EDITOR’S NOTE: We recommend that
our readers print out this incisive special report and read it in print.
The author is an award-winning syndicated columnist, professor of
journalism, and a former emergency management official. This article is an
in-depth look at the Bush policies that created the atmosphere not only
for an ineffective FEMA
response during the Katrina catastrophe, but which may have contributed to
additional property destruction and deaths than should have occurred.
In late afternoon, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2005, the National Weather Service began tracking a tropical depression in the Atlantic about 175 miles southeast of the Bahamas. Moving quickly, it turned west and crossed into southern Florida two days later as a Category 1 hurricane, bringing with it almost a foot of rain. Now known as Katrina, it entered the Gulf of Mexico, where it quickly picked up speed and intensity from the warmer water. By Saturday evening, it was a Category 3 hurricane, and there was no doubt it would inflict significant damage when it hit the Gulf Coast. By mid-morning, Sunday, Aug. 28, with winds of 175 miles per hour, about 250 miles from the Mississippi River, it became a Category 5 hurricane, the most intense on the Saffir–Simpson scale. In more than a century of recording hurricanes, Katrina was only the fourth with that much force to be so close to the American shore. No longer was it a question of whether or not it would hit the Gulf Coast, it was with how much intensity. The target was New Orleans.
The New Orleans office of the National Weather Service issued a warning that if Katrina was at least a Category 4 hurricane when it hit land:
“Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer. All gabled roofs will fail. The majority of industrial buildings will become non-functional. All wood-framed low-rising apartment buildings will be destroyed. All windows will blow out. Power outages will last for weeks. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards. The vast majority of native trees will be snapped or uprooted. Few crops will remain.”
Shortly before hitting land early Monday morning, Katrina, bearing winds of 140 miles per hour and now labeled a Category 4 storm, veered slightly north. At first, it seemed as if New Orleans, which experienced heavy winds and rain, might have been spared from Katrina’s full fury. But the water from Lake Pontchartrain began spilling over the levees. By sunrise, Monday, the 17th Street Canal levee was breached; as others cracked, about 90 percent of the city lay beneath water as deep as 20 feet.
Along an 80-mile portion of the coast, and as much as 150 miles inland, the winds and floods had forced more than a million people to become at least temporarily homeless, the people driving north until they could find relatives, friends, hotel rooms, or just stopping when their cars and trucks ran out of gas. Thousands lost all of their possessions. Under a mandatory evacuation order issued by Mayor Ray Nagin, almost 400,000 residents evacuated New Orleans.
About 100,000 were trapped by the flood. Many had refused to leave, their lives and few possessions intertwined by their homes. Others believed they could survive, just as they survived other disasters. And, several thousand refused to leave since they were not allowed to bring their pets with them. But most were just unable to leave; they had no cars or trucks, no cash, no way to escape.
By the end of the week, almost 30,000 New Orleans residents, almost all of them poor and Black, had crowded into the Louisiana Superdome or the Convention Center. Within a day, there was no electricity, water, food, or working toilets; feces and urine poured onto the floors and the walls. The people were sweaty, tired, dehydrated, and hungry. Babies were dying from malnutrition and heat exhaustion. Thousands who couldn’t or wouldn’t abandon their shotgun and camelback houses stayed inside, trapped by the flood, climbing into the attics now exposed by holes torn by the hurricane, and endured the humidity, and the lack of adequate water, food, and sanitation. In Charity Hospital, which cares for the poor, there was no oxygen or critical care medicines; staff had to manually blow into ventilators to keep critically ill patients alive; patients who died were placed on staircases, the basement morgue having been flooded; medical and support staff, already well past their optimal endurance levels, were forced to survive on intravenous fluids for strength. And, yet, they brought their patients down as many as 12 flights of stairs so they could be evacuated. For those able to leave the flooded streets and hospitals, Louis Armstrong Airport in nearby Kenner served as an emergency combat hospital and medical evacuation center. On the streets, uncontrolled fires destroyed buildings and homes; garbage, sewage, debris, and toxic contamination mixed into the flooded streets; corpses floated in water or were propped up against walls; looters broke into stores for food, clothing, and medical supplies; others broke into gun stores; rapes and beatings went unreported; the city was in anarchy.
About 30,000 were finally bused to Houston, about 350 miles west, after suffering more than five days in the chaos that had become New Orleans. More than 220,000 were housed in mass care shelters in 17 states run by the Red Cross and other volunteer agencies. As the waters recede, there will be the nauseating reality of the deaths of thousands of pet dogs and cats; of horses, cattle, and wildlife; of what may be 500–2,000 human corpses, rotting from inattention, attacked by rats and feral animals desperate for food, on the now-dry streets and in attics. The toxic water pumped out of the city streets will kill most of the fish and plant life in Lake Pontchartrain.
Damage assessment specialists estimate the physical destruction at $100–150 billion, the largest property damage in American history. It will take almost two months for New Orleans to secure the levees and pump the water from town. Across three states, if Andrew’s destruction in Florida and Louisiana in August 1992 is any indication, it will take at least a year to clean the cities and fields of toxic contamination, several more years to secure the land and rebuild. The Red Cross and disaster relief organizations will be committed for more than a decade.
Not even George W. Bush, who believes he is the most macho of all gunslingers, could have stood at the mouth of the Mississippi River and held back the winds and floods. But, his policies during four and a half years as president led to destruction of people and property that were greater than should have been.
FAILURE TO APPRECIATE SCIENCE
Burning fossil fuels (coal and oil) is a major cause of global warming, which leads to the melting of polar ice caps, a rise in the sea levels, and warmer oceans. “It is increasingly clear that global warming makes [hurricanes] more severe and destructive,” Joseph Romm, a former official in the Clinton Administration’s Energy Department and well-regarded as one of the nation’s leading experts on energy, told Business Week. The intensity and rainfall from tropical storms and hurricanes “are probably increasing,” said Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
But, George W. Bush, first as governor of Texas and then as president, had innumerable times discounted the existence of global warming, probably because he and his vice-president have deep ties to the oil industry.
Between June and November every year, all eastern coastal areas are subject to hurricanes and intense rain and flooding. In early August, the National Weather Service had predicted twice as many storms and hurricanes than previous years hitting the U.S. Gulf and eastern coast areas during the 2005 season. NWS meteorologists had forecast 18–21 tropical storms, with 9–11 becoming hurricanes, and 5–7 of those becoming major hurricanes. Significantly warmer oceans, possibly caused by global warming, was cited as a prime reason for increased hurricane activity.
Discounting scientific evidence for political purposes is what led Russell Train, Environmental Protection Administration director under Presidents Nixon and Ford, to observe, “How radically we have moved away from regulation based on independent findings and professional analysis of scientific, health and economic data by the responsible agency to regulation controlled by the White House and driven primarily by political considerations.”
Forty-nine Nobel laureates were more brutal. In a report published in February 2004, they declared, “When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions.” Their conclusion was that “the distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends must cease.”
