The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina may not be entirely the result of an act of nature. After a flood killed six people in 1995, Congress created the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project. The Corps of Engineers strengthened and renovated the levees and pumping stations. In 2001, when George Bush became president, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued a report stating that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely potential disasters—after a terrorist attack on New York City (and a San Francisco earthquake). But in 2004, the Bush administration cut the Corps of Engineers’ budget request for beefing up the levees that protect the city by more than 80%. By the beginning of this year, additional cuts forced the Corps to impose a hiring freeze. The Senate debated adding funds for fixing levees, but it was too late. Last year, the US Army Corps of Engineers proposed a study on how New Orleans could be protected from a catastrophic hurricane, but the Bush administration nixed the idea.
Before the hurricane, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a series on the federal funding problem. Now, editorializing in an online edition (its presses are all underwater): “No one can say they didn’t see it coming… Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation.”
The Bush administration policy of turning over wetlands to developers also likely contributed to the disaster. In 1990, a federal task force began restoring lost wetlands around New Orleans, finding that every two miles of wetland between New Orleans and the Gulf reduces a storm surge by half a foot. Bush had promised to continue his predessors’ “no net loss” wetland policy. But he reversed the policy in 2003, unleashing the developers. The Corps and the EPA announced they could no longer protect wetlands unless they were somehow related to interstate commerce. In response to this potential crisis, four leading environmental groups (Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Earthjustice, National Wildlife Federation) conducted a study that concluded in 2004 that without wetlands protection New Orleans could be devastated by an ordinary—much less a category four or five—hurricane. “There’s no way to describe how mindless a policy that is when it comes to wetlands protection,” said one of the report’s authors (NRDC senior attorney Daniel Rosenberg, WP, Aug. 12, 2004). The chairman of the White House’s council on environmental quality dismissed the study as “highly questionable,” and boasted: “Everybody loves what we’re doing.” (Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, in the UK Guardian, Sept. 2)
On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”
Also that June, with the 2004 hurricane season starting, the Corps’ project manager Al Naomi went before a local agency, the East Jefferson Levee Authority, and implored for $2 million for urgent work that Washington was now unable to pay for. From the June 18, 2004 Times-Picayune: “The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don’t get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can’t stay ahead of the settlement,” he said. “The problem that we have isn’t that the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that we can’t raise them.”
The panel authorized that money, and on July 1, 2004, it had to pony up another $250,000 when it learned that stretches of the levee in Metairie had sunk by four feet. The 2004 hurricane season was the worst in decades, but the federal government came back this spring with the steepest reduction in hurricane and flood-control funding for New Orleans in the city’s history.
An Aug. 30 Newhouse News Service article stated: “The Louisiana congressional delegation urged Congress earlier this year to dedicate a stream of federal money to Louisiana’s coast, only to be opposed by the White House. … In its budget, the Bush administration proposed a significant reduction in funding for southeast Louisiana’s chief hurricane protection project. Bush proposed $10.4 million, a sixth of what local officials say they need.” Local officials are now saying that had Washington heeded their warnings about the dire need for hurricane protection, the article said, “the damage might not have been nearly as bad as it turned out to be.” (Will Bunch for Editor & Publisher, Aug. 31, via TruthOut)
Writes Molly Ivins in a Sept. 1 column, “Why New Orleans is in Deep Water”:
To use a fine Southern word, it’s tacky to start playing the blame game before the dead are even counted. It is not too soon, however, to make a point that needs to be hammered home again and again, and that is that government policies have real consequences in people’s lives.
This is not “just politics” or blaming for political advantage. This is about the real consequences of what governments do and do not do about their responsibilities. And about who winds up paying the price for those policies…
One of the main reasons New Orleans is so vulnerable to hurricanes is the gradual disappearance of the wetlands on the Gulf Coast that once stood as a natural buffer between the city and storms coming in from the water… Many environmentalists will tell you more than a century’s interference with the natural flow of the Mississippi is the root cause of the problem, cutting off the movement of alluvial soil to the river’s delta.
But in addition to long-range consequences of long-term policies like letting the Corps of Engineers try to build a better river than God, there are real short-term consequences, as well. It is a fact that the Clinton administration set some tough policies on wetlands, and it is a fact that the Bush administration repealed those policies—ordering federal agencies to stop protecting as many as 20 million acres of wetlands… Bush took his little ax and chopped $71.2 million from the budget of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers, a 44 percent reduction. As was reported in New Orleans CityBusiness at the time, that meant “major hurricane and flood projects will not be awarded to local engineering firms. Also, a study to determine ways to protect the region from a Category 5 hurricane has been shelved for now.”
The commander of the corps’ New Orleans district also immediately instituted a hiring freeze and canceled the annual corps picnic.
Our friends at the Center for American Progress note the Office of Technology Assessment used to produce forward-thinking plans such as “Floods: A National Policy Concern” and “A Framework for Flood Hazards Management.” Unfortunately, the office was targeted by Newt Gingrich and the Republican right, and gutted years ago.
In fact, there is now a governmentwide movement away from basing policy on science, expertise and professionalism, and in favor of choices based on ideology. If you’re wondering what the ideological position on flood management might be, look at the pictures of New Orleans—it seems to consist of gutting the programs that do anything.
Unfortunately, the war in Iraq is directly related to the devastation left by the hurricane. About 35 percent of Louisiana’s National Guard is now serving in Iraq, where four out of every 10 soldiers are guardsmen. Recruiting for the Guard is also down significantly because people are afraid of being sent to Iraq if they join, leaving the Guard even more short-handed.
The Louisiana National Guard also notes that dozens of its high-water vehicles, Humvees, refuelers and generators have also been sent abroad. (I hate to be picky, but why do they need high-water vehicles in Iraq?)…
This, friends, is why we need to pay attention to government policies, not political personalities, and to know whereon we vote. It is about our lives. (Via TruthOut)
See our last post on Katrina’s aftermath.