Saturday, September 03, 2005

American Caesar

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
still-unfolding catastrophe.

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.

Why New Orleans is in Deep Water

By Molly Ivins

Like many of you who love New Orleans, I find myself taking short mental walks there today, turning a familiar corner, glimpsing a favorite scene, square or vista. And worrying about the beloved friends and the city, and how they are now.

To use a fine Southern word, it's tacky to start playing the blame game before the dead are even counted. It is not too soon, however, to make a point that needs to be hammered home again and again, and that is that government policies have real consequences in people's lives.

This is not "just politics" or blaming for political advantage. This is about the real consequences of what governments do and do not do about their responsibilities. And about who winds up paying the price for those policies.

This is a column for everyone in the path of Hurricane Katrina who ever said, "I'm sorry, I'm just not interested in politics," or, "There's nothing I can do about it," or, "Eh, they're all crooks anyway."

Nothing to do with me, nothing to do with my life, nothing I can do about any of it. Look around you this morning. I suppose the National Rifle Association would argue, "Government policies don't kill people, hurricanes kill people." Actually, hurricanes plus government policies kill people.

One of the main reasons New Orleans is so vulnerable to hurricanes is the gradual disappearance of the wetlands on the Gulf Coast that once stood as a natural buffer between the city and storms coming in from the water. The disappearance of those wetlands does not have the name of a political party or a particular administration attached to it. No one wants to play, "The Democrats did it," or, "It's all Reagan's fault." Many environmentalists will tell you more than a century's interference with the natural flow of the Mississippi is the root cause of the problem, cutting off the movement of alluvial soil to the river's delta.

But in addition to long-range consequences of long-term policies like letting the Corps of Engineers try to build a better river than God, there are real short-term consequences, as well. It is a fact that the Clinton administration set some tough policies on wetlands, and it is a fact that the Bush administration repealed those policies--ordering federal agencies to stop protecting as many as 20 million acres of wetlands.

Last year, four environmental groups cooperated on a joint report showing the Bush administration's policies had allowed developers to drain thousands of acres of wetlands.

Does this mean we should blame President Bush for the fact that New Orleans is underwater? No, but it means we can blame Bush when a Category 3 or Category 2 hurricane puts New Orleans under. At this point, it is a matter of making a bad situation worse, of failing to observe the First Rule of Holes (when you're in one, stop digging).

Had a storm the size of Katrina just had the grace to hold off for a while, it's quite likely no one would even remember what the Bush administration did two months ago. The national press corps has the attention span of a gnat, and trying to get anyone in Washington to remember longer than a year ago is like asking them what happened in Iznik, Turkey, in A.D. 325.

Just plain political bad luck that, in June, Bush took his little ax and chopped $71.2 million from the budget of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers, a 44 percent reduction. As was reported in New Orleans CityBusiness at the time, that meant "major hurricane and flood projects will not be awarded to local engineering firms. Also, a study to determine ways to protect the region from a Category 5 hurricane has been shelved for now."

The commander of the corps' New Orleans district also immediately instituted a hiring freeze and canceled the annual corps picnic.

Our friends at the Center for American Progress note the Office of Technology Assessment used to produce forward-thinking plans such as "Floods: A National Policy Concern" and "A Framework for Flood Hazards Management." Unfortunately, the office was targeted by Newt Gingrich and the Republican right, and gutted years ago.

In fact, there is now a governmentwide movement away from basing policy on science, expertise and professionalism, and in favor of choices based on ideology. If you're wondering what the ideological position on flood management might be, look at the pictures of New Orleans--it seems to consist of gutting the programs that do anything.

Unfortunately, the war in Iraq is directly related to the devastation left by the hurricane. About 35 percent of Louisiana's National Guard is now serving in Iraq, where four out of every 10 soldiers are guardsmen. Recruiting for the Guard is also down significantly because people are afraid of being sent to Iraq if they join, leaving the Guard even more short-handed.

The Louisiana National Guard also notes that dozens of its high-water vehicles, Humvees, refuelers and generators have also been sent abroad. (I hate to be picky, but why do they need high-water vehicles in Iraq?)

This, in turn, goes back to the original policy decision to go into Iraq without enough soldiers and the subsequent failure to admit that mistake and to rectify it by instituting a draft.

The levees of New Orleans, two of which are now broken and flooding the city, were also victims of Iraq war spending. Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, said on June 8, 2004, "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq."

This, friends, is why we need to pay attention to government policies, not political personalities, and to know whereon we vote. It is about our lives.