DESTRUCTION OF THE WETLANDS
During the 1970s, the Nixon Administration created The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Drinking Water Act. The effect of the laws was to protect the environment, including the wetlands, the areas beside streams, rivers, and lakes that absorb flood waters. When developers begin replacing wetlands with concrete and asphalt, the floodwaters have no place to go but further onto city streets. The Clinton Administration used federal funds to buy land in the flood plains and increased wetland protection, slowing commercial development. However, in January 2003, the Bush Administration eviscerated the Clinton-ordered flood plains protection. The new policy allowed development of about 20 million acres of wetlands.
In the New Orleans area, according to John Carey, writing in Business Week, “some of the developers have been oil and gas companies, which dug channels through the wetlands and sucked oil from underneath, causing the land to sink, saltwater to intrude -- and thousands of acres to submerge.”
Daniel Rosenberg, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, was blunt about Bush’s plan to reduce the wetlands -- “There’s no way to describe how mindless a policy that is.” In response, James L. Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, dismissed the scientific report that Rosenberg helped author with a dismissive, “Everybody loves what we’re doing.”
Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, former head of the Army Corps of Engineers, wasn’t one of those who loved what the Bush Administration was doing. “One of the things that always concerned me,” Flowers told MSNBC, “was the loss of the wetlands along Louisiana's coast, which was a natural storm protection.”
DIVERSION OF FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE
The New Orleans levee system protects the city against flooding from the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. But, smaller floods allow sedimentation, which prevents subsidence. Because of the levees, the city, most of it already below sea level, has been sinking. Nevertheless, the levee system was designed to sustain only a Category 3 hurricane. Under the Clinton administration, the Army Corps of Engineers spent about $500 million to upgrade the levee system and to build pumping stations. But, funding under the Bush Administration dropped significantly.
Fixated upon terrorism, the Bush Administration has neglected natural disasters which pose a greater threat to the people, and have been responsible for significantly more injuries, deaths, and property damage than all terrorist attacks, both past and projected. The improvements to the levee system couldn’t be completed by the Corps because funds for the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project were diverted to support the war in Iraq, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Walter Maestri, emergency management director for Jefferson Parish, La., frustrated about lack of funding to prepare Louisiana against a major natural disaster, told the Times-Picayune in June 2004, “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.”
In his 2006 budget, Bush slashed $71.2 million from the request by the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers, leaving the Corps with only about 20 percent of its requested budget. Killed by the budget cut was research to determine how to protect the region from a Category 5 hurricane.
“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,” Will Bunch wrote in the “Attywood” online section of the Philadelphia Daily News.
Without federal concern or assistance, Al Naomi, senior project engineer for the Corps of Engineers, went before the East Jefferson Levee Authority to plead for $2 million for urgent work that the federal government was unwilling to fund. “The system is in great shape, but 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,” he begged. The money came from an increase in property taxes. Unable to continue to raise property taxes for costs the federal government should have funded, the Levee Authority couldn’t fund another $15 million, following a rejection by the Bush Administration, to better secure the banks of Lake Pontchartrain.
Under the Bush Administration, about $800 million since 2003 in planning and analysis funds were transferred from FEMA into another part of the Department of Homeland Security, with an emphasis not upon combating natural disasters, but upon combating terrorist attacks. Federal homeland security grant funds, which local and state agencies could have spent to protect and, if needed, rescue the people against natural disasters were spent primarily for training and equipment to prevent terrorist attacks.
TIME magazine, in an eerily prophetic article in July 2000, had stated that for $14 billion, the problems of levees and wetlands could be a “complete solution.” Ironically, if the state and federal government could have funded that $14 billion, the cost would have been less than 10 percent what it would take to rebuild New Orleans.
DIVERSION OF MILITARY ASSISTANCE
During disasters -- including fires, tornadoes, and hurricanes -- the National Guard is called out to provide security, get food, water, and supplies to the victims, and assist in everything from filling sandbags to rescuing persons. But, more than 40,000 National Guard soldiers are in Iraq; over all, at least 125,000 have served in Iraq. About half of all members of the National Guard have been activated during the past four years. The Mississippi National Guard has a brigade of more than 4,000 soldiers in Iraq; about 40 percent of its soldiers are either deployed or scheduled to be deployed to Iraq. “Missing the personnel is the big thing in this particular event. We need our people,” Lt. Andy Thaggard, a spokesman for the Mississippi National Guard, told the Washington Post. There are “too many Guard in Iraq,” said Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.). A report from the Government Accounting Office in April 2004 sharply defined the problem of the country relying so heavily upon National Guard forces in Iraq:
[There are] urgent personnel and equipment shortages in units that have not yet been deployed. . . . [E]quipment and personnel may not be available to the states when they are needed because they have been deployed overseas. Moreover, the Guard may have difficulty ensuring that each state has access to units with key specialized capabilities -- such as engineering or medical assets -- needed for homeland security and other domestic missions. . . . [U]nless DOD, Congress, and the states work closely to address these challenges, Guard units may continue to experience a high pace of operations and declining readiness that could affect their ability to meet future requirements both at home and overseas.
Louisiana has about 3,700 National Guard soldiers in Iraq; Alabama has about 2,100. One month before Katrina came ashore, Lt. Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard said he was worried about the loss of his soldiers on extended deployment in Iraq. “The National Guard needs [those soldiers and] that equipment back home to support the homeland security mission,” Schneider told WGNO-TV. That equipment in Iraq included generators, Humvees, and high-water vehicles. Those soldiers and their vehicles and equipment aren’t likely to be returned to the United States to assist in rescue and recovery operations. When Mississippi’s 223rd Engineer Battalion, that state’s “first responder” for hurricanes, returned home in May 2004, it was required to leave all of its equipment in Iraq. “Everyone we have here, and every piece of equipment we have here, is needed here,” Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, senior spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, told the Washington Post.
The National Guard Bureau and countless Bush Administration officials said that among the Guard units of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, with the assistance of Guard units from several states, there are sufficient personnel. Although Mississippi initially called out about 2,000 of its soldiers, and Louisiana called out 4,000, it wasn’t enough. It was three days before the active duty military were mustered and sent into the flood zones. By the end of the week, under the glare of media spotlights that revealed the suffering and outrage of those trapped by the flood, of the chaos and anarchy, the Bush Administration promised there would be more than 40,000 Guard and active-duty military in the three states. But, even if that possibly inflated number is accurate, it isn’t enough. Patrolling the streets are hundreds of police from throughout the country -- as well as contracted mercenaries.
“Heavily armed paramilitary mercenaries from the Blackwater private security firm, infamous for their work in Iraq, are openly patrolling the streets of New Orleans,” according to Jeremy Scahill and Daniela Crespo, who interviewed several of the company’s employees in New Orleans. “Blackwater mercenaries are some of the most feared professional killers in the world and they are accustomed to operating without worry of legal consequences,” Scahill and Crespo wrote for Truthout. The mercenaries, some wearing official Louisiana law enforcement badges, say they were contracted by the Department of Homeland Security, and are authorized to use lethal force.
