Saturday, September 10, 2005

The rebuilding of New Orleans


We've already seen what some people think about rebuilding New Orleans, like Dennis Hastert:
It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that's seven feet under sea level, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said of federal assistance for hurricane-devastated New Orleans.


"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," the Illinois Republican said in an interview about New Orleans Wednesday with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill.


Hastert, in a transcript supplied by the suburban Chicago newspaper, said there was no question that the people of New Orleans would rebuild their city, but noted that federal insurance and other federal aid was involved. "We ought to take a second look at it. But you know we build Los Angeles and San Francisco on top of earthquake fissures and they rebuild too. Stubbornness."

There are "some real tough questions to ask," Hastert said in the interview. "How do you go about rebuilding this city? What precautions do you take?"

Asked in the interview whether it made sense to spend billions rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, he replied, "I don't know. That doesn't make sense to me."

And the voice of the rich elite of New Orleans has also been heard:

The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss says, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."

But other ideas about rebuilding New Orleans are beginning to come out as well. Clay Risen considers the question on The New Republic:

The first principle in rebuilding New Orleans should be to reduce the risk of future catastrophic flooding. The levee system that Katrina compromised was built to withstand a Category Three hurricane. Given the city's experience with Category Four Katrina, overengineering for a Category Five shouldn't be a question. Many of the most flooded neighborhoods will need to be bulldozed and the ground under them razed. A related idea should be to improve the sustainability of the bayous and barrier islands to the south of New Orleans, which will help sap the power of future hurricanes before they hit the city. And, while the city itself should obviously stay where it is, planners should be willing to consider relocating some of the most flood-prone neighborhoods (which also tend to be the poorest sections of town), perhaps even closing off East New Orleans and Chalmette to future development.

Beyond mere safety, the rebuilding process must inspire public confidence. While New Orleanians will undoubtedly want to return home, many will be hesitant to do so unless they can be assured that there is an unencumbered power structure in place to oversee the city's recovery. In some cases, it might be possible to place such power in the hands of local and state authorities. But New Orleans was, in many ways, a disaster before Katrina, the victim of decades of state neglect and local ineptitude. In this case, only Washington has the wherewithal to oversee the reconstruction. "There's really only one entity who can do that here, given the economic realities, and that's the federal government," says Thomas Campanella, a planning professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Vale's co-author on The Resilient City. "There's going to be some private sector investment in certain areas, but as far as the vast infrastructure and housing for low-income residents, it has to come from the federal government."

But rebuilding physical structures isn't enough--residents need to know that they will have a way to make a living. Any rebuilding efforts should therefore include job prospects as well. New Orleans's largest employers, the shipping and tourism industries, won't fully recover for years. Thus, a corollary principle should be to use New Orleans residents as much as possible in the rebuilding effort, on construction crews, and in support staff, even if this requires some job training. This, in turn, will assure the commercial sector that it will have a labor force to draw from when it eventually returns.

Another principle should be to keep as many changes as possible in the background. Toughen up building codes, but in ways that take into account local architectural traditions. Push for more mixed-income neighborhoods, but recognize that residents will revolt if they are forced to move into drastically different living patterns. Push for a city with less corruption and crime, but also recognize that what made New Orleans such an attractive place to live was precisely its down-at-the-heels, not-quite-clean reputation. "I hope we don't end up with a sanitized New Orleans, with the French Quarter and the Garden District and tourist sites surrounded by acres of bulldozed shotgun and camelback houses," says Campanella. "I'm worried that a themeparking of New Orleans could take place," a result akin to the artificially aged "old town" sections of Cologne, Düsseldorf, and other German cities destroyed during World War II. Such a New Orleans may look more attractive to outsiders, but it will eviscerate the soul of the city.

And, while a strong federal role of unprecedented proportions is clearly necessary, it shouldn't be so large that it chokes off private investment. Oddly enough, it is often immediately after a disaster that a city experiences its greatest growth, not only because it is starting from close to zero but also because the opportunities for investment seem so wide open. Guiding these forces, rather than competing with them, should be at the center of any rebuilding effort.

Perhaps the most important principle is to respect the persistence of urban memory. A city is not just a collection of streets and buildings; it is a population of individuals who have strong attachments to their ways of life and patterns of living. Places like New Orleans's impoverished Eighth and Ninth Wards "were real and vital places with wonderful social fabrics, where the people had roots that went generations deep," says Campanella. Ignorance of local patterns of life led mid-century planners to tear down inner-city slums and toss residents into soulless projects. Contemporary planners recognize the need to study such patterns and incorporate them into new housing efforts, and the same should be done in New Orleans.

This is not to argue against trying to make the next New Orleans a more equitable place. But it is to say that overly ambitious planners may find their efforts thwarted by the very people they imagine they are helping. Ironically, the same attachments to place and lifestyle that militate so strongly against relocating New Orleans are the exact forces that will stand in the way of any effort to radically refashion the city as well. So the new New Orleans ought to look a lot like the old New Orleans--only better.

In The Guardian, Naomi Klein contributes to the discussion:

Jimmy Reiss, chairman of the New Orleans Business Council, told Newsweek that he has been brainstorming about how "to use this catastrophe as a once-in-an-eon opportunity to change the dynamic". The council's wish list is well-known: low wages, low taxes, more luxury condos and hotels.

Before the flood, this highly profitable vision was already displacing thousands of poor African-Americans: while their music and culture was for sale in an increasingly corporatised French Quarter (where only 4.3% of residents are black), their housing developments were being torn down. "For white tourists and businesspeople, New Orleans's reputation means a great place to have a vacation, but don't leave the French Quarter or you'll get shot," Jordan Flaherty, a New Orleans-based labour organiser told me the day after he left the city by boat. "Now the developers have their big chance to disperse the obstacle to gentrification - poor people."

Here's a better idea: New Orleans could be reconstructed by and for the very people most victimised by the flood. Schools and hospitals that were falling apart before could finally have adequate resources; the rebuilding could create thousands of local jobs and provide massive skills training in decent paying industries. Rather than handing over the reconstruction to the same corrupt elite that failed the city so spectacularly, the effort could be led by groups like Douglass Community Coalition. Before the hurricane, this remarkable assembly of parents, teachers, students and artists was trying to reconstruct the city from the ravages of poverty by transforming Frederick Douglass senior high school into a model of community learning. They have already done the painstaking work of building consensus around education reform. Now that the funds are flowing, shouldn't they have the tools to rebuild every ailing public school in the city?

For a people's reconstruction process to become a reality (and to keep more contracts from going to Halliburton), the evacuees must be at the centre of all decision-making. According to Curtis Muhammad of Community Labor United, the disaster's starkest lesson is that African-Americans cannot count on any level of government to protect them.

We can already see indications that the Bush administration plans to go with their normal "business as usual" scheme of things in his suspension of prevailing wage laws in the afflicted area, allowing for larger profits to the connected companies (such as Haliburton) which will get the rebuilding contracts.

Update (9/28): Salon has a roundtable discussion on the rebuilding of New Orleans.

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/10/2005 01:09:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


TV ad production going overseas?

I think this must be a trend -- I'm seeing more and more TV commercials which have obviously been filmed in Europe. Some are explicitly set there, some look as if they were filmed there to be made more cheaply, but others look as if they are European commercials "repurposed" for the USA, although they retain tell-tale signs of their European origins (i.e. an emphasis on soccer, the prevalence of scooters, an urban landscape of small crowded streets filled with small cars, and so on) and as a result have a distinctly Continental feel to them.

Ed Fitzgerald | 9/10/2005 12:47:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Thursday, September 08, 2005

With the rich and mighty


What didn't go right?
George W. Bush, after the suggestion from Nancy Pelosi that Michael Brown ought to be fired due to the incompetent intitial FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina

Barbara Bush, the mother of the current president, after touring the Astrodome and meeting some of the evacuees from New Orleans:

What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.

As my friend Nathanael remarked, this is not all that far from "Let them eat cake." It's always good to be reminded where George W. Bush's lack of empathy, cluelessness about the real world, and lack of any sense of his great personal privilege came from.

