With state, local, and federal officials still grappling with the extent of the devastation and human suffering inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and points east, suggestions that the already plunging political standing of President George W. Bush could also be a major casualty of the disaster have begun taking hold.
While few observers underestimate the Bush team’s proven ability to seize the political initiative, particularly in times of crisis, as in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the fact that the kind of destruction wreaked by Katrina was both predictable and indeed actually predicted and avoidable gives the president’s foes much more ammunition than they had after 9/11.
The soaring costs of the Iraq war, combined with Bush’s huge tax cuts and a dangerously narrow definition of "homeland security," translated directly into sharp reductions in the amount of government money that was made available for the battered area’s hurricane- and flood-control projects over the last several years, according to a series of articles published in 2004 and 2005 by New Orleans’ largest-circulation newspaper, The Times-Picayune.
"No one can say they didn’t see it coming," reported Newhouse News Service in an article posted earlier this week at the Web site of the Times-Picayune, which has been unable to print since its presses were submerged by the floodwaters that still cover an estimated 80 percent of New Orleans. "Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation."
In addition, the Bush administration’s effective downgrading of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which had won considerable praise for its performance in natural disasters during the 1990s, as well as the absence of at least one-third of the National Guard forces and their equipment for the two hardest-hit states, Louisiana and Mississippi, due to their deployment to Iraq, will also provide grist to the political mill in the coming days and weeks.
"Even before Hurricane Katrina, governors were beginning to question whether National Guard units stretched to the breaking point by service in Iraq would be available for domestic emergencies," noted The New York Times Thursday. "Those concerns have now been amplified by scenes of looting and disorder."
So far, hundreds and possibly thousands, according to the mayor of New Orleans of mostly poor people, who were either unwilling or unable to evacuate the city before Katrina hit landfall Monday, are believed to have died as a result of the storm. Well over one million people have been displaced from their homes and are unlikely to be able to return for many weeks, if not months.
While rescue and evacuation operations for the tens of thousands of people who remain stranded in New Orleans and surrounding areas continue, FEMA and local officials say it is far too early to put a dollar figure on the damages caused by the Category Five hurricane, although preliminary estimates have surpassed $20 billion.
Those costs, however, do not include the much greater collateral damage caused by the disruption of the shipping, trucking, and rail lines that transport agricultural goods, lumber products, and manufactured goods to and from the Middle West along the Mississippi River, as well as the shutdown of at least nine oil refineries in the Gulf area.
The resulting increase in prices for covering everything from gasoline already at historic highs to imported coffee is certain to act as a brake on the economy that had recently showed signs of renewed strength.
"Hurricane Andrew [in 1992] was a destructive hurricane, the most destructive of the past 30 or 40 years," Bruce Kasman, an economist at JP Morgan Chase Bank, told the Wall Street Journal. "But if you look at the macro-economy, it had negligible effect. What may make this even unique: It does have the potential to do some real damage to the flow of oil and to the flow of goods up the Mississippi."
Bush, who was already under attack even by some of his own supporters for taking off virtually all of August to stay at his Texas ranch before Katrina hit, returned to Washington last night after flying low over the devastated region, and immediately delivered what the Times called "one of the worst speeches of his life" that consisted mainly of "a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators, and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast."
On Thursday morning, he appeared on an ABC public-affairs program, describing the destruction, promising aid, and arguing, as his administration did after 9/11, that the disaster, in New Orleans in particular, could not have been foreseen.
"I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," he said. "They did appreciate a serious storm but these levees got breached and as a result much of New Orleans is flooded and now we’re having to deal with it and will."
This was much the same message of some of Bush’s strongest supporters, notably the Journal‘s editorial page, which was quick to reject the notion that global warming had anything to do with the intensity of the storm or that the administration could have done anything in time to have prevented the flooding.
"Right now, the lesson chiefly worth noting," it wrote, "is also the most obvious: All the cunning of man cannot defeat the greatest fury of nature."
But it is precisely this contention that is now coming under scrutiny. In a much-circulated article in the newspaper trade journal Editor & Publisher (E&P) entitled "Did New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen?," author Will Bunch noted that the Times-Picayune had consistently reported over the past several years that the administration had slashed tens of million dollars for hurricane- and flood-control projects, and, in nine articles, had related the cuts explicitly to the unanticipated costs of the Iraq War.
"After 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward [the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA] dropped to a trickle," according to the article. "The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security coming at the same time as federal tax cuts was the reason for the strain."
On June 8, 2004, according to the E&P report, the emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Walter Maestri, complained to the Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money [proposed by the Corps of Engineers for SELA] 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 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."
The Corps’ project manager, Al Naomi, was quoted at the same time as warning that "the levees are sinking and if we don’t get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can’t stay ahead of the settlement. 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."
Members of the Louisiana congressional delegation also repeatedly called on the administration to restore funding to the Corps to strengthen the levees and other coastal protection measures but were repeatedly rebuffed, according to other accounts.
Despite the increased frequency of hurricanes in 2003 and 2004, Bush earlier this year requested only $10.4 million for SELA’s hurricane-protection project, a sixth of what local officials had said they needed, according to Newhouse News.
(Inter Press Service)