With a heavy commitment to the war in Iraq, most Guard units have been unable to recruit enough to meet their authorized complement. Of those who have not been deployed to Iraq, the burden becomes equally as hard during a natural disaster. They are likely to be far more exhausted and, thus, less effective, because of the lack of adequate relief. Their employers, many of whom already sustained losses because other employees were sent to Iraq for 12–18 months, are forced to require the remaining workers to accept the load of the Guardsmen or to hire temporary help. Slightly more than half of those in the Guard, if on extended assignment, as with those in Iraq, earn far less from military service than from their own civilian jobs. This may force their spouses, if not employed, to find jobs, to hire daycare providers, and possibly to take public assistance. Another problem is the need for mutual aid. Pulling National Guard units from other states, all of which have less than full complements themselves because of recruiting failures and the deployment of soldiers to Iraq, leaves other areas more exposed to both natural and man-made disasters. During the disaster, soldiers from units not expected to work a natural disaster, including bands and artillery, were sent into the South. There’s also the personnel and support costs. The states, not the federal government, are responsible for the pay of National Guard soldiers who have been activated and sent to other states. Indeed, as the Bush Administration has frequently claimed, there might temporarily be enough Guard personnel to deal with the disaster, but the resources and personnel are strained because of the war in Iraq. The security of the United States and the protection of its people have been compromised by that war and occupation.
A REPOSITORY FOR POLITICAL PAYBACKS
FEMA was created as an independent agency by President Carter in 1979, with a mission to deal with both man-made and natural disasters. The Reagan–Bush Administration increased FEMA’s role and its powers to mitigate, plan, respond, and recover from disasters. However, there was erosion during the Bush–Quayle term. A report from the House Appropriations Committee in 1992, stated:
“FEMA is widely viewed as a ‘dumping ground,’ a turkey farm, if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment. This has led to a situation where top officials, having little or no experience in disaster or emergency management, are creating substantial morale problems among careerists and professionals.”
Both the President and the agency came under attack for their lethargic response to Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane that hit south Florida in August 1992, leaving in its wake 40 deaths, 250,000 homeless, the destruction of about one-third of the coral reefs, and about $25–30 billion in damage.
President Bill Clinton changed FEMA’s focus and image, appointing staff with strong experience in disaster operations, and then elevated the agency to cabinet-level status. During the eight-year Clinton Administration, FEMA re-established strong working relationships with local and state agencies, and businesses. President George W. Bush’s opinion of FEMA was evident the month he was inaugurated when he appointed Joseph Allbaugh to head the agency. Allbaugh, who had been Bush’s chief of staff when he was governor and then ran the 2000 political campaign, had no disaster experience. He brought onto his staff Michael D. Brown to be chief counsel; Brown was soon promoted to deputy director. Brown -- who also had no experience in disaster planning, mitigation, rescue, or recovery -- did have two primary qualifications: he was Allbaugh’s close friend and a fellow campaign worker who was active in Florida during the disputed 2000 recount. Before being named to FEMA, Brown had spent 11 years as commissioner for judges and stewards of the International Arabian Horse Association. Allbaugh left FEMA after two years to become a lobbyist, often for companies interested in contracts in Iraq. To fill Allbaugh’s position, Bush appointed Brown to be FEMA director. Shortly after Katrina hit, David Goldstein, editor of the political website, HorsesAss.org, with some of the information provided by one of his readers, broke the story about Brown’s previous work with the IAHA, his forced resignation, and his inexperience with natural disasters. The story was picked up by The Daily Kos, a larger website, and then published, often without credit, by the establishment newspapers. As the Katrina disaster continued, other information about Brown’s lack of experience was brought out. TIME Magazine, with confirmation by sources who had worked with Brown before he came to FEMA, reported that Brown’s official biography was padded, and that several items were outright lies.
Brown’s chief of staff and deputy chief of staff, both of them active in the Bush election campaigns; the director of recovery operations; and several other senior staff also have little or no previous emergency management experience; most do have experience working on Bush’s political campaigns. Five of the ten regional directors have titles of “acting regional director,” one for as long as two years. FEMA’s former chief operating officer, who was first appointed in June 2001 as director of Region VI, which includes Louisiana, was primarily a personnel officer for much of his professional career; however, he had an overriding qualification for being given two critical senior level FEMA appointments -- he was chief administrative officer for Bush’s 2000 election campaign.
“FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation's emergency management capability is being eroded,” Pleasant Mann, president of FEMA’s government employee union, wrote to members of Congress in June 2004.
Three months later, Mann told Jon Elliston of the Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.):
“The biggest frustration here is that we at FEMA have responded to disasters like Oklahoma City and 9/11, and here are people who haven't responded to a kitchen fire telling us how to deal with terrorism. You know, there were a lot of people who fell down on the job on 9/11, but it wasn't us. . . .
“Since last year, so many people have left who had developed most of our basic programs. A lot of the institutional knowledge is gone. Everyone who was able to retire has left, and then a lot of people have moved to other agencies.”
It probably didn’t matter what the workers thought or that the senior staff weren’t professionals, President Bush had every intention of reducing FEMA’s power, possibly even dismantling it. Four months after becoming president, true to his philosophy of reducing government and contracting with private business to receive government funds for doing the government’s job, Bush began slashing FEMA’s budget and responsibilities.
When George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, with a focus upon terrorism issues, he placed FEMA within the mega-mammoth agency. The move was opposed by emergency management specialists, who feared the agency would lose its independence, its professional edge, and its ability to respond quickly and efficiently. “There are concerns of FEMA losing its identity as an agency that is quick to respond to all hazards and disasters,” FEMA’s inspector general wrote to Joseph Allbaugh, according to reporting by Jon Elliston. Unlike the Coast Guard, which was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security and placed directly under the Secretary, FEMA was placed under the Deputy Secretary.
Under the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA also lost its missions for planning and preparation. Some of that responsibility went to other parts of the Department of Homeland Security; much went to private industry, in keeping with Bush’s political philosophy.
FEMA’s focus, now under DHS, was slowly being changed from a broad-based defense against a broad spectrum of disasters to a more aggressive stance against terrorism. About three-fourths of its budget is for terrorism response. During the past decade, the United States has been hit by two major terrorist attacks -- one in Oklahoma City; one identified as 9/11.
In March 2004, one year after FEMA was moved into the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, James Lee Witt, President Clinton’s FEMA director, testified before a joint meeting of two subcommittees of the House Committee on Government Reform:
“I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded. I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared. In fact one state emergency manager told me, ‘It is like a stake has been driven into the heart of emergency management.’”
Six months later, the Wall Street Journal reported:
“Once the highest-ranked government office for worker satisfaction, FEMA is now dead last, according to surveys conducted by labor unions and the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management. In the most recent union survey, 60% of FEMA staffers said they would take a job elsewhere if one were offered, and 80% of respondents said they thought FEMA has become a poorer agency since joining Homeland Security.”
By not listening to the best advice that emergency management professionals gave before and after Homeland Security, and by hiring political cronies, George W., Bush assured an ineffective federal agency.