I never hated Bush's father, the former President, when he was in office. Oh, I disagreed with many of his policies, sometimes vigorously so, and I thought he (like his son) took too many vacations, but I was also aware that GHWB had a solid record of things he had achieved on his own, without relying overly much on his powerful father. Because of that, he arrived in the Presidency with a sense that he was there to serve the people. (My objection was that he didn't have much of an idea of what the people needed, or even what he himself wanted to accomplish in office. His was very much a caretaker government, connected to and continuing the Reagan Revolution, without actually being strongly committed to it.)

Whatever his faults, Bush, as former head of the CIA and Ambassador to China, among other posts, had built up a pretty good understanding of the way the world works. I thought, for instance, that the way he painstakingly built international support for the First Gulf War and then assembled a broad multi-national coalition of forces to fight it was one of the most deft acts of diplomatic achievement in my adult lifetime. There are a lot of things about Bush Senior's time in office that can be questioned, but his participation in "reality-based" thinking was not one of them.

Sadly, the same thing cannot be said for his son, who has had everything handed to him on a silver platter, and who, as a result, really has no sense whatever of what the world is like for 98% of the people who live in it -- and has never shown any interest in learning. It's perilous to blame an adult's behavior and personality on his or her parents (since children often go their own way, and siblings can often be quite dissimilar in outlook), but in Bush's case it's been increasingly clear to me that he's much more like his mother than he is his father -- and that's really a shame, as Barbara Bush's remarks remind us once again.

And recall, this isn't the first time that Babs has put her foot firmly into her mouth:

Barbara Bush had raised eyebrows two days before U.S. troops invaded Iraq, when she told ABC television that she was not interested in media commentators' concerns about the war's potential human toll.

"Why should we hear about body bags, and deaths, and how many, what day it's gonna happen, and how many this or what do you suppose?" she said. "It's not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"

That people wll die is a given in any war, which is why undertaking one should be a momentous and difficult step for anyone to take, but death is never irrelevant in a war. That concern about war dead doesn't enter her "beautiful" mind, I certainly believe, and I suspect it spends as little time in the minds of her son and his advisors as well -- except as something to be hidden from the American people.

(Addendum: More on Bush here.)

But, as they say, "With the rich and mighty, always a little patience," because the rich are different from you and me:

On a sultry morning earlier this week, Ashton O'Dwyer stepped out of his home on this city's grandest street and made a beeline for his neighbor's pool. Wearing nothing but a pair of blue swim trunks and carrying two milk jugs, he drew enough pool water to flush the toilet in his home.

The mostly African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans are largely underwater, and the people who lived there have scattered across the country. But in many of the predominantly white and more affluent areas, streets are dry and passable. Gracious homes are mostly intact and powered by generators. Wednesday, officials reiterated that all residents must leave New Orleans, but it's still unclear how far they will go to enforce the order.

The green expanse of Audubon Park, in the city's Uptown area, has doubled in recent days as a heliport for the city's rich -- and a terminus for the small armies of private security guards who have been dispatched to keep the homes there safe and habitable. Mr. O'Dwyer has cellphone service and ice cubes to cool off his highballs in the evening. By Wednesday, the city water service even sprang to life, making the daily trips to his neighbor's pool unnecessary. A pair of oil-company engineers, dispatched by his son-in-law, delivered four cases of water, a box of delicacies including herring with mustard sauce and 15 gallons of generator gasoline.

Despite the disaster that has overwhelmed New Orleans, the city's monied, mostly white elite is hanging on and maneuvering to play a role in the recovery when the floodwaters of Katrina are gone. "New Orleans is ready to be rebuilt. Let's start right here," says Mr. O'Dwyer, standing in his expansive kitchen, next to a counter covered with a jumble of weaponry and electric wires.


The power elite of New Orleans -- whether they are still in the city or have moved temporarily to enclaves such as Destin, Fla., and Vail, Colo. -- insist the remade city won't simply restore the old order. New Orleans before the flood was burdened by a teeming underclass, substandard schools and a high crime rate. The city has few corporate headquarters.

The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss says, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."

[Thanks to Peggy]

Unfortunately, when he says that there will be "fewer poor people," I don't think that he means that a radical readjustment of the social system will gradually bring the underclass into the mainstream of American society. I think, rather, that poor people just won't be allowed in. If these people get their way, look for New Orleans to be something like a cross between an urban festival marketplace and a gated community, which, of course, won't really be New Orleans at all.

BTW, what if Louisiana was Florida? [Thanks to Margit]

Update (10:40pm): Stephanie Grace has some more reasonable thoughts on rebuilding New Orleans:

Maybe it's too soon to think about the future, with the shocking images of so many of our fellow citizens' suffering so fresh.

Clearly, it's way too soon to put aside the sadness we all feel over our hometown's devastation, the rage over the emergency response bureaucracy that sputtered for days while storm victims went without food, water and shelter.

Yet it's worth trying to focus on what's to come, because out of the ruins, there's reason for hope. The new New Orleans area will be different, sure, and depleted in countless ways -- but restored and perhaps even improved in others.

This much we know: Our problems have now, belatedly, gotten the undivided attention of the federal government. As U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon put it, President Bush's photo-op flyover morphed into a reality check; he and all those other federal officials who've been so cavalier about protecting the coastal buffer zone and investing in flood control finally get it, and are ready to open their wallets.

Maybe the feds' promised largesse comes from guilt over their disastrous initial response. Maybe it's simple political cover. Some will surely call it blood money.

Doesn't matter. We'll take it.

"A tragic opportunity," is how U.S. Sen. David Vitter described it. "This is our chance to get it in one lump sum."

So what's the "it"? Let's start with the obvious: Money to build new levees, repair the ones that breached and raise those that survived. Then there's the coastal restoration funding that Vitter, his Senate colleague Mary Landrieu and other Louisiana politicians have been seeking for years. There's the cash to replace the decimated I-10 twin spans and reconnect New Orleans to points east.

And there's more. The flooded-out areas include wealthy neighborhoods that will be rebuilt with insurance, but they also encompass poorer regions that were full of dilapidated houses and schools. This is the government's chance to make sure families that return live in decent surroundings, that kids learn in clean, modern buildings that actually have air conditioning and functional bathrooms. That ruined neighborhoods are filled in, so people can rebuild on higher, safer ground.

By the time it gets rolling, we could be looking at the something akin to the Works Progress Administration, the massive depression-era public works project, all over again. [Emphasis added - Ed]

Her suggestion that neighborhoods be filled in to create higher ground is an interesting one, reminiscent of this:

On June 6, 1889, most of Seattle's central business district burned to the ground in the Great Seattle Fire.

It was decided to rebuild the city one to two stories higher than the original street grade, as Pioneer Square had been built mostly on filled-in tidelands and often flooded ... The new street level also assisted in ensuring that gravity-assisted flush toilets didn't back up during high tide in Elliott Bay. ... Several city blocks in the downtown region were enclosed with brick and timber barracades and the pavements between were raised. This left sidewalks and some storefronts as much as 36 feet below street level.

[Update (9/13): I've also been reminded that in the wake of the disastrous Hurricane of 1900, Galveston, Texas, which sits on a barrier island, the highest natural elevation of which was 8 feet, raised the level of the city by 13 feet.]

(Thurs 9/8 11:00pm): Eliot Gelwan on Follow Me Here

[P]erhaps there is a sense in which this disaster, like others, does represent a human moral failing — that of hubris. Our conceit in insisting on living on lowlying hurricane-ridden coasts, in wildfire and mudslide zones, on earthquake fault lines, on flood plains, at the mercy of increasingly vigorous weather caused by manmade precipitants of climate change, is a moral decision, and should be made deliberately, recognizing that it relies on our dubious interminable belief that we can live at odds with nature and can vanquish natural forces no matter what their fury. Increasingly, that 'war with nature' requires the protection of massive public expenditure and institutional support to be sustainable. People need to wake up to realize that, in voting as they did in the last two presidential elections for an administration that inherently believes government should have no role in protecting its citizens against larger forces, they have voted against the safety they need to continue to inhabit dubious environmental niches.

