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Unprepared
by david   September 6, 2005

batman begins At a press conference over the holiday weekend, Bush announced plans to head, himself, an investigation into the utter failure of governmental emergency management systems to help those devastated by Katrina in a timely and adequate fashion. He's sending Vice President Cheney into the region to begin this investigation, he said. Of course, the president, vice president and their administration are the perfect folks to head this investigation because they, as always, are completely blameless.

Right away, I want you to know that I am not simply angry at the federal government. Local and state agencies were under-prepared as well, despite numerous warnings weeks, months, and even years in advance (the case in New Orleans). And I'm angry at those who participated in looting and violence in the lawless wake of the storm (for the record, I do not consider scavenging for food and water, even if it means breaking a store window, looting) -- such actions (especially atrocities like the rumored murders and rapes) demean us as a nation and as human beings.

But I'm more angry at Bush and his administration than at anyone else (well, not more than the murderers and rapists, but more than the rest). It starts, as it always does with this administration, with cronyism: Bush appoints a big-fundraising businessman from Texas (Joe Allbaugh) to head FEMA, despite the fact he has absolutely no experience in coordinating disaster relief. When he resigns, Bush appoints Michael Brown, who also had no experience prior to being Allbaugh's deputy, and who had been fired from his previous job for being an "utter disaster" at management. It follows with downsizing FEMA, the privatizing of many of FEMA's services, moving FEMA's disaster preparedness responsibilities to the Department of Homeland Security, and removing the FEMA head as a cabinet-level position. Then, despite a FEMA report from 2001 which listed a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as #3 among the "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country" and a 5-part series in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2002 which outlined exactly how a hurricane could break the levees and flood the city, in 2004 FEMA denies Louisiana's "disaster mitigating funds" request, and the Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction and maintenance in New Orleans is slashed to the bone, the funds redirected to the War in Iraq. As a final, fatal blow, in 2005 the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finds their budget cut by over $70 million (a record), with urban flood control in southern Louisiana taking the brunt of the cut.

This is typical of the Bush Administration: put your friends and big fundraisers, whatever their experience, in charge of important government programs instead of promoting capable, experienced people from within that organization, neuter those programs by draining them of funds and able personnel, and then, when problems arise, do not blame inadequate leadership, funding or planning -- rather, blame "the bureaucracy," which allows you leverage to further cut funding and privatize programs. The big joke (if you can call it that) in all of this is that, despite the supposed Republican leadership's desire to squeeze the funding from government until it is "so small you can drown it in a bathtub" and the resulting ineffectiveness of the social programs attempting to operate under such a financial squeeze, the overall size of the federal government and its budget has ballooned out of control in the past three decades, and never more so than under the staunchest supposed conservatives: Ronald Reagan and our own George W. Bush.

Current estimates are that over ten thousand people have died in New Orleans, Biloxi, and the surrounding areas over the past week and a few days. We will likely find that most of those people survived the storm, but died in the following days from lack of medical care, starvation, heat stroke, or illness from the poisoned and diseased water which rose around them. These were mostly poor people, people who could not afford to leave, people without funds to contribute to political campaigns, people who unwisely suffered catastrophe in a non-election year. Even when Bush did deign to visit New Orleans on the ground, rather than just by flying over the city, it was days after the disaster, and he did so at locations which were purely staged so as to make him look like he was helping: according to MyDD, ZDF News -- Germany's answer to CNN -- reported that their crew witnessed the food distribution point Bush visited for the cameras being torn down immediately after he and the reporters left the scene, and that others which were supposedly being set up were abandoned at the same time. Senator Mary Landrieu said the same thing: "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."

As galling and upsetting as Bush's obvious lack of genuine concern or respect for those ravaged by Katrina is, it is his larger policies which allowed this debacle that continue to be truly alarming. He continues to promise compassion, but deliver only fear and cuts to social programs (in order to maintain support and fund his war in Iraq and his tax breaks for super-rich private citizens and corporations). He continues to appoint his ill-prepared cronies to important government positions. He continues to encourage privatization and downsizing of social programs, instead of trying to improve and repair them. And since September 11, 2001, despite the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the "War on Terror," it is clear Bush has made this country even less prepared than it was to handle a large-scale human catastrophe, be it caused without warning by international terrorists, or caused, with ample warning from within his own government, by Mother Nature herself.

When Bush tells us that his investigation will not be hampered by "bureaucracy," he is already hinting at who he will blame for this tragedy. Not poor planning, or lack of funds, or weak leadership. Not a flawed environmental policy which has devastated the miles of wetlands which once protected New Orleans and southern Mississippi from the worst of the damage from large storms. Not a war of choice which has 60% - 70% of national guard troops and equipment fighting a losing battle in the middle east instead of responding to domestic emergencies, and not an increasingly rigid class system which keeps almost 13% of our people so poor they cannot afford to eat, clothe and house themselves, much less evacuate from their homes on short notice. Bush will blame a supposedly despised beurocracy, and will use that leverage to gut the life from even more social and infrastructure programs. In the end, he may be right. Bureaucratic failure may have been the overwhelming cause of our impotent response to Katrina's devastation. But that bureaucracy -- those "leaders" who could not coordinate relief efforts, who planned so poorly, who executed so slowly -- their numbers include the people appointed by Bush to critical roles, as well as Bush himself. This disastrous response (or lack thereof) to the human need left behind by Katrina is the direct result of Bush's ongoing policy, which rewards donors and cronies at the expense of the American people, especially the poorest among us. The answer to this problem is not to turn our disaster relief and preparedness planning over to Halliburton, as Bush and Cheney's investigation will no doubt tell us. The answer is to get rid of our current incompetent leadership and find a President who cares more about the welfare of the American people, rich and poor alike, than he does the career designs of his large campaign donors.

In the time following Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the American people could feel like the government "had our backs" when times got really tough. In George W. Bush's America, during tough times the government is standing on our backs, waving at the cameras while our drowning bodies keep their expensive loafers safely above the fetid rising waters.


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