DERELICTION OF DUTY AND THE RETURN OF THE WATCHDOG
In March 2001, a FEMA analysis had warned there were three likely -- not possible, but likely -- scenarios, each of which would cripple the country. One would be an earthquake in San Francisco, similar or more damaging than the one in 1906. The second would be a terrorist attack upon New York City. The third would be a catastrophic hurricane and flood in the New Orleans area. Unfortunately, FEMA was right twice. Several computer projections and analyses by private and governmental agencies detailed the problem that would devastate New Orleans should a hurricane with Category 4 or 5 force hit the city. Their studies were marginalized by the Bush Administration, just as it had once disregarded the terrorist threat. The federal government apparently also hadn’t learned much since Ivan, a Category 4/5 hurricane, threatened New Orleans a year earlier, before hitting Alabama and Florida, killing 25 persons and causing more than $13 billion damage.
Underfunded and undermanned, the Coast Guard -- with small boats, cutters, and helicopters, their crews working almost without relief -- was on the scene the day Katrina hit. Although two of their stations in Mississippi were destroyed and communications systems marginal, some of their own homes destroyed, Coast Guard personnel had figured out how to conduct their missions to open the waterways and to rescue the victims. Coast Guard air crews, augmented by National Guard and Navy crews flying in hazardous weather dodging overhead power and telephone lines, and risking their lives in what had become a cesspool of contaminated water, rescued more than 20,000 from the streets and the roofs. Throughout the region, thousands of volunteers and local emergency services personnel were also working under harsh conditions and with minimal sleep.
However, Missing in Action were four critical government officials and one agency. When Gov. Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency for Louisiana, Saturday, Aug. 26, George W. Bush was still on a five-week vacation in Crawford, Texas. He remained there on Sunday when Katrina was upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane, when Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the evacuation of New Orleans, when water began spilling over the levee, and when the Superdome was opened to residents who couldn’t, or wouldn’t leave the city. When Katrina hit the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, he was on a political promotion in Arizona. When the levee was breached, he was in California at a golf resort to continue pushing a political agenda. On Tuesday, with New Orleans flooded, he spoke at the Coronado Naval Base near San Diego, where he invoked 9/11, compared the nation now to the nation after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and compared himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later in the afternoon, Bush relaxed with a country singer before returning to Crawford. With thousands now trapped in the Superdome, and suffering under primitive conditions, Bush cut short his five-week vacation by two days and flew over the flooded city on his return to the White House two days after Katrina invaded the continental United States. Official White House Photos showed a concerned compassionate conservative looking out of the window of Air Force One.
Also missing in action were Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) Cheney was on vacation in Jackson, Wyo., and didn’t return to Washington for several days. Rumsfeld, who could have ordered a full military response to assist, was vacationing in San Diego; while water from Lake Pontchartrain was destroying New Orleans, Rumsfeld was attending a Padres–Diamondbacks baseball game. Hastert, who had suggested New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt and then later modified his statements, was at a fundraiser in Indiana when Congress, by voice vote, passed an emergency $10.5 billion relief appropriation. Hastert was present a week later when Congress approved an additional $51.8 billion; apparently, he had raised enough funds for a fellow Congressman.
But, it was FEMA, more than any other agency in the country, that needed to be on-scene before the hurricane hit.
Five hours after Katrina came ashore Michael Brown finally asked Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, for authorization for 1,000 FEMA staff, active and reserves, to go into the flood areas -- and then suggested they be given two days to respond. FEMA said the two-day delay was to train the employees, a ludicrous claim that showed either the agency was lying to cover up the failure of an immediate response or that its disaster workers weren’t well trained nor capable of doing disaster work on a first responder basis.
Three days before Katrina hit, when Gov. Kathleen Blanco had declared a state of emergency and requested federal help, the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama expected that there would be a full assault by the federal government to lessen damage and assist the people. That assistance was negligible during the first few critical days.
“Offers of medicine, communications equipment and the desperately needed items continue to flow in, only to be ignored by the agency,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said five days after the levees were breached.
FEMA ordered the Red Cross and Salvation Army not to go into the New Orleans disaster zone, although the National Response Plan directs FEMA to work with all agencies, public or private, that wish to assist and are qualified. The Florida Airboat Association had 300 boats fully equipped, their pilots trained, but FEMA never authorized their help. FEMA rejected three tankers filled with drinking water donated by Wal-Mart, forbade Jefferson Parrish to accept 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel provided by the Coast Guard, and cut emergency communication lines, according to Aaron Broussard, Jefferson Parish president. Under his direction, the Sheriff reconnected the lines and posted armed guards.
The U.S. Forest Service offered water-tanker aircraft to fight the fires; Amtrak offered trains to evacuate the city. FEMA “has yet to accept the aid” of the Forest Service, and “dragged its feet” on Amtrak’s offer, said Sen. Landrieu almost a week after Katrina came ashore. James May, president of the Air Transport Association, told the Associated Press that Homeland Security didn’t even contact his association for assistance in evacuation until three days after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
The Navy offered the assistance of the crew of the U.S.S. Bataan, an amphibious assault ship in the area when the hurricane hit, but FEMA underused the services the first few days. Captain Nora Tyson, the Bataan’s commanding officer, told the Chicago Tribune she had 1,200 sailors who “could be on the beach plucking through garbage or distributing water and food,” that the ship could have opened its operating rooms, and provided medical personnel and 600 beds to the relief effort, that its helicopters could have been flying rescue missions, that it could have made as much as 100,000 gallons of drinkable water a day, that the police could have used the ship’s electrical system to charge their radios -- “but I can’t force myself on people.” Tyson did send a landing craft loaded with food and water up the Mississippi to New Orleans, and ordered her helicopters into the air to assist in rescue operations, but FEMA was slow to request assistance. Donald Rumsfeld was reluctant to order military assistance, deferring to FEMA to provide the leadership, although the Department of Defense had legal authority to act during a state of emergency to protect life and property.
An offer of assistance from Chicago, the day before Katrina made landfall, also went unanswered. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, which based its report upon information provided by Mayor Richard Daley:
[T]he city offered 36 members of the firefighters' technical rescue teams, eight emergency medical technicians, search-and-rescue equipment, more than 100 police officers as well as police vehicles and two boats, 29 clinical and 117 non-clinical health workers, a mobile clinic and eight trained personnel, 140 Streets and Sanitation workers and 29 trucks, plus other supplies. City personnel are willing to operate self-sufficiently and would not depend on local authorities for food, water, shelter and other supplies.
FEMA did request a tanker truck.
The federal government never responded to an offer from Cuba, which had 1,600 physicians, most of them specialists, and significant medical supplies ready to assist. The previous year, Cuba evacuated 1.5 million people quickly and efficiently, with no loss of life, when Ivan, a Category 5 hurricane, hit the island and destroyed more than 20,000 houses.