I've often had thoughts like this, but I do wonder how much land would be available to live on once all the danger zones (and agricultural land, for that matter) were eliminated from consideration.

(12:00 midnight): The Green Knight compares FEMA to Douglas Adams' Vogons:

Not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers ... without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public enquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.

(Fri 12:30am): Spunky Ricky Santorum shows his true colors once again.

(Probably he's just trying to avoid that darn slippery slope -- you know, first you start showing your feelings of good will for your fellow man, and the next thing you know you're dressed in furs and spiked heels and going mano-a-cano with Fido.)

(2:30am): Last Tuesday night, I referred to Bush as a "Potemkin President." It's not a thought that's new with me, but it must have been on a lot of people's minds on watching Bush's reactions to Katrina, because a few days later Billmon, one of the best bloggers on the web, posted this, followed by this later on. Well worth reading (as is almost always the case with Billmon).

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/08/2005 10:00:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Starting the time-line


The Times-Picayune has the beginning of a time-line for the effects of Katrina in New Orleans:
Katrina trapped city in double disasters

By John McQuaid
Staff writer

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans with a double blow when it made landfall Aug. 29. First, storm surge waters from the east rapidly swamped St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans before the eye of the storm had passed the city around 9 a.m. Within hours, surge waters collapsed city canal floodwalls and began to “fill the bowl,” while top officials continued to operate for a full day under the mistaken belief that the danger had passed.

A rough reconstruction of the flooding based on anecdotal accounts, interviews, and computer modeling, shows that the huge scale of the overlapping floods – one fast, one slow – should have been clear to some officials by mid-afternoon Monday, when city representatives confirmed that the 17th Street canal floodwall had been breached.

At that point areas to the east were submerged from the earlier flooding, trapping thousands, while gradually rising waters stretched from the Lakefront across to Mid City and almost to the Central Business District.

Federal officials have referred to the levee breaches as a separate and much later event from the flooding to the east, and said that they were unaware of the gravity of the problem until Tuesday, suggesting valuable response time was lost.

“It was midday Tuesday that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the (17th Street canal) gap and that essentially the lake was going to start to drain into the city. I think that second catastrophe really caught everybody by surprise,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Sunday, adding that he believed the breach had occurred Monday night or Tuesday morning. By that time, flooding from at least one of the two breached canals already had been under way all day Monday, evidence shows.

Even on Tuesday, as still-rising waters covered most of New Orleans, FEMA official Bill Lokey sounded a reassuring note in a Baton Rouge briefing.

“I don't want to alarm everybody that, you know, New Orleans is filling up like a bowl,” Lokey said. “That's just not happening.”

Once a levee or floodwall is breached by a hurricane storm surge, engineers say, it often widens and cannot be quickly sealed. Storm surge waters in Lake Pontchartrain may take a day or more to subside, so they keep pouring into the city – most of which lies below sea level – until the levels inside and outside the levee are equal.

Experts familiar with the hurricane risks in the New Orleans area said they were stunned that no one had conveyed the information about the breaches or made clear to upper-level officials the grave risk they posed, or made an effort to warn residents about the threat after storm winds subsided Monday afternoon.

“I’m shocked. I don’t understand why the response wasn’t instantaneous,” said Louisiana State University geology professor Greg Stone, who studies coastal storm surge dynamics.

“They should have been monitoring this and informed people all the way to the top, (and) then they should have warned people,” said Ivor Van Heerden, who uses computer models at the LSU Hurricane Center to study storm surges and provided officials in the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness headquarters with data indicating the potential for flooding that could result from Katrina.

The storm approached the coast early Monday, the easterly winds from its northern quadrant pumping a rising surge into the marshy Lake Borgne area east of St. Bernard. There, two hurricane levees come together into a large V-shape. Storm surge researchers say that point acts as a giant funnel: Water pouring into the confined area rises up — perhaps as much as 20 feet in this case — and is funneled between the levees all the way into New Orleans.

The water likely topped the levees along the north side adjacent to eastern New Orleans, which average only 14 or 15 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans project manager Al Naomi.

The surge reached the Industrial Canal before dawn and quickly overflowed on both sides, the canal lockmaster reported to the Corps. At some point not long afterward, Corps officials believe a barge broke loose and crashed through the floodwall, opening a breach that accelerated flooding into the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.

The floodwaters moved quickly.

By around 8 a.m., authorities reported rising water on both sides of the Industrial Canal, in St. Bernard and eastern New Orleans. The Coast Guard reported sighting residents on rooftops in the Upper Ninth Ward. “Water is inundating everywhere,” in St. Bernard, Parish Council Chairman Joey DiFatta said.

At 9 a.m., there was 6 to 8 feet of water in the Lower Ninth Ward, state officials said. Less than two hours later, most of St. Bernard was a lake 10 feet deep. “We know people were up in the attics hollering for help,” state Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Arabi, said that morning. By 11 a.m., water was covering Interstate 10 at a low point near the high-rise over the Industrial Canal.

Sometime Monday morning, the 17th Street canal levee burst when storm surge waters pressed against it and possibly topped it, Corps officials said. Col. Richard P. Wagenaar, the corps’s site commander at 17th Street, told The Washington Post that a police officer called him Monday morning to tell him about it. He told the Post he couldn’t get to the site.

Naomi said he believes the breach occurred in the mid- or late-morning after the hurricane’s eye had passed east of the city. By that time, north winds would have pushed storm surge water in Lake Pontchartrain south against the hurricane levees and into the canals. Then the wind shifted to the west.

“As I remember it the worst of the storm had passed when we got word the floodwall had collapsed,” he said. “It could have been when we were experiencing westerly winds in the aftermath of the storm, which would have been pushing water against it.”

Naomi and other Corps officials say they believe that the water in the canal topped the levee on the Orleans Parish side, weakening its structure on the interior side and causing its collapse. However, Van Heerden said he does not believe the water was high enough in the lake to top the 14-foot wall and that the pressure caused a “catastrophic structural failure.”

It’s not clear when floodwalls in the London Avenue canal were breached, but Naomi said it may have been around the same time.

Once the floodwalls failed, water – then at about 8 feet or higher in the lake – began to pour into New Orleans from the west, beginning the full-scale nightmare emergency managers and other officials most feared. At 10 a.m., reporters from The Times-Picayune saw water rising over I-10 where it dips beneath the railway trestle south and east of the canal.

Naomi said that he believes Corps officials had communicated the information about the breaches to the Baton Rouge Office of Emergency Preparedness

“It was disseminated. It went to our OEP in Baton Rouge, to the state, FEMA, the Corps,” Naomi said. “The people in the field knew it. The people here (in Corps offices) in Louisiana and Mississippi knew it. I don’t know how communication worked in those agencies.”

Officials at the OEP could not be reached for comment. New Orleans officials were also aware of the 17th Street canal breach and publicly confirmed it at 2 p.m. Around the same time, The Times-Picayune reported 4 feet of water in one Lakeview neighborhood.

An hour later, city homeland security director Terry Ebbert listed Treme and Lakeview as among the areas hardest hit by the flooding. Ebbert said there would be casualties because many people were calling emergency workers saying they were trapped on rooftops, in trees and attics. In some cases, he said, authorities lost contact with people pleading for help.

As the day wore on, the flood crept east and south and made its way across the city, penetrating neighborhood after neighborhood.

At 3 p.m. Times-Picayune reporters found it was knee-deep under the Jefferson Davis overpass near Xavier University. A Mid-City couple stranded there said their home was surrounded by 5 feet of water. An hour later, the I-10 dip under the railroad overpass was under 15 feet of water.

George Saucier, the CEO of Lindy Boggs Medical Center south of City Park, told The Times-Picayune that water from the 17th Street breach had flowed into Bayou St. John and overflowed its banks, then followed streets like sluices on its way south, where it was starting to flood the hospital’s basement.

By late afternoon, people stranded on I-10 near the Industrial Canal could see residents on rooftops stretching across Lower Ninth Ward.

