William Rivers Pitt: Wake of the Flood
Wake of the Flood
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Friday 02 September 2005
All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
Thinkin' about my baby and my happy home.
-- Led Zeppelin, "When the Levee Breaks"
This will come as no surprise, but columnist Molly Ivins has again nailed it to the wall. "Government policies have real consequences in people's lives," Ivins wrote in her Thursday column. "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."
Try this timeline on for size. In January of 2001, George W. Bush appointed Texas crony Joe Allbaugh to head FEMA, despite the fact that Allbaugh had exactly zero experience in disaster management. By April of 2001, the Bush administration announced that much of FEMA's work would be privatized and downsized. Allbaugh that month described FEMA as, "an oversized entitlement program."
In December 2002, Allbaugh quit as head of FEMA to create a consulting firm whose purpose was to advise and assist companies looking to do business in occupied Iraq. He was replaced by Michael D. Brown, whose experience in disaster management was gathered while working as an estate planning lawyer in Colorado, and while serving as counsel for the International Arabian Horse Association legal department. In other words, Bush chose back-to-back FEMA heads whose collective ability to work that position could fit inside a thimble with room to spare.
By March of 2003, FEMA was no longer a Cabinet-level position, and was folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Its primary mission was recast towards fighting acts of terrorism. In June of 2004, the Army Corps of Engineers' budget for levee construction in New Orleans was cut by a record $71.2 million. Jefferson Parish emergency management chief Walter Maestri said at the time, "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."
And then the storm came, and the sea rose, and the levees failed. Filthy sewage-laced water began to fill the bowl of New Orleans. Tens of thousands of poor people who did not have the resources to flee the storm became trapped in a slowly deteriorating city without food, water or electricity. The entire nation has since been glued to their televisions, watching footage of an apocalyptic human tragedy unfold before their eyes. Anyone who has put gasoline in their car since Tuesday has come to know what happens when the port that handles 40% of our national petroleum distribution becomes unusable.
And the response? "Bush mugs for the cameras," says Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly, "cuts a cake for John McCain, plays the guitar for Mark Wills, delivers an address about V-J day, and continues with his vacation. When he finally gets around to acknowledging the scope of the unfolding disaster, he delivers only a photo op on Air Force One and a flat, defensive, laundry list speech in the Rose Garden."
Newsweek described it this way: "For all the president's statements ahead of the hurricane, the region seemed woefully unprepared for the flooding of New Orleans - a catastrophe that has long been predicted by experts and politicians alike. There seems to have been no contingency planning for a total evacuation of the city, including the final refuges of the city's Superdome and its hospitals. There were no supplies of food and water ready offshore - on Navy ships for instance - in the event of such flooding, even though government officials knew there were thousands of people stranded inside the sweltering and powerless city."
Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert twisted the knife on Thursday by bluntly suggesting that we should not bother rebuilding the city of New Orleans. "It doesn't make sense to me," Hastert said to the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. "And it's a question that certainly we should ask. We help replace, we help relieve disaster. But I think federal insurance and everything that goes along with it ... we ought to take a second look at that." This sentiment was echoed by the Republican-American newspaper out of Waterbury, CT: "If the people of New Orleans and other low-lying areas insist on living in harm's way, they ought to accept responsibility for what happens to them and their property."
This is it, right here, right now. This is the Bush administration in a nutshell.
The decision to invade Iraq based on lies has left the federal government's budget woefully, and I daresay deliberately, unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude, despite the fact that decades worth of warnings have been put forth about what would happen to New Orleans should a storm like this hit. Louisiana National Guard soldiers and equipment, such as high-water Humvees for example, are sitting today in Iraq while hundreds or even thousands die because there are not enough hands to reach out and pull them from the water. FEMA - downsized, redirected, budget-slashed and incompetently led - has thus far failed utterly to cope with the scope of the catastrophe.
Actions have consequences. What you see on your television today is not some wild accident, but is a disaster that could have been averted had the priorities of this government been more in line with the needs of the people it pretends to serve. The city of New Orleans, home to so much of the culture that makes America unique and beautiful, is today drowning underneath an avalanche of polluted, diseased water. This, simply, did not have to happen.
Remember that the next time you hear Bush talk about noble causes, national priorities and responsibility. This has been an administration of death, disaster, fear and woe. The whole pack of them should be run out of Washington on a rail. Better yet, they should be air-dropped into the center of New Orleans and made to see and smell and touch and taste the newest disaster they have helped to create.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.