Frustrated by FEMA’s seeming ineptness, firefighters and thousands of trained volunteers from throughout the country mobilized and just showed up; they used their vacation time and when that was used up, they absorbed no-pay days. Mayor Joseph R. Riley Jr. of Charleston, S.C., also didn’t worry about FEMA. He sent 55 police officers to Gulfport, Mississippi. In an attack upon FEMA leadership, he told the Atlanta Journal–Constitution, “They don't know that immediacy is more important than some organizational chart they drew up.”
FEMA eventually called out 1,400 professional firefighters from departments throughout the country. Most of the firefighters had search-and-rescue or hazardous material training, many were paramedics. The Salt Lake City Tribune reported, “Firefighters say they want to brave the heat, the debris-littered roads, the poisonous cottonmouth snakes and fire ants and travel into pockets of Louisiana where many people have yet to receive emergency aid.” FEMA assigned them to handing out flyers with an 800-number for FEMA. Although FEMA ordered the firefighters not to talk to reporters, many did. The Tribune quoted several firefighters who said they believed there was a misallocation of resources and the assignments were a waste of trained personnel. FEMA, for its part, claimed community relations was important.
The day after the storm buried itself into southeast Louisiana and Mississippi, FEMA still didn’t understand what was happening. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Brown met in Biloxi, Miss., with Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and told him not to worry, because FEMA had lots of hurricane practice in Florida. “I don’t think you’ve seen anything like this,” Barbour responded. “We’re talking nuclear devastation.”
Three days after the hurricane came ashore, Terry Ebbert, the New Orleans head of emergency operations, called the federal response “a national disgrace,” and charged the agency with having “no command and control.” No one from FEMA had even been in touch with him, Ebbert said. Mayor Ray Nagin, himself tired from days with minimal sleep, told listeners of WWL-AM the federal government doesn’t “have a clue what's going on down here.” Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin told the Atlanta Journal–Constitution, she was “outraged and horrified at the level of response. . . . I'm not really sure what we're waiting for. Are we waiting for everyone to die?”
On Wednesday night, Aug. 31, Michael Brown told CNN, “I must say, this storm is much much bigger than anyone expected.” The next day, President Bush claimed, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,” and made it seem as if the hurricane had just one morning showed up unannounced. Once again, they were wrong.
“We were briefing them way before landfall,” Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, told the Times-Picayune. Mayfield said he told both the FEMA director and Homeland Security secretary “It’s not like this was a surprise. We had advisories that the levee could be topped,” said Mayfield. The National Hurricane Center had also briefed FEMA at both its Washington headquarters as well as its Dallas and Atlanta regional headquarters, said Mayfield. The briefings, beginning days before Katrina hit land, according to the Times-Picayune, included “information on expected wind speed, storm upsurge, [and] rainfall.” Mayfield also briefed Bush, by video conference phone, the day before Katrina hit, according to the St. Petersburg Times. The President also had access to dozens of advisories from the National Weather Service, which detailed what destruction was likely.
During the previous five years, the Times-Picayune had run dozens of articles and editorials about potential flooding problems and the lack of federal response. Now, on the second day after the hurricane hit, the Times-Picayune, its presses flooded, posted onto its website: “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 raised about the lack of preparation.”
On ABC-TV’s Good Morning America, three days after Katrina began its destruction, President Bush told the nation:
There's a lot of food on its way. A lot of water on the way. And there's a lot of boats and choppers headed that way. Boats and choppers headed that way. It just takes a while to float ’em!
But, for the people of New Orleans, and of three states almost destroyed by Katrina, the words were vacant.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, six days after Katrina began its destruction, Aaron Broussard reaffirmed the nation’s perception:
“We have been abandoned by our own country. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary [of homeland security] has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.”
It was obvious that the Bush Administration bravado wasn’t not being back up by actions, and that both FEMA and the nation had leaders incapable of dealing with a crisis.
The Founding Fathers had hoped the media would be watchdogs upon government, but during Bush’s first term, the establishment mass media were more like lapdogs. Most of the media, perhaps sensitive to comments that they were biased against Bush during the campaign, charges that ran throughout conservative radio talk shows and right-wing blogs, gave the new president a “honeymoon”. And then came 9/11. The mass media, like most Americans, stood beside their president. Soon, they were afraid to question his policies and his decisions, even the USA PATRIOT Act that the Bush Administration rammed down a fearful nation; the people seemed to willingly give up their civil liberties in order to get what they believed was protection. Those who protested the Bush Administration's actions were often branded un-American or unpatriotic. As Bush began to shove the United States into an invasion of Iraq, the media focused primarily upon what the Administration was saying, and gave little airtime or print coverage -- or credence -- to the growing anti-war movement. As the United States went into Iraq, the media made a few noises but accepted the Administration’s rules that embedded journalists with specific units. To most, it seemed as if there was greater coverage; the reality was that there was greater manipulation, with reporters so focused upon the actions of the specific unit which they were assigned, and aware of the bundle of rules of what and how to report, they didn’t question the greater issues. Well after the March 2003 invasion, as evidence mounted about the lack of evidence to justify the war, and as the Administration’s statements and plans for the post-war planning were being proven wrong almost every day, the New York Times and Washington Post printed apologies for failing to question the President and his senior staff more closely about the war and its consequences. But, still, the media primarily fell within the web spun by Karl Rove and senior Bush Administration officials who were far better at controlling and manipulating the media and public opinion than the media were at aggressively challenging authority. For the most part, the media practiced stenographic journalism, recording and transmitting what was fed to them. This failure to aggressively challenge policies and practices allowed the deterioration in FEMA to go unnoticed by most of the country.
Emboldened by a nation that had begun questioning Bush’s policies, the media rose to the level the Founding Fathers demanded. With the federal government slow to react, the media moved into the Gulf Coast and began giving the nation unparalleled coverage of the disaster, free from manipulation, not forced to accept the role of being “embeds”. On the cable news channels, on TV network news, and on the radio, the people were getting almost unfiltered live coverage of Katrina’s destruction of property and lives, of hundreds of thousands of people helping each other, sacrificing for each other, of slivers of hope, of desperate people sometimes being forced to do desperate things, and of criminals who remained in the city to prey upon the victims and to shoot at rescue helicopters and patrolling soldiers. In their newspapers and news magazines, for one of the few times during the past four years, the people were getting far greater in-depth coverage about issues that mattered to them than earlier in the year when the trial of Michael Jackson, the divorce of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston, and the marriage of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner seemed to dominate the headlines. It didn’t take long for the nation and the media to realize that the federal government was displaying not courage in the face of disaster, but ineptness.
For more than 40 years, Ted Koppel has shown what journalism should be. On ABC-TV’s Nightline, Koppel quickly peeled away the fabrication of incompetence, of a seemingly unconcerned and unprepared Administration, and asked FEMA director Michel Brown a series of tough questions:
I’ve heard you say during the course of a number of interviews that you found out about the convention center today [four days after the hurricane came ashore.] Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting on it for more than just today. . . . Here we are essentially five days after the storm hit and you're talking about what's going to happen in the next couple of days. . . . You didn't make preparations for what was going to happen . . . Why didn't you? . . . I'm not asking you why the city didn't have buses available [to evacuate those without cars], I'm asking you why you didn't have National Guards with trucks to get them out of there. Why you didn't have people with flatbed trailers if that's what you needed. Why you didn't simply get as many Greyhound buses from surrounding states as you could lay your hands on to get those people out of there. Why haven’t you done it to this day?