As night fell Monday, many outside of New Orleans breathed a sigh of relief believing the city had been largely spared the worse. But thousands were stranded from the Lower Ninth Ward, across St. Bernard and south to the east bank of Plaquemines Parish. And waters continued to rise overnight throughout central New Orleans. By dawn, they stretched all the way from east to west and into Uptown, and were coursing through the Central Business District. As TV helicopters flew over the city and beamed out pictures of the flooding, the extent of the catastrophe was clear.

That flooding would complicate evacuation efforts in New Orleans for days.

Whoever else knew about the breach of the 17th Street Canal sea-walls, the media -- or, at least CNN -- certainly didn't know. I was live-blogging CNN when they first heard about it from an official at Tulane University Medical Center, and my post is time-stamped for 2:30am on Tuesday morning -- i.e. late Monday night. (I also mentioned it in an update to a previous post, and marked the update as happening at 2:30am.) But the T-P time-line has the breach happening sometime mid- or late-morning on Monday, which means that the non-official outside world, relying on CNN and other electronic media, didn't know for more than 12 hours that New Orleans was flooding very widely and very badly.

Officials, of course, should have known more and better.

Which they knew, who they told, and what everyone did or didn't do will certainly be a legitimate topic of investigation (and spin and bombast) for months to come, but there is no doubt about this right now, and it requires no investigation of any sort, just common sense: FEMA knew that Katrina was likely to be a major disaster well before the storm made landfall, and certainly long before any breach of the flood-control system occured, and their response should have been in-process and in-transit at that time. At the very least, it should have been ready and waiting in the wings, needed to be activated only by confirmation of the scope of the disaster and the type of supplies and relief needed. That, after all, is the entire purpose of FEMA:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency [...] is tasked with responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against disasters.

Where in that simple statement of fact Brown, Chertoff and Bush can find anywhere to hide their ultimate culpability for the piss-poor response to Katrina is beyond me.

Addendum: There's another time-line of Katrina events here. And Kevin Drum has a compendium of Katrina timelnes. [Update (Wed 9/14 2:00am): Also take a look at this Wall Street Journal article.]

Update (3:20am): Just to state the obvious, I want to point out the similarities between the Bush administration's responses to the call for investigation after 9/11, and after Katrina. Both times, they rejected the need for an outside commission to investigate, and resisted forming one. In both instances, Republican congressional leadership made statements to the effect that congressional investgations would be sufficient, and an outside accounting was not needed.

In the case of 9/11, the independent commission was forced on Bush and the Republicans by the intense pressure brought to bear by the 9/11 families. But they were primarily middle-class, suburban and white, with access to all the resources needed to organize effectively, lobby Congress, work the media, and make their wants known. It seems unlikely that the poor black folk of New Orleans will have the same juice, so unless Democrats keep up the pressure on Bush to appoint an independent commission, we're more than likely to end up with a stunted joint congressional investigation (joint because Senators running their own inquiry have too much potential to take the investigation into places the powers that be do not want it to go) and Bush's own absurd whitewash of an "investigation", which is likely only to place blame only on those people Bush's handlers have already decided need to be purged and scapegoated. (Look for Brown to get the ax, but perhaps not Chertoff.)

(8:40pm): John Powers has a good piece in the LA Weekly:

With any luck, this shameful performance in New Orleans (and along the coast) will finally vanquish the enduring cliché that, unlike the supposedly dreamy left, the right is competent— you know, filled with can-do Steve McQueens and Chuck Yeagers who know how to get things done. In fact, what’s startling about the Bush administration is its mind-numbing incompetence at everything but winning elections and pushing through legislation that further enriches the rich. Even those who fervently backed the invasion of Iraq say they’re staggered at how ineptly the administration has managed the peace. Two and a half years after the invasion, the Iraqi capital still only gets four hours of electricity a day, and the airport road still hasn’t been secured. Evidently Baghdad was a dry run for the watery snafus in New Orleans.

[Thanks to Peggy, who also sent me this piece about the old money elite of New Orleans]

(9:15pm): Publius, on Legal Fiction, on a different kind of response to Katrina:

[O]ne [of] the most depressing aspects of what Mark Schmitt has called "this wretched era" is that national unity in the face of a disaster is no longer possible. And I blame Bush for this. More precisely, I blame Bush’s exploitation of 9/11 because it gave rise to a collective action problem which made "defecting" the only politically rational policy. Immediately after 9/11, 99% of all Democrats rallied around Bush in the name of national unity. He became the nation’s president rather than a parliamentary leader of a majority legislative faction. In what I consider to be his most tragic decision (especially when you factor in the opportunity costs), Bush chose to transform 9/11 into a partisan bludgeon just months after the overwhelming majority of Democrats supported the war in Afghanistan and rallied around him in the name of patriotism and unity. Rather than building on that unique – and fleeting – moment in history that so few leaders enjoy, he chose to pursue a fiercely partisan, polarizing agenda. The lesson of course was that "cooperation" results in punishment (in collective-action-problem-ese). Accordingly, after 9/11, the rational (not moral) response to tragedy is to "defect" – or to use the tragedy for partisan purposes.

It’s all very depressing, but it’s a logical consequence of the polarization strategy that Bush pursued. Bush transformed the world into one giant zero-sum game where a national harm is one man’s benefit, and a national benefit is another man’s harm.

I think Publius overstates the unanimity of the Democratic rallying-around-the-President response to 9/11 -- to my perception that was pretty much evident among Democratic elected officials in Washington, but not so much at the grassroots rank-and-file level; but, then again, I'm in New York and Publius is in the south, and the local responses were very probably different. Still, his overall point is well taken, except that I wondering if you get beyond the "chattering classes" (which very much includes committed politically-oriented bloggers like Publius and myself), if some sort of unity of reaction isn't more likely to occur.

Anyway, just another reason why George W. Bush is The Man Who Wrecked America™.

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/08/2005 01:58:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Towards a Gulf Coast Corps


What we need in the wake of Katrina is something like this (from Wikipedia):
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created on March 31, 1933, in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first month in office. The CCC was an interdepartmental work and relief program that sent young, unemployed men from the cities to work on conservation projects in rural areas at a dollar a day. The CCC is credited with constructing many buildings and trails in state and national parks still treasured today, and other work related to land conservation, etc.

The Labor Department's role was to recruit participants into the program. To do this, the employment service was hastily beefed up and mobilized. Within a week there was organized within it a National Re-Employment Service to handle recruitment. The first enrollee entered the CCC on April 7, 1933, just 37 days after President Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration. In a short time there were 250,000 young enrollees working in CCC camps all around the country. Enrollment peaked in September 1935 at about 502,000. One of the most successful and well-received New Deal programs, by the time the CCC disbanded in 1942 several million young men had participated.

In Roosevelt's second fireside chat on May 7, 1933, he spoke about the CCC in a radio address to the American people:
"First, we are giving opportunity of employment to one-quarter of a million of the unemployed, especially the young men who have dependents, to go into the forestry and flood prevention work. This is a big task because it means feeding, clothing and caring for nearly twice as many men as we have in the regular army itself. In creating this civilian conservation corps we are killing two birds with one stone. We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress."
In addition to construction work in national parks, other CCC projects included installation of telephone and power lines, construction of logging and fire roads, fence construction, erosion control, tree planting, and even beekeeping, archeological excavation, and furniture manufacture. The CCC also provided the first truly organized wildland firefighting crews for government agencies such as the United States Forest Service.

CCC enrollees worked 40 hours a week and were paid $30 a month, with the requirement that $25 of that be sent home to the enrollee's family. Initially, the CCC was limited to young men age 18 to 25 who were on relief. Two exceptions to the age limits were veterans, who had a special CCC program and their own camps, and older people with needed skills, hired by the CCC to supervise the young men on the job. These older CCC members were known as "LEMs", for Local Experienced Men. In 1937, Congress changed the age limits to 17 to 23 years old, and dropped the requirement that enrollees be on relief. Members enrolled for six months, with the option of enrolling for another six months. The CCC was organized into camps around the nation, with the first camp in George Washington National Forest in Virginia. Eventually over 4,000 camps would be established.

