By William Fisher
Unless you happen to live in Southern Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama, you’re unlikely to have heard from office holders or their challengers the one word that was supposed to be a defining issue of the 2006 mid-term elections.
The word is Katrina.
During late August of 2005, and in the months following, virtually every news cycle led with graphic, grisly accounts of the death and suffering caused by the hurricane and subsequent flooding.
House and Senate Committees held dozens of hearings and issued blistering reports on the failures of “all levels of government” to anticipate and prepare for this unparalleled natural disaster. Lawmakers rushed to the floors of their respective houses to inveigh on the subject and spread the blame around by pointing fingers at the many who they thought culpable.
Billions of dollars were appropriated for relief. After he finally got around to putting his feet on the ground in New Orleans, President Bush praised the then head of FEMA, Michael Brown, for doing “a heck of a job.” The President then told the nation he accepted full responsibility and ordered his Homeland Security assistant to produce a report detailing “failings at every level of government.” She did.
But only one person was ever held accountable, the same Michael Brown, who was fired (and claimed he was made the scapegoat de jour). The hapless mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, who hunkered down in a hotel suite while his people drowned, was reelected. Mr. Brown’s boss, Michael Chertoff, the head of the Department of Homeland Security – who decided to go to a conference in Atlanta the day the hurricane struck and the levees were breached – is still in his job (and keeping a lower-than-low profile in this political season.) His boss, Mr. Bush, is also still in his job. This is the “decider” who was in such an extreme State of Denial in his presidential bubble that his staff had to prepare a CD to show him the extent of Katrina’s devastation.
A little more than a year ago, Katrina, and our public response to it, became metaphors for the gross incompetence of our government. How, people asked, could we respond to a terrorist attack if we couldn’t handle a hurricane and a flood?
Well, the question remains unanswered, but the voters seem to have forgotten it was ever a concern. Political amnesia!
In poll after poll, the electorate says its top ten issues are Iraq, illegal immigration, the economy and jobs, defense and the military, terrorism, education, foreign policy, and environment.
These are certainly important issues that voters should indeed be concerned about. And perhaps U.S. government incompetence in prosecuting the war in Iraq and in the so-called Global War on Terror have become proxies for U.S. government incompetence generally.
Most of the money President Bush promised to deliver to the Gulf Coast during his carefully choreographed appearances in the area is still bottled up in the Federal treasury. And much of the money actually released has gone to the same big out-of-state contractors who have so screwed up our Iraqi reconstruction programs. Where are the shiny new “ownership” programs the President promised to spur Gulf Coast economic recovery and growth? Where are the demands for progress reports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with rebuilding New Orleans’ levees?
People from NOLA are still scattered around America. Mayor Nagin keeps urging them to “come home”, but there are no homes for them to come to and few jobs to help them feed their families. In some Mississippi Gulf Coast towns, the landscape is still decorated by mountains of debris that have never been moved.
And when was the last time you read a headline or saw a TV soundbite about the incessantly promised reorganization of FEMA?
Our voters seem to have the attention span of three-year-olds. Katrina has gone away, but its aftermath – and the underlying problems that enabled it to have such a devastating impact – haven’t. It’s the media attention that’s gone away. If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead!
But media or no, it’s well past time for our electorate to demand that their representatives implement a new kind of “Southern Strategy” -- starting with holding our government accountable for keeping the promises it made. And being transparent about it.