While Brown was making up excuses, the Coast Guard was well into its mission of providing rescue assistance, the Red Cross and other volunteer disaster relief agencies were on the ground and assisting the victims in three states, and the mass media, few of their journalists trained in mass disaster coverage, had already figured out how to get into the middle of the disaster to provide continual coverage and pictures to the nation. If actor Sean Penn figured out how to get into New Orleans to rescue people, why couldn’t FEMA, the people wondered. FEMA, for its part, said it had trouble with its communications system, leading even the most casual observer to wonder how the nation’s agency charged with immediate response during a terrorist attack or natural disaster could be without communications while just about everyone else figured out how to develop acceptable, if not complete, emergency communication systems. But, President Bush still found time to praise its director. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush said at the end of the week.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, recalls that Bush, more than a week after the levee broke, was still praising the FEMA director.
According to Pelosi, quoted by the Associated Press:
She related that she urged Bush at the White House on Tuesday [Sept. 6] to fire Brown.
“He said, ‘Why would I do that?’” Pelosi said.
“I said because of all that went wrong, of all that didn't go right last week. And he said ‘What didn't go right?’”
Hour after hour, the television networks showed the problems in metropolitan New Orleans, and one reality became clear -- most of those who were unable to evacuate the city were mostly poor and Black; they had no way to leave, nor could they abandon their uninsured homes and possessions. They were left to the chaos and disorder caused by a failure of the government to act. But there was a story of race and class that the TV and newspaper reporters avoided. Several journalists from the alternative press had noticed and reported the problem. In Slate, Jack Shaffer explained:
“This storm appears to have hurt blacks more directly than whites, but the broadcasters scarcely mentioned that fact. . . .
“I don't recall any reporter exploring the class issue directly by getting a paycheck-to-paycheck victim to explain that he couldn't risk leaving because if he lost his furniture and appliances, his pots and pans, his bedding and clothes, to Katrina or looters, he'd have no way to replace them. No insurance, no stable, large extended family that could lend him cash to get back on his feet, no middle-class job to return to after the storm. . . .
“What accounts for the broadcasters' timidity? I saw only a couple of black faces anchoring or co-anchoring but didn't see any black faces reporting from New Orleans. So, it's safe to assume that the reluctance to talk about race on the air was a mostly white thing. That would tend to imply that white people don't enjoy discussing the subject. But they do, as long as they get to call another white person racist.”
By the fourth day, the media began adding coverage of the issue that had become obvious to any television viewer.
On NBC-TV, Grammy-winning rapper Kanye West, at a TV benefit for the victims, called the government’s actions racist; he charged that the government would “help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible.” President Bush, said West, “doesn’t care about Black people.” The director cut immediately to another scene. At the end of the benefit, NBC, owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor, ran one of the strongest disclaimers it had ever run:
Kanye West departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him, and his opinions in no way represent the views of the networks. It would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person’s opinion.
But, West’s views were echoed by dozens of journalists, editors, news directors, and commentators who were in the middle of disaster, and by politicians, both Black and White. The Congressional Black Caucus pointedly asked if assistance would have been there the first day if the people left in the city were affluent Whites. “The inescapable message is that Black people can’t get help,” Vanessa T. Williams, executive director of the National Conference of Black Mayors, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Unlike Bill Clinton, George W. Bush doesn’t seem to be comfortable with Blacks who are of the lower- and middle-classes, nor does he have a command of the issues that affect the poor. However, he probably isn’t a racist. More likely, Bush, who grew up as part of the upper class and who attended colleges where most students were privileged, probably has little understanding of those who for any number of reasons are impoverished, who don’t have the entitlements he did. In New Orleans, in which two-thirds of the population is Black, the ones left in the city were primarily the poor and elderly, who also happened to be Black. Some politicians may have been slow to help because of the race, income, and social class of those in New Orleans. President Bush may have been slow to respond just because a hurricane isn’t what he believes is a terrorist attack, and because he is oblivious to large segments of the American population.
In an open letter to President Bush, the Times-Picayune now demanded the President fire all senior FEMA officials, and blasted the federal response:
“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.. . . No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced.”
Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss, in an interview with the Portland Oregonian, called the lack of adequate federal response, “ultimately [Bush’s] failure, and it is a colossal one that may have cost lives, and certainly much physical damage to our community.”
Among leading Republicans who called the response by FEMA and federal agencies a failure were Sens. David Vittin (R-La.) and Sen. Susan Bollins (R-Maine). Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.), a conservative, called FEMA’s response “an embarrassment”. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), one of Bush’s closest allies, told the Associated Press he believed FEMA “was overwhelmed, undermanned and not capable of doing its job.” By the time Katrina hit, the federal government in the four years after 9/11 had spent billions of dollars and had funded or conducted thousands of training sessions to combat terrorism. “If we can't respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we're prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?” demanded Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House.
On Friday, Sept. 9, in an effort to protect their political lives from a firestorm of charges, Bush and Chertoff removed Brown from on-scene control of the Katrina rescue and recovery operations “Other challenges and threats remain around the world,” said Chertoff, who said Brown would return to Washington to continue to direct FEMA. “Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge,” Chertoff added. Brown said he was “anxious to get back to D.C. to correct all the inaccuracies and lies that are being said.” Chertoff appointed Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, U.S. Coast Guard chief of staff, as the new director of on-scene relief. For the first time in more than four years, the United States had someone in charge of a major disaster who was both qualified and not a political hack.
POLITICIZING DISASTER RELIEF -- PART I
A six-month series of more than four dozen articles by Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reporters revealed more than $28 million in overpayments by FEMA following hurricane Frances in September 2004. According to the investigation, politics was behind the overpayment, although FEMA and the White House vigorously denied the charges.
In March 2005, reporters Megan O'Matz and Sally Kestin, basing their investigation on extensive interviews and document analysis, including e-mails from the office of Florida Gov. “Jeb” Bush, concluded:
“As the second hurricane in less than a month bore down on Florida last fall, a federal consultant predicted a ‘huge mess’ that could reflect poorly on President Bush and suggested that his re-election staff be brought in to minimize any political liability, records show.
“Two weeks later, a Florida official summarizing the hurricane response wrote that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was handing out housing assistance ‘to everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind.’”
Summarizing the consultant’s advice, the Sun-Sentinel reported:
The Republican National Convention was winding down, and President Bush had only a slight lead in the polls against Democrat John Kerry. Winning Florida was key to the president's re-election. FEMA should pay careful attention to how it is portrayed by the public, [consultant Glenn] Garcelon wrote in the memo, conveying “the team effort theme at every opportunity” alongside state and local officials, the insurance and construction industries, and relief agencies such as the Red Cross.