It stands to reason that we need something like this to provide a framework to help the people of the Gulf to rebuild their communities, giving them something concrete and positive to do in the process -- but, of course, it's not going to happen, not under this administration. That's because to do something like a Gulf Coast Relief and Rebuilding Corps would be using the power of government to do something positive and beneficial at a variety of levels, and why would Bush and Cheney choose to do that when they can simply channel public funds to the private companies they're connected to (like Haliburton) as they always do, and allow them to do the rebuilding, to great profit. (If it happens, it will be yet another blatant example of Bush's crony capitalism.)

I believe that even though the scope of the Katrina disaster is in no way comparable to the scope of the Great Depression, it's worthwhile pointing out the differences between the Republican way of doing things, as exemplified by Herbert Hoover's failure to do anything substantive to ameliorate the effects of the Depression, and the Democratic way of doing things, as exemplified by FDR's New Deal programs. The comparison is apt because it's the clear goal of the Right to roll us back to a pre-New Deal state. (In fact, they'd probably be happiest with a new age of Robber Barons to divide up the country amongst themselves -- or perhaps some form of corporate feudalism would be even more pleasing to them.)

So, unless Karl Rove sees some political advantage to Bush in doing so, it's unlikely that we're going to see anything like a Gulf Coast Relief and Rebuilding Corps anytime soon, however benficial it might have been. It's easier to stick the evacuees in unused HUD housing and give them $2000 debit cards to live off of.

Of course, what will happen when that $2000 runs out? Do I really have to quote the old saw about teaching a man to fish versus giving him a fish?

Incidentally, if Bush does propose something like a Gulf Coast Corps, I'd keep a very close watch on it, because it's likely to be a Potemkin village of a program, all surface and no depth, a cheap attempt to steal some approval points for Bush.

On that same subject, superficial and sham programs designed for show, I was commenting today to a friend that it amazed me that Bush & Company, who are the past masters at that sort of charade, couldn't even muster a fake response to Katrina to hold off the criticism that was bound to come from their failure to respond quickly and in force:

[W]ith our government decimated by the depravations of the right wing, [it] couldn't even manage to *pretend* to get [the relief effort] going. I mean, think about it -- in terms of public relations, all Bush really needed to do was provide the media with a good show of trucks, helicopters, Guardsman and an apparent fervor of activity. It didn't matter (from this superficial viewpoint) whether the thing was effective or not, just like after 9/11 they would have gotten the benefit of the doubt [from both the public and the media] and bought themselves some time to actually get things going. (And, ironically, a sham show of aid would probably have acted like a placebo to help hold off the beginning of the sense of panic which set in -- so it would actually have done some good.) But [they] couldn't even *fake it*.

In that light, the Bush response to Katrina failed everyone, even themselve and their own best interests.

Addendum: This is not on topic, but I'll keep the format of these Katrina posts of continuing to add on to them until I think a new post is warranted. The always interesting Publius has some edifying things to say about Katrina and racism -- "post-racism," actually.

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/07/2005 11:05:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

One man's perspective


I received this e-mail from Larry Peck, of Atlanta. I made some minor formatting changes to it, and I'll add some comments at the end.

As the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues, it is very important that we all keep in perspective what happened in New Orleans and the reality of what type of evacuation could have taken place and what actually caused the city to flood on Tuesday morning. If everyone is to be taken seriously in their ongoing criticisms of the Bush Administration's historical failure to adequately respond to Katrina, it is important that those criticisms be based on legitimate, rationale arguments and facts:


Everyone talking about the flooding in New Orleans has blamed it on the breaching of the levee system. But it is extremely critical to note that there is a big difference between levees and flood walls in the flood control system.

A. The levees are typically very large earthern berms that are basicallyreinforced, big sloping hills of dirt used as flood barriers.

B. Flood control walls are the two-feet thick vertical concrete walls mainly along the many miles of drainage and navigation canals in New Orleans that are backed up by earthen works much narrower than a typical levee.

NO levees failed in New Orleans! I repeat, NO levees failed in New Orleans! The flooding was caused by the failure of three sections of FLOOD CONTROL WALLS at:

  • The 17th Street Canal

  • The London Street Canal

  • The Industrial Canal

The storm surge from the hurricane overflowed the canal walls and caused the earthern works behind them to be washed or "scourged" away. With no support behind them, the concrete walls could not stand up to the huge amount of force being placed on them by the amount of water in the canals and they failed and the city flooded. Plain and simple.

Last night on 60 Minutes, Scott Pelley confirmed all of this and also interviewed Al Naomi, who manages the flood walls for the Army Corps of Engineers. Naomi stated clearly, that even if he had all of the necessary funds had been available to him to improve the flood walls to withstand a Category 4 storm like Katrina, the work would have had to begun TWENTY YEARS ago in order to have prevented what happened in New Orleans last week. Al Naomi's comments make perfect sense.

This controversy really boils down to simple physics as improving the flood walls would have involved a combination of adding height to them with more concrete and exponentially increasing the size of the earthworks behind them to properly support the added weight and water pressure against them. If you look at pictures of the 17th Street Canal breach, you can clearly see that there are houses and other structures built very close to the walls. Increasing the size of the walls would have required that hundreds (maybe thousands) of houses along the flood walls be torn down to make room for the enlarged earthern support works. That would have involved the government using imminent domain to seize the property and compensate the homeowners. Law suits would have inevitably been filed and the subsequent appeals could have delayed these improvements an unknown number of years.

This dramatically points out that the Bush Administrations de-funding of the levee improvements did NOT cause this disaster like a lot of people are continually claiming. While there are other countless examples of stupidity and incompentence by FEMA and other government agencies, the flood wall collapse cannot legitimately be blamed on Bush or his minions.

Word is already filtering out that homeowners in the more upscale areas of New Orleans are planning to sue the government for the loss of their homes. Just what we need, a bunch of frivolous lawsuits from homeowners that will be compensated from their homeowner's policies. And in the end the lawyers will make all of the money anyway


It has been stated that the still unknown thousands that probably died in New Orleans did so because they had no means of evacuation. In many cases this is undoubtedly true and in many others it is quite clear that those that died did do because of their own ill-informed, misguided, or just plain bad decisions.

A. Many people that didn't evacuate did have personal vehicles to do so, but didn't have the money to purchase enough gasoline or to stay in any type of lodging once they left the city. It was the end of the month and the many people on public assistance had not received their monthly checks, which could have paid for gasoline and some lodging.

B. As more and more evacuated survivors are being interviewed by the media, many of them are telling stories of family members that refused to evacuate for a wide variety of reasons:

  1. They had "ridden out" numerous hurricanes before and were confident they could survive Katrina.

  2. Many refused to leave without their pets and many shelters would not allow pets. One elderly couple that was refused entry to a shelter because of their pet returned to their home and died in the storm.

  3. Many people were scared to leave their homes and personal belongings behind and were afraid of losing it to looters after the storm.

  4. Many people didn't believe the "media hype" of what could happen when a Category 4 or 5 storm hit New Orleans. And as many people have noted, the city did survive the storm itself relatively intact. It was the collapse of the flood walls that has caused all subsequent death and damage.

  5. Many residents that refused to leave were people whose families have lived in New Orleans for generations and the city is all they had ever known. A fear of the unknown outside the city probably contributed to their staying in the city during the storm.

And now, as rescuers are reaching more parts of the city they are running into many people that still refuse to leave their homes, even after explaining to them that they will undoubtedly get sick and die from the contaminated flood waters. So even if an adequate, effective, and timely pre-storm evacuation had been mounted, many people still would have died from their refusal to take advantage of any available evacuation.


As I sat and watched TV coverage last week of the horror in New Orleans, I kept asking myself why government officials (city, state, or federal) didn't use every available municipal bus and school bus to evacuate those that wanted to leave before the storm. Yes, it would have been difficult logistically and they may not have found drivers for all of the available buses, but at least many thousands of people would have been able to escape and would still be alive today. If an 18-year old kid, with no previous experience driving a bus, could drive a school bus full of people from New Orleans all the way to Houston by himself, anything is possible. That kid is a true hero.

