage pipes, damaged petrochemical pipelines and
floating corpses all over the city, no one seemed to have a clear plan.
If a terrorist's bomb, rather than a hurricane, had destroyed a levee
around Lake Pontchartrain, no one would hesitate to condemn the
administration for its lackluster emergency planning and response.
And federal officials had more than a week's warning that a hurricane was
on track for New Orleans — far more time than they'd likely have of a
terrorist attack on critical infrastructure.
Not everything can be blamed on the Bush administration, of course, but
for millions of Americans, the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
is likely to stand as an indictment of Bush's false economies, empty
promises and foolish priorities.
Consider Louisiana's wetlands, to take just one example. Policies
associated with the administration exacerbated the geographical and
ecological conditions for severe flooding. Over the decades, oil and gas
company actions played a significant role in destroying the wetlands.
Other factors also contributed, including residential development and,
ironically, the overbuilding of some of the region's levees. But the
"man-made" aspects of the disaster highlight the folly of the policies of
unlimited development and environmental despoliation that the
administration has so consistently embraced.
Two thousand years after his death, Nero's famous fiddling remains an
allegory about feckless and selfcentered leadership in times of crisis.
Bush's guitar-playing antics in the face of the New Orleans devastation
may doom him to a similar fate.