“What FEMA cannot afford to do is back itself into a corner by feeling it has to be the sole explainer and defender for everything that goes wrong,” he wrote. “Further, this is not what the President would want. Plenty is going to go wrong, and his Department of Homeland Security does not want to assume responsibility for all of it.”
An investigation by FEMA’s own inspector general, triggered by innumerable complaints and the Sun-Sentinel reporting, confirmed that residents of Miami-Dade County, which had only been at the edge of the hurricane, had received FEMA payments for losses they never incurred. The report blamed FEMA for creating the system that allowed for fraud. In response, Brown called those overpayments a “computer glitch.”
In May, the Washington Post reported an even more ominous correlation of FEMA and politics:
Homeland Security sources told the Post that after the hurricanes, Brown “and his allies [recommended] him to succeed Tom Ridge as Homeland Security secretary because of their claim that he helped deliver Florida to President Bush by efficiently responding to the Florida hurricanes.”
POLITICIZING DISASTER RELIEF -- PART II
President Bush asked that the “people don’t play politics during this period of time”; apparently, only he was allowed to do so.
Four days after Katrina came ashore, and with the nation questioning about the slow response by FEMA and federal agencies, Bush flew into New Orleans. On cue, military trucks carrying supplies crossed the path of the TV cameras. With so much evidence pointing to a failure by the federal government to act quickly and efficiently, he walked around non-flooded parts of the disaster area, called the federal effort “unacceptable,” promised “to make it right,” and to do “whatever is necessary.” Without stepping into water, he talked with volunteers and officials; the only ones he didn’t talk with were victims, whether on the streets, trapped on the roofs of their homes, or in the city’s Superdome and Convention Center. During Thanksgiving 2003, George W. Bush flew into war-devastated Iraq, which was succumbing to insurgents and chaos, and talked with the soldiers; but, he apparently didn’t have time, or desire, to talk with the starving and dehydrated victims at the Convention Center, Superdome, or on the streets.
To counter the growing criticism, the Bush administration found a clever way they thought might defuse some of the attacks; they would go on the offensive. Senior officials now began chanting variations of, “We need to focus on the future and not dwell upon the past.” It was a call picked up by talk-show hosts and bloggers throughout the country. Several Bush Administration senior officials also told the nation that rescue and recovery would be hindered by the people playing the “blame game” and pointing fingers, a not-so-subtle variation of the Bush Administration and its followers claiming that persons who protested the war in Iraq weren’t patriotic and put the troops in harm’s way. Within a week, Google recorded more than 500,000 instances of “blame game.”
However, by the end of the first week, federal officials, who urged Americans not to point fingers and play that “blame game,” were now pointing fingers and blaming local and state officials for the problem for not acting sooner or requesting more assistance. In some cases, the federal government was right; a plethora of actions by the local and state governments contributed to the problem. New Orleans isn’t known as “The Big Easy” for nothing. Mixed within extreme poverty, crime, and official corruption is an excitement that makes the city a top tourist attraction -- and one where a “laid-back” attitude often prevails. That “laid-back” attitude allowed the people to just accept life as it was -- and pumping stations to be kept in service long after they should have been replaced. Mayor Ray Nagin, although doing a lot right, delayed issuing a voluntary evacuation order and then waited about 15 hours before ordering a mandatory evacuation. There were no provisions to evacuate residents who didn’t have vehicles, who couldn’t afford gas, or who just didn’t want to leave. There was a less-than-efficient immediate response on Monday as the storm moved inland and as officials at all levels, although they began getting information about the breaches in the levee system, were slow to respond. There was no distribution system to get food, water, and medicine to the people.
But, the local governments couldn’t be faulted. Because the Bush Administration was pushing a terrorist prevention agenda and neglecting other disasters, local and state governments had figured out that to get the abundant federal grant money, they had to place an emphasis on anti-terrorist training and to buy equipment more suited to the threat of terrorism than to protection against natural disasters. The other main problem was that FEMA was working less and less with local and state governments. To prepare against a catastrophic natural disaster, the federal government needed to help local and state governments understand what was needed and to help fund it. It didn’t.
Michael Chertoff told the media in Washington, D.C., according to the Washington Post, that FEMA’s response was slow because “our constitutional system really places the primary authority in each state with the governor.” He was wrong. The National Response Plan directs FEMA to “prepare for, respond to, and recover [whenever] an incident or potential incident is of such severity, magnitude, and/or complexity that it is considered an Incident of National Significance.” FEMA does not have to wait for local or state officials to request its assistance. That plan also allows the Department of Defense to provide immediate assistance, even if not requested by local authorities. Two days before Katrina hit land, President Bush, upon strong recommendations of the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, which had already issued their own declarations of emergency and requests for federal assistance, had declared a “state of emergency,” which should have moved FEMA into action.
To mitigate criticism of the slow federal response, the Bush administration asked Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to turn over her state’s National Guard and to cede all authority to the federal government. Well aware that such a move would have led not only to the Bush Administration trumpeting that the local and state governments were mostly at fault for the problems resulting from the disaster, but also of the establishment of martial law, Blanco declined. Before returning to Louisiana one week after Katrina came ashore, Bush not only didn’t have the courtesy to tell the Governor the schedule, but deliberately chose not to meet with her to discuss how best to proceed with the rescue and recovery. Blanco, however, learned the President’s schedule, met him at the airport, and forced a 90-minute meeting.
Almost everything related to the Bush Administration response to the disaster could be summarized by an extract from a memo Michael Brown wrote to his staff. According to the internal memo, uncovered by the Associated Press, Brown wanted his staff to “convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizers, and the general public.” Some of that “positive image” was to keep photographers away from the disaster. Several journalists reported that Army and National Guard soldiers prevented them from taking photos or shooting video; a few reported that camcorders were confiscated; one soldier, said NBC-TV news anchor Brian Williams, pointed a rifle at him. According to a report by Reuters, FEMA rejected requests by the media “to accompany rescue boats as they went out to search for storm victims.” While FEMA may have justifiably claimed it was because space was needed on rescue boats, and that “the recovery of victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect,” a compelling reason was to stop the flow of pictures in newspapers, magazines, and on television, which showed the vast destruction and emphasized the federal government’s ineffective response. FEMA’s reasons for keeping photographers away was the same the Department of Defense gave for an embargo on pictures of flag-draped coffins of soldiers returning from Iraq.
Writing for The New York Times, Adam Nagourney and Anne E. Kornblut reported that political strategist/deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and communications director Dan Bartlett “rolled out a plan . . . to contain the political damage from the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.” That plan included sending Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, all trailed by hordes of media, into the disaster zone. The presence of senior Bush officials drew some of the press away from their reporting about the victims. In Lafayette, La., Laura Bush visited a clean mass care facility for storm victims, and nipped at the press coverage. “This doesn’t really look like what we’re seeing on television,” she said, possibly hoping the American people would believe that the hopelessness and desperation they saw on television was only a small problem which the media magnified.