There will no doubt be a huge inquiry as to what did and didn't happen in New Orleans and I look forward to hearing the excuses as to why the "Great Katrina Bus Lift" didn't happen.


Before Katrina had hit New Orleans, FEMA people were all over the media telling everyone how they would rapidly respond to the storm. We all know how long it took the government (and is still taking them in some areas) to provide food and water to the SuperDome, the Convention Center, and other areas (I-10 overpasses)where large groups of people were gathered, but:

A. Why were Wal-Mart and Hyatt Hotels able to get truck loads of food and water to the city from out-of-state before the government? And what happened to all of the "pre-positioned" supplies that Michael Brown bragged about in many interviews?

B. Why were all of the major media outlets easily able to get into many parts of the city days before any government help arrived?

C. How could FEMA NOT know that there were thousands of people at the convention center without food or water when it was being reported all over the media, including FOX News (the Bush News Channel)? And why did some National Guard troops prevent some people from using supplies in the convention center's kitchen freezers to feed people? These people, that had cooking experience, were only trying to prepare meals for these victims but were stopped from doing so. The food was thawing out anyway and would be a total loss. It was wasted.

D. Why weren't pallets of food and water lowered from cargo slings below military helicopters to people at the Convention Center? Someone from the military was asked the same question and he responded that "FEMA hadn't asked them to." So they sat around waiting for orders that never came and that has been reported from numerous active duty military units in surrounding states that could have responded quickly.

E. Why did the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort not set sail from Baltimore until Thursday of last week when the government knew a week earlier that Katrina was going to hit somewhere on the Gulf coast?

F. Why did the USS Bataan, a 844-foot ship designed to dispatch Marines in amphibious assaults, sit off of New Orleans underutilized until Labor Day? The ship has helicopters, doctors, hospital beds, food and water. It also can make up to 100,000 gallons of its own drinking water a day. The Bataan rode out the storm and then followed it toward shore, awaiting relief orders. Helicopter pilots flying from its deck were some of the first to begin saving New Orleans residents from rooftops, etc. The Bataan's hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, has sat empty for days. A good share of its 1,200 sailors, that could also go ashore to help with the relief effort, sat idle for days because they hadn't been asked to help.

"Could we do more?" said Capt. Nora Tyson, commander of the Bataan. "Sure. I've got sailors who could be on the beach plucking through garbage or distributing water and food and stuff. But I can't force myself on people.

G. Why did FEMA Director Brown tell people that they would have to rely on the Red Cross and other local organizations for relief until the feds could get into town after the Homeland Security Department insisted that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans? HSD's excuse was that Red Cross relief efforts would encourage people to stay in the city. According to Renita Hosler, spokeswoman for the Red Cross, "Right now access is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities. We have been at the table every single day [asking for access]. We cannot get into New Orleans against their orders." Idiot point for Brownie!

Tell that to the people that endured the horrible conditions at the Super Dome, the Convention Center, and the I-10 overpasses.

H. Why was FEMA Director Michael Brown so surprised by the lawlessness that took place in New Orleans? Appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," the FEMA director said he "never thought I'd see" the lawlessness that has overtaken the city and interrupted emergency relief efforts. "It's heartbreaking and very, very frustrating to me from a broad operational perspective," he said.

Hello? This is New Orleans, the city that had a rising murder rate for the two years previous to the hurricane. And you didn't expect lawlessness? Another idiot point for Brownie!

I. Why were military helicopter relief flights halted because a few pot shots were taken at them? It's not that I want to see any of our military personnel injured or killed while attempting a rescue, but isn't that what the military does? Goes in under fire? And why didn't they put snipers on the helicopters to return fire and take those "lawless" folks out? That would have made Pat Robertson happy!


The stories are still coming out, and will for some time, about some of the mind-boggling decisions made by FEMA personnel in stopping relief efforts that were undertaken by businesses and local citizens. FEMA:

  • Turned back three trailer trucks of water in New Orleans.

  • Ordered the Coast Guard not to provide emergency diesel fuel and cut emergency power and telephone lines.

  • Ordered local citizens in Mississippi to stop clearing roads with their own equipment.

  • Brought 1,400 firefighters to Atlanta, GA to be trained in handing out fliers in hurricane impacted areas. The firefighters spent an entire day being trained on how to hand out fliers and the training also included a sexual-harassment course. Fifty of them were quickly flown to Louisiana to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas. What a waste of trained rescuers for a stupid photo-op!


As time goes on, more and more stories of the good and bad that happened in the week after Hurricane Katrina will continue to come out. History has repeatedly shown that disasters of any kind bring out the best and the worst in people. And while many stories of heroism and bravery came out last week, stories are now starting to come out from survivors about some of the disgusting behavior exhibited by would-be rescuers. We will be subjected to numerous books, nauseating, sappy interviews on Dateline, 20/20, and Larry King Live for months to come. Movies will be rushed into production and onto TV and into theaters.

The White House blame game will continue in an effort to deflect from its incompentence in providing timely relief to the area.

But for all of the critics of the post-Katrina relief effort, let's be realistic about the capabilities of any government, even one as large as ours. Providing relief to an area that is 90,000 square miles is an incredible, daunting task. And the natural, logical progression of providing relief to a large disaster area is to first deliver help to areas where the largest amount of people are located. A mayor of a very rural town interviewed on CNN said that FEMA stood for "Forget Everyone Except Metropolitan Areas." And Randi Rhodes on Air America Radio redefined FEMA as standing for "Failure to Effectively Manage Anything." It's an important point that needs to be addressed in the future, but it's virtually impossible to rapidly deliver aid simultaneously to everyone over such a large area that has suffered severed communications systems and major transportation arteries.


As preparations are being made to completely drain the city; rescue remaining survivors; recover the thousands of bodies that remain in flooded houses; and to dispose of the millions of tons of debris, a debate is already starting about how New Orleans should be rebuilt. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert made some very ill-timed comments about what should be done about rebuilding New Orleans "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," said Hastert in an interview about New Orleans last Wednesday with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. Asked in the interview whether it made sense to spend billions rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, he replied, "I don't know. That doesn't make sense to me."

There is no doubt that New Orleans will be rebuilt, but Hastert does bring up some important points about how the city should be rebuilt. Any civil engineer will tell you that New Orleans never should have been built where it was and that centuries of development eroded natural barriers around the city that could have better absorbed the huge storm surge. Tens of thousands of homes sitting in polluted water for over a week are a total loss and will have to be destroyed. What to do with all of that debris is an unfathomable logistical nightmare all by itself.

New Orleans is a city that is vital to our economy and there is no doubt that it's port infrastructure needs to be rebuilt as soon as possible. But should homes located in the lowest lying areas of New Orleans be rebuilt at a cost of billions of our tax dollars? It makes no sense to rebuild in these areas, if at all, unless the flood control/prevention systems protecting these areas are improved to such a degree that it is virutally guaranteed what happened last week will never happen again. Many New Orleans residents have already said they will not return to the area. They've lost everything they owned; didn't have insurance; and have no reason to return to the area.

There will undoubtedly be an effort by developers to grab land made available by the flooding and displacement or death of their owners and redevelop it with more upscale dwellings. Louisiana has been rife with corruption for years, so why should things change now? One thing the state and federal government can do is to quickly enact legal protections that may not currently exist to protect displaced homeowners from having their land seized in the ongoing recovery and rebuilding efforts.


As in any disaster of any significant magnitude, there are too many reasons that things can go horribly wrong afterwards. And while some people are still trying to focus on one or two things to blame the needless deaths on, it's not a realistic path to continue on. For many horrible reasons, too many people died last week and will continue to die as the relief response continues. The incompetent response of the Bush Administration has been one of the biggest humiliations this country has ever seen. And now our fearless leader is going to lead an investigation into his own failures. Way to go "W!" But should we really be surprised?

If Bush supporters don't wake up and realize that they have been supporting one of the most evil, divisive, uncaring, and moronic presidents in our history, then they are obviously brain dead themselves. Bush and his cast of slimy characters need to go! Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Rove, Chertoff and the others have consistently demonstrated for years that they don't care about anyone NOT like them. As in Iraq, they lied and too many died.

