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On Thursday Sept 1, Ted Koppel interviewed Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For those of you who don’t know, Michael Brown was nominated by President Bush as the first Undersecretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response in the newly created Department of Homeland Security in January 2003. His job is to lead federal disaster response and recovery operations. He also oversees the National Flood Insurance Program and the U.S. Fire Administration, and initiates proactive mitigation activities. Would you like this job? Because if there’s any kind of justice in this world, Mr. Brown won’t have it much longer.
This man, whose responsibility is to coordinate more than two dozen federal agencies and departments and the American Red Cross, stated that his organization just learned of the situation at the New Orleans Convention Center that day. Thursday. FIVE DAYS after Katrina hit. Apparently, Mr. Brown had been vacationing on Mars that week. Dude, do you own a television? Can you read?
This cry of ignorance as excuse for inaction seems to be the Bush Administration’s party-line tactic. We didn’t know; it was worse than we expected; we thought more people would leave. On the same edition of Nightline, President Bush claimed that the primary reason for the massive devastation was the levees breaking. According to him, that was never expected.
Bullshit, bullshit, and more bullshit.
The events in New Orleans were predicted years ago, in such precise detail it’s eerie. The New Orleans Times-Picayune took much heat from local businesses in June 2002 when journalists Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid flew in the face of trendy media optimism and ran a five-day front page series detailing what would happen in the event of a category 4 or 5 hurricane, and why. The series’ second installment explained how the levees protecting New Orleans from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain also act as a threat. They create a bowl around the city, with the bottom of the bowl below the level of the lake. “Filling the bowl” has long been recognized as the worst potential scenario for natural disaster in the entire United States:
If enough water from Lake Pontchartrain topped the levee system along its south shore, the result would be apocalyptic. Vast areas would be submerged for days or weeks until engineers dynamited the levees to let the water escape. Some places on the east bank of Orleans and Jefferson parishes are as low as 10 feet below sea level. Adding a 20-foot storm surge from a Category 4 or 5 storm would mean 30 feet of standing water.
Whoever remained in the city would be at grave risk... stranded on rooftops and high ground, awaiting rescue that could take days or longer. They would face thirst, hunger and exposure to toxic chemicals... ...Hundreds of thousands would be left homeless, and it would take months to dry out the area and begin to make it livable. But there wouldn’t be much for residents to come home to. The local economy would be in ruins.
Again, this is from an article printed in 2002.
The peril of New Orleans has been repeatedly addressed by other media as well. In August 2002, Adam Cohen of the New York Times analyzed the situation, as did NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Also in 2002, PBS’s “NOW” presented a two-part story on the disappearance of the Mississippi River delta. The second part, “City in a Bowl,” explored the possibility that a high-level hurricane could drown New Orleans.
In 2001, Popular Mechanics featured an article titled “New Orleans is Sinking” by Jim Wilson. It included the statements: “the surge of a Category 5 storm could put New Orleans under 18 ft. of water,” and “the potential loss of life in Louisiana could be catastrophic because there is just nowhere to go.”
National Geographic published a feature in October 2004... The list is seemingly endless. A database search of science and trade publications brings up articles with subtitles like “A major hurricane could swamp the city under 20 feet of water, killing thousands,” and “The next hurricane could put the Crescent City underwater,” dating back as far as the late 1990s.
FEMA itself was cited in the Times-Picayune as “preparing a plan for the unprecedented response that would be needed if the New Orleans bowl were flooded.” In 2001, FEMA listed the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America: a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans. So the most devastating scenario was also among the most likely.
What was done about this? Flood control funding was cut by 44%. Among the defunded projects were widening drainage canals, flood-proofing bridges and building pumping stations in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, additional levees on the West Bank, and a study on how to best protect New Orleans from a high-level hurricane. Oh, and fixing the levees.
The levees have been sinking as the sea level has been rising. The New Orleans District of the Army Corps of Engineers knew this, and urged that funds be allocated to continue work on the levee system. They were repeatedly ignored, and in 2004 saw their funding cut by 80%. Yes, EIGHTY—that’s not a typo.
Federal flood control spending for southeastern Louisiana has been chopped from $69 million in 2001 to $36.5 million in 2005, according to budget documents. The Corps of Engineers’ saw their budget drop from $14.25 million in 2002 to $5.7 million this year. Budget cuts at the Corps resulted in a hiring freeze. Work on the levee system stopped. According to the Times-Picayune, it was the first such stoppage in 37 years. The levees that Katrina breached were the ones the canceled funds were intended to strengthen.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Bush was having none of it. If you were against him, you were fired. Assistant Secretary of the Army Mike Parker questioned and criticized Bush’s planned budget cuts for the Army Corps’ flood efforts in 2002, thus prompting the indignation of administration officials. He was asked to resign roughly a year after his nomination.
So where did the money go? Just where you think it did: Iraq. Along with the National Guard Troops whose job, actually, is to Guard the... ah, Nation. Tough to do when you’re 7,500 miles away. While New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin called for arms, begged for troops and buses, and declared Martial Law, the Bush administration—FEMA in particular—sat on their asses.
Apparently, we are now only prepared to address emergencies related to terrorist attacks. Bush, it seems, is unfamiliar with the term multitasking. Not only were monies for flood protection shunted to the “war on terror,” but once FEMA was absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security, its focus shifted. Floods? Hurricanes? Tornadoes? Fuck ‘em. FEMA’s job is now responding to terrorist attacks.
The results of this played out horrifically in New Orleans: Failure at the state, local and federal levels. Thousands of people dead for no reason except that they were flooded and not bombed. Everyone is now aware of the inexcusable, horrifically slow, and utterly disorganized relief effort by FEMA. Terry Ebbert, head of emergency operations for New Orleans, said it best: “This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace... FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control... We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”
What is the motive for all this? Is it simple optimism? “Oh, we won’t get a big scary hurricane.” A childish inability to address more than one threat at a time? Or are the conspiracy theorists onto something with their coastal development statistics? Data suggests many coastal towns where poor people live are devastated by storms and then claimed by developers who build condos and resorts. Or maybe it really is all about oil.
The Gulf supplies the U.S. with roughly a quarter of our oil. In the wake of Katrina, the EPA has decided to temporarily allow all parties in the fuel distribution system, (refiners, importers, distributors, carriers and retail outlets) to supply gasoline that is NOT compliant with the Clean Air Act. This waiver continues through September 15, but sellers may continue dispensing this fuel afterwards, until their supplies are depleted. Their reasoning for this was the determination that the impact of Hurricane Katrina will prevent the distribution of an adequate supply of fuel to consumers that is compliant with the Clean Air Act. This is “a natural disaster, that could not reasonably have been foreseen or prevented...” Really.
So what can we do, beyond giving blood and a little cash? First, learn who the players are, and hold them accountable. For example, House Speaker Dennis Hastert opposed calling Congress back into session to pass a relief package for Katrina victims, and did not attend the vote, skipping it to instead attend a colleague’s fundraiser, staff members said, followed by an antique car auction. Everybody knew this was coming. Gross negligence and misplaced priorities defunded New Orleans’ protection. Then once the city was underwater, grievous incompetence withheld required aid. People died. Every hour that FEMA and the Bush administration delayed, Americans died. Ray Nagin said New Orleans is “a place so unique that when you mention [it] everywhere around the world people’s eyes light up.” He also said the city would “never be the same.” He’s right. But it didn’t have to happen that way. Many times more people died in this disaster than on 9/11. How many of us will be thinking of them the next time we vote? Media attention has caused FEMA to wake up and act right. Use your voice to make some good come out of our country’s shameful loss. Make your government act right.