Mayor Ray Nagin blasted federal officials who “flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters,” but did nothing to alleviate the problems of the victims.” The federal officials, said Nagin, are “feeding the public a line of bull and they're spinning, and people are dying down here.” He urged a moratorium on press conferences “until the resources are in this city.”
The overall PR mission and image damage control by now seemed to dominate the Bush Administration response. The Salt Lake City Tribune reported:
[A]s specific orders began arriving to the firefighters in Atlanta, a team of 50 Monday morning [Sept. 5] quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew's first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas.
Almost everything about the President’s visits to the devastation was carefully orchestrated for the mass media and the public. Christine Adelhardt, of Germany’s ARD television network, reported on the President’s first visit to the disaster area:
Here, just two minutes ago, the President drove by with his convoy. But what happened here throughout the day in Biloxi is really unbelievable. Suddenly salvage groups appeared here, suddenly clearing vehicles were here. Those had not be seen here all the days before and this in area where it really would not be greatly necessary to clean up [now] because nobody is living here [now], far and wide, anymore. The people are further inside the city. [translated by Bernhard Horstmann of Hamburg, Germany]
ZDF, also an independent German television network, confirmed that with the President’s visit, “suddenly [a] help crew showed up, people who cleaned out the rubble, that searched the houses for dead bodies. And this exclusively along the route of the president. [And then] the president left Biloxi and with him all the help crews.” ZDF further reported that a food distribution center that Bush visited was set up before he arrived, then closed after he and the TV cameras left.
On Bush’s return visit three days later, in the background of a hangar where he spoke were Coast Guard helicopters; they had been grounded from rescue, officially to protect the air space of the President, but in reality to provide a backdrop for TV cameras. Also not available for the victims while the President was mugging for the cameras were three tons of food, secured by Louisiana officials, which could not be airlifted to the victims because the helicopters to deliver that food were also grounded.
Crews were pulled off certain construction projects and sent into areas where the President and the hordes of media were. “Progress is flowing,” said President Bush. Nonsense, said Sen. Mary Landrieu:
Perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment.
It wasn’t an isolated instance.
Furious at the politicization of the disaster, she told ABC-TV, “Our infrastructure is devastated, lives have been shattered,” and rhetorically asked, “Would the President please stop taking photo-ops?”
THE OIL SLICK IN DISASTER RELIEF
Oil and gasoline from vehicles trapped by the water was now polluting the flooded streets. It wasn’t the only oil slick. In the Bush–Cheney Administration, there is always a connection to the oil industry, and this disaster proved no different. Katrina, which destroyed the nation’s largest port city, closed nine oil refineries. One of the first things the President did was to order oil pipelines opened, and released a large part of the federal oil reserves. The Environmental Protection Agency then relaxed pollution standards on gasoline. The oil industry, which had just recorded its highest profits during the second quarter, now justified a rise in gas prices at the local pumps of more than $1 a gallon amid widespread charges of price gouging.
The Navy turned to Kellogg Brown Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the oil mega-conglomerate where Dick Cheney was CEO for five years, to begin restoring electricity and cleaning up at naval bases in Mississippi. KBR has a standing federal contract, worth up to $500 million, to provide immediate relief efforts following natural disasters or in times of war. This is the same company that well before the invasion of Iraq had received a $7 billion no-bid contract that allowed it to control the oil fields, and then became embroiled in corruption scandals for overcharging and war profiteering. Joseph Allbaugh, the Bush campaign manager who became FEMA director, and left in 2003 to become an independent lobbyist, was in the flooded Gulf Coast, according to the Washington Post, “trying to coordinate some private-sector support the government always asks for.” Among his clients is KBR.
Halliburton and its subsidiaries haven’t been the only ones to have received federal contracts. In June 2004, FEMA awarded a $500,000 contract to Innovative Emergency Management (IEM) of Baton Rouge, La.., to develop a “Catastrophic Hurricane Disaster Plan” for the New Orleans metropolitan area. Madhu Beriwal, IEM’s president, according to investigative reporter Wayne Madsen, “is a big-time contributor to the GOP.”
Among other private corporations to receive federal funds is Carnival Corp., which received $236 million for three luxury liners to provide temporary housing for the homeless. Four of the top Carnival executives contributed to the Bush campaign in 2004. Why more military bases couldn’t be used was never answered by the Bush Administration. Also not answered was why the Administration thought there might not be any further psychological damage to the victims of the worst flood in American history to house them on board ships docked on the same water that destroyed their houses and lives.
NO NEED TO GUSH
On CNN’s “Larry King Show,” Red Cross president Marty Evans was effusive in her praise for President Bush. To a national audience, she said the President “is supporting so strongly the voluntary sector.” Almost gushing, she said Bush is “helping us do our jobs better so that we can provide for the emergency needs and the long-term needs of so many people.” It’s nice she believed the President was finally doing his job by ordering a massive and coordinated federal response. It would have been better if he had respected the scientists who told him about the effects of global warming, and of ocean currents and warmer temperatures that provide a base for more intense hurricanes. It would have been better if he had not sacrificed the environment to developers and the oil industry. It would have been better if he had not decimated the budget of the Corps of Engineers and other agencies that are dedicated to strengthening America’s infrastructure. It would have been better if he had not committed America’s financial and human resources to destroying a country half a world away, and then try to rebuild it. It would have been better had he believed that emergency management disaster professionals, not political hacks, should be in charge of America’s disaster response. It would have been better if he didn’t reduce FEMA’s responsibilities and try to outsource the responsibility for disaster planning, rescue, relief, and recovery to private industry. More important, it would have been better if he wasn’t so fixated upon terrorism and launching a invasion of Iraq, to retaliate for that country’s dictator waving an assassin’s sword beneath George H.W. Bush, that he overlooked America’s needs. More important, it would have been better had he not cut off his five-week vacation by only two days but cut it off by more than a week so he could return to his office and direct preparation for the oncoming catastrophe, one that was magnified by his own failure to focus upon all of the needs of a nation.
As Katrina proved, the federal government, with innumerable problems fighting a war in Iraq, under the failure of leadership of its commander-in-chief, was caught completely unable to fight a two-front war. Because of the policies enacted by George W. Bush, Americans had every reason to believe that two disasters hit New Orleans -- Katrina and FEMA.
Walter Brasch’s latest book is America’s Unpatriotic Acts; The Federal Government’s Violation of Constitutional and Civil Rights (Peter Lang Publishing, 2005). Assisting on this column was Rosemary R. Brasch. The Brasches’ article, “An Ill Wind and American Policy” (September 2003) first outlined problems likely to face the nation during natural disasters if there was a continual flow of National Guard forces to Iraq. In that article, which also looked at FEMA, the Brasches stated, “Our nation’s disaster preparedness doesn’t meet the needs that any sizeable disaster might bring.” You may contact Dr. Brasch through his website, www.walterbrasch.com.
Other Articles by Walter Brasch
Bush -- By the Numbers
Other Articles by Walter Brasch
Bush -- By the Numbers