And their vacations and shopping sprees while our own citizens died says it all.

Larry Peck
Atlanta, GA

Overall, I think Larry makes good points, but I do have some disagreements with him:

  • I think the distinction he makes between "levees" and "flood control walls" is misleading, and actually misconstrues something. It is true that flood walls are what failed, not levees -- and when I wrote about levees being breached it was during the chaos of that first night, when information was hard to come by -- but that's an engineering distinction, and in popular parlance "levees" are a shorthand way of referring to the entire flood control system in and around New Orleans and southern Louisiana. That Bush drastically cut the budget for the Army Corps of Engineers in that area is indisputable, and that money, if it had gone through, would have both help improve the flood control system in general but would also have improved the ability of the ACE to respond to the disaster.

    No responsible person is claiming that the Bush budget cuts directly caused the flooding of New Orleans, nor is anyone denying that many, many decades of flood control policy contributed to the depletion of the coastal wetlands which failed to slow down Katrina as much as they might have, but Bush's policy, both about wetland development and about cutbacks to the ACE budget, certainly contributed in a significant way to the scope of the disaster and to the quality of the response.

  • I think Larry comes perilously close to blaming the victims by his emphasis on people who stayed in New Orleans when they could have left. At this point -- when no one at any level of government has any clear idea of how many stayed, who they were and what there motivations were, let alone how many of them died from the malfeasance of the Bush administration's pathetic initial reponse and other factors, it is dangerous to make any broad assumptions about the causes due to which tens of thousands of people wound up staying in New Orleans. Once they stayed, there was a humanitarian obligation for them to be fairly dealt with, to be rescued from the plight they were in , whether or not they put themselves in harm's way for reasons that Larry agrees with or not.

  • I understand the impulse to lash out at local authorities for not responding quickly and efficiently to the disaster, but I think blaming them for this completely overlooks the scope and nature of the disaster and the way it progressed. It seems that once the storm had past, the initial response was that New Orleans had dodged a bullet: the storm hadn't been the category 5 everyone had feared, but had downgraded to category 4, and it hadn't hit in the worst possible way -- with the northeast quadrant passing over Lake Ponchartrain -- but had moved off farther to the east. I myself commented to my wife that it looked as if the worst of the nightmare scenario wasn't going to happen: there was only minor flooding in the city, not the 20' in the French Quarter that might have happened.

    Then the flood control system failed, and water started to pour in, rising at the rate of something like 1 foot per hour. Up until this happened, the city was basically dry, except for one district (the lower 9th ward), the evacuees at the Superdome were inconvenienced and scared but basically safe, and those who stayed in their homes were not apparently in immediate danger. Presumably it is at this point that critics such as Larry would have had the mayor of New Orleans and other local officials mount a massive evacuation, but until the flood walls came down, there was no obvious reason that a massive evacuation was necessary, and once they came down, the water rose at a very fast rate.

    Not only that, but to mount such an evacuation requires some sort of command and control system to be in place, and the infrastructure of official control has been decimated by the storm. With no power, and no communications, how, exactly, were local officials supposed to mount this evacuation that is being retroactively demanded of them, even supposing that they knew one was necessary?

    I don't agree with every action taken by Mayor Nagin, but -- as I wrote earlier -- given the immensity of the stuation that had been set down upon them, I think it's only right to give them the benefit of several thousand doubts.

    The fact that local officials are overwhelmed by a disaster is the very reason that we have FEMA, the job of which is to mount an immediate, coordinated Federal response to a devastating event which cannot be dealt with by the locals. So I'm in no way in favor of spreading the blame around, playing into the loathsome spin program of the Bush administration: the player at fault here is almost solely the Federal government, and we know where the buck stops there.

  • Concerning lawlessness -- remember this is the same administration that had no plan to deal with the lawlessness that was the immediate response to the fall of Baghdad and the overthrow of Saddam. Their response to New Orleans is completely in line with their lack of preparedness for the easily predicted chaos in Iraq.

  • No one (at least no one reasonable) believes that an immediate and effective Federal response to Katrina would have turned an awful situation into a bed of roses. People would still have died, we would still be feeling the economic impact of so many people out of work and homeless, there would still be an overwhelming job of rebuilding to do throughout the Gulf coast -- but because the scope and scale of the devastation is so extreme and unprecedented, every hour lost is an hour when things can start to go from very bad to even worse. The most that could have been expected is that small steps would be taken to start the massive relief program going, but those steps would have been tremendously heartening to everyone, and the sense of despair and disconnection would perhaps have been held back to some degree.

  • As a matter of timing and delicacy, it's much too early to discuss how and in what way New Orleans should be rebuilt, not to mention whether it should be rebuilt at all. That time will come when the rescue and recovery effort is winding down, not now.

I want to thank Larry for sharing his thoughts with me.

Update: Because he didn't mention it in his initial letter to me, I was unaware that Larry's comments were taken from his weblog, Barrels of Blood. You'll find them here, and Larry writes that he plans to update them to clarify his meaning. (I've added a link above as well.)

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/06/2005 10:32:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Monday, September 05, 2005

Lethal ineptitude and ideological paralysis


We moved from chaos to organized chaos.
New Orleans Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley

Krugman nails it:

Experts say that the first 72 hours after a natural disaster are the crucial window during which prompt action can save many lives. Yet action after Katrina was anything but prompt. Newsweek reports that a "strange paralysis" set in among Bush administration officials, who debated lines of authority while thousands died.

What caused that paralysis? President Bush certainly failed his test. After 9/11, all the country really needed from him was a speech. This time it needed action - and he didn't deliver.

But the federal government's lethal ineptitude wasn't just a consequence of Mr. Bush's personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn't forthcoming?

[Thanks to Peggy]

As does Rob Salkowitz on Emphasis Added (via Shakespeare's Sister):

Natural disasters are great community-building events. Who among us can look at the pictures from the Mississippi Delta and not wonder what we would do in the same situation? Empathy for the victims and a desire to help represent the best of human emotions. And as the Federal Government is the instrument of the American people, there is a strong emotional desire to see those resources mobilized to do good.

This presents a problem for the political party whose philosophy is rooted in “limited government.” As Matt Yglesias put it this morning, just as “there are no atheists in foxholes… there are no libertarians in the midst of a giant, city-wide flood.”

Bush and his people obviously understand the politics here, and he’s trying to go through the motions. The problem is, when you don’t actually believe in your heart that it really is the government’s business to intervene, it’s hard to put across the necessary urgency in your words and deeds. I didn’t see Bush’s first speech on Katrina, but if it got panned at the very conservative NRO’s Corner blog, it must have been a stinking wet turd of historic proportions. White House press secretary Scott McClellan seemed to insist that looting was a bigger problem than getting aid to the victims. Even the RNC website was a little late in recognizing what was going on.

And it’s not just Bush. Everyone talking about this on the right can’t seem to quite get the lingo down. Homeland security czar Michael Chertoff, in an interview on Fox yesterday, sounded as if he was blaming the victims for their inability to get out – a point that would be heartless even if true, but especially egregious given that most of the people couldn’t leave because they couldn’t afford to (no one is better at making this point than Steve Gilliard). Fox even dug up some economist whose “this isn’t our problem” rap appalled Neil Cavuto, the business show host not conspicuous for his fondness for the Federal government. And this is to say nothing of the usual “this is God’s punishment for tolerating gays and feminists” hate spewing from the so-called religious community.

It’s moments like this when you need a party in power that actually believes in the affirmative power of government to help its citizens, rather than the party that sees government’s role as protecting the property of the well-off from the predations of the underclass. It’s when the true ugly soul of American conservatism is borne out for what it is: a rationalization of selfishness and the hysterical denial of community. America is about to see what happens when the government is staffed by people appointed to their jobs precisely for their disdain for the whole notion of policy in the public interest. It’s won’t be pretty. [Emphasis added -- Ed]

I guess my point here is that liberals should try to avoid the temptation of blaming the hurricane damage itself on Bush, because claims like that, even if undergirded by a certain framework of truth, sound petty and arrogant. However, it is both appropriate and necessary to draw continuous contrast between the shocking tone-deafness and ineptness of conservatism, and the real value of government when people really need it.

[Thanks to Trish for the pointer]

It's hardly a thought that's original with me, but it's clear that what we will need, after the immediate concerns of rescue and clearing the flood are met, is a massive program that deals with putting what is perhaps a million unemployed and homeless people to work rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf. We need the contemporary equivalent of the Civilian Conservation Corps that put unemployed men to work during the Depression building infrastructure: roads, bridges, dams, buildings and so on. These people need to be housed, organized, instructed, supervised and given the tools to rebuild their lives and their communuities -- and the opportunity to do so.

Such a plan is (obviously) completely out of the realm of the possible with Bush and the right in power, and by the time the next President of the United States, a Democrat, takes office, it will (probably) be too late for such a program to do much good. By then, Haliburton will have the contract to do the job.

Update: An open letter to Bush from the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Dear Mr. President:

We heard you loud and clear Friday when you visited our devastated city and the Gulf Coast and said, "What is not working, we’re going to make it right."

Please forgive us if we wait to see proof of your promise before believing you. But we have good reason for our skepticism.

Bienville built New Orleans where he built it for one main reason: It’s accessible. The city between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain was easy to reach in 1718.

How much easier it is to access in 2005 now that there are interstates and bridges, airports and helipads, cruise ships, barges, buses and diesel-powered trucks.

Despite the city’s multiple points of entry, our nation’s bureaucrats spent days after last week’s hurricane wringing their hands, lamenting the fact that they could neither rescue the city’s stranded victims nor bring them food, water and medical supplies.

Meanwhile there were journalists, including some who work for The Times-Picayune, going in and out of the city via the Crescent City Connection. On Thursday morning, that crew saw a caravan of 13 Wal-Mart tractor trailers headed into town to bring food, water and supplies to a dying city.

Television reporters were doing live reports from downtown New Orleans streets. Harry Connick Jr. brought in some aid Thursday, and his efforts were the focus of a "Today" show story Friday morning.

Yet, the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach.

We’re angry, Mr. President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.

Mayor Ray Nagin did the right thing Sunday when he allowed those with no other alternative to seek shelter from the storm inside the Louisiana Superdome. We still don’t know what the death toll is, but one thing is certain: Had the Superdome not been opened, the city’s death toll would have been higher. The toll may even have been exponentially higher.

It was clear to us by late morning Monday that many people inside the Superdome would not be returning home. It should have been clear to our government, Mr. President. So why weren’t they evacuated out of the city immediately? We learned seven years ago, when Hurricane Georges threatened, that the Dome isn’t suitable as a long-term shelter. So what did state and national officials think would happen to tens of thousands of people trapped inside with no air conditioning, overflowing toilets and dwindling amounts of food, water and other essentials?

State Rep. Karen Carter was right Friday when she said the city didn’t have but two urgent needs: "Buses! And gas!" Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially.

In a nationally televised interview Thursday night, he said his agency hadn’t known until that day that thousands of storm victims were stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He gave another nationally televised interview the next morning and said, "We’ve provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they’ve gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day."

Lies don’t get more bald-faced than that, Mr. President.

Yet, when you met with Mr. Brown Friday morning, you told him, "You’re doing a heck of a job."

That’s unbelievable.

There were thousands of people at the Convention Center because the riverfront is high ground. The fact that so many people had reached there on foot is proof that rescue vehicles could have gotten there, too.

We, who are from New Orleans, are no less American than those who live on the Great Plains or along the Atlantic Seaboard. We’re no less important than those from the Pacific Northwest or Appalachia. Our people deserved to be rescued.

No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced. Especially not one as preposterous as the claim that New Orleans couldn’t be reached.

Mr. President, we sincerely hope you fulfill your promise to make our beloved communities work right once again.

When you do, we will be the first to applaud.

It would not have fundamentally changed my opinion of him, but if Bush's response to the Katrina disaster had been fast and appropriate, I would have given him full marks and a modicum of respect for it, just as I did for Rudy Guiliani -- a man I disliked almost as much -- in the aftermath of 9/11, when he provided strong and approprate leadership. Unfortuntely for the victims of the hurricane, and for our entire country, Bush was not equal to the task, and his government unable, unwilling and ideologically unpredisposed to give the kind of help that was needed.

And just where, as Keith Olbermann asks, is Cheney in all of this? The fabulous disappearing [vice-]president seems to have disappeared again.

Update (9/6): Well, now we'll surely get some answers about why the Bush administration's response to Katrina was so late and so lacking. I mean, who better to determine why Bush's appointees and Bush's advisors and Bush's cabinet secretaries completely screwed the pooch than the President of the United States himself, George W. Bush? Surely you've got to go to the top to find out why the guy at the top, and everyone under him, can't do the job, right?

This is today's fox guarding the hen house moment. I hope it sounds as ludicrous to the majority of Americans as it does to me.

I eagerly await the results of Bush's investigation. I understand he's going to use the same investigative team that OJ used to look for the real killer of his ex-wife.

Not everyone may be mollified by the Bush investigation:

Local officials bitterly expressed frustration with the federal government's sluggish response as the tragedy unfolded.

"Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area. And bureaucracy needs to stand trial before Congress today," Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, said on CBS' "The Early Show."

"So I'm asking Congress, please investigate this now. Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don't give me the same idiot."

Surely the idiot at the top needs to be changed, but not just at FEMA, and blaming the bureacracy doesn't get at the root of the problem: bureaucracies know how to operate in ways that are well-defined, either under normal circumstances or in extremis. If the proper response to a new situation hasn't been planned beforehand, a bureacracy doesn't know what to do, that's just the nature of the beast. That they didn't isn't a failure of the bureacracy, it's a failure of the bureacracy's leadership. And to compound that failure, the other thing that can be done is to throw out the rulebook and improvise, but only a strong leader at the top can do that -- preferably as high up the ladder as it is possible to get, because the higher up, the more juice, and the more juice, the more the bureaucracy jumps.

So don't blame the file clerks and the middle managers, the fish stinks from the head.

Update (Wed 9/7 1:15am): As I've said over and over again, these people have absolutely no shame. They continue to try to shift the blame from the Federal government, which is totally controlled by Republicans, to local authorities.:

DeLay: Onus for emergency response starts with locals

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House majority leader late Tuesday tried to deflect criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina by saying "the emergency response system was set up to work from the bottom up," then announced a short time later that House hearings examining that response had been canceled.

Now, if FEMA had mobilized the needed massive response and were prevented from entering the disaster area because mayors and governors refused to let them come in, DeLay might have a point, if a pedantic and legalistic one, but nothing like that happened. What happened, in fact, was that the local authorities requested Federal action before the storm even hit, which means there was nothing preventing FEMA doing its job except incompetence, ineptitude and the ideological predisposition of Bush and his handlers and appointees not to use the power of the government to help people and solve problems.

Update (4:56am): They're really flailing around looking for someone to pin this on. Their campaign to blame local authorities isn't catching fire, and, in fact, is stirring up a lot of resentment -- if there's any government that people feel protective about, it's their local government; they feel perfectly free to bitch about it, but just let outsiders do so, and that's a different matter -- so they've got another ready-made scapegoat handy:

"Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people," Bush said after meeting at the White House with his Cabinet on storm recovery efforts.

This may get some traction, because it's undoubtedly true that the bureaucracy didn't do a good job. But why didn't they? Because there was no one to light a fire under them and ride herd on their efforts. There was no one at the higest level saying "drop everything, and get this done ... now, or heads will roll," or whatever else was needed to get them moving. There was no one parting the red tape, kicking butt and taking names.

But what if the blame-the-bureaucracy gambit fails, just as the blame-the-local-authorities one did? I wonder if they'll turn to their old standby, the one that they never fail to turn to whenever they can: blame Bill Clinton.

People died because they couldn't get it right. People died because they didn't deliver on their promise.
George Haddow
FEMA Deputy Chief of Staff under James Lee Witt,
on FEMA's response to Katrina

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/05/2005 09:00:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


take all you want
but credit all you take.

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