William Rivers Pitt: They Called It Katrina
They Called It Katrina
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Tuesday 22 August 2006
One year ago tomorrow, on August 23rd, Tropical Depression Twelve formed over the eastern Bahamas. The depression was upgraded to a tropical storm the next day as the energy and winds within intensified. It was the eleventh tropical storm of the season, and thus was given a name beginning with the letter "K."
The watchers at the National Hurricane Center called it Katrina.
Tropical Storm Katrina made landfall in Florida between Hallandale Beach and Aventura on August 25th, where it weakened for a time. One hour after crossing Florida and entering the Gulf of Mexico, however, the tropical storm strengthened after feeding off the warm Gulf waters. Katrina became a Category Three hurricane on August 27th, and nearly doubled in size.
By the morning of August 28th, Katrina was a Category Five storm, and by 1:00 pm CDT the storm's maximum sustained winds peaked at 175 miles per hour. It achieved landfall again on the morning on August 29th as it crossed into Louisiana and Mississippi. Katrina's hurricane status was maintained even 150 miles inland, and was not downgraded to tropical storm status until it had reached Clarkesville, Tennessee. The impact of the storm's remains was felt along the eastern Great Lakes region into August 31st, and as calendar pages were turned to September, Katrina finally dissipated entirely over Ontario and Quebec.
The storm came, the levees failed, and the nightmares began to unfold. Days passed without any help coming from the federal government. Memories and images of the devastation left behind in the wake of Katrina - in Alabama, Mississippi, and most searingly in New Orleans, Louisiana - are today as much a part of this nation's tragic history as the memories and images of September 11, Pearl Harbor, and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
The entire country watched in numb horror as one of our greatest cities was slowly and methodically washed off the map. Untold thousands fled their homes, were separated from families, and sent to faraway states to wait for whatever Fate had in store for them. Nearly two thousand others remained behind, and perished. Thousands more suffered in unutterably ill-prepared shelters. Petroleum distillation and distribution was disrupted, and the economic shock hit every gas station in America. The cost of Katrina has been estimated at close to $100 billion.
The pictures from New Orleans cannot be purged from memory. There was Ethel Freeman, an elderly woman dead in her wheelchair outside the New Orleans convention center with a black poncho covering her head, dead and left to molder because the convention center was overwhelmed with evacuees. "Let's not forget," said Freeman's lawyer, John Paul Massicot, "she survived the storm. The storm didn't get her. She didn't survive the rescue."
There was the unidentified man who lay dead on Union Street in the French quarter for days and days, covered only by a blue blanket. Two orange construction cones looked down upon his exposed feet. The man was still lying there a full week after the storm had passed. Other bodies floated helplessly down flooded streets and swollen canals. More than 100 people died in a warehouse down by the docks, waiting for a rescue that never came. Thirty people died in a flooded-out nursing home outside the city, left there by the staff to wait for a rescue that never came.
The government's standard list of worst possible occurrences had a Category Five hurricane striking New Orleans standing at number three for years and years. One would have assumed, given the fact that such an event was placed nearly on par with a nuclear strike against New York, that the federal government was prepared for this eventuality. This, tragically, was not the case.
In January of 2001, George W. Bush appointed Texas crony Joe Allbaugh to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), despite the fact that Allbaugh enjoyed exactly zero experience in disaster management. By April of 2001, the Bush administration announced that much of FEMA's work was to 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 handle any significant crisis was nil. 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 toward 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. Many now blame the Army Corps of Engineers for the disaster, but it was not they who decreed such a massive evisceration of the budget they needed to maintain the levees. 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."
On the day the storm came, a sizeable portion of the Louisiana National Guard, whose troopers serve as an absolutely essential work force during any natural disaster or emergency, was sitting 7,000 miles away in Iraq.
"Bush mugs for the cameras," wrote Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly regarding the White House response to the disaster, "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."
"For all the president's statements ahead of the hurricane," wrote Newsweek, "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."
The worst, the absolute worst aspect of it all, was the fact that almost everyone saw this coming. The National Weather Service sent out an alert on August 28th: "A hurricane warning is in effect for the north central gulf coast from Morgan City, Louisiana, eastward to the Alabama/Florida border, including the city of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. Maximum sustained winds are near 160 mph with higher gusts. Katrina is a large hurricane. Coastal storm surge flooding of 18 to 22 feet above normal tide levels, locally as high as 28 feet, along with large and dangerous battering waves, can be expected near and to the east of where the center makes landfall. Some levees in the greater New Orleans area could be overtopped."
Also on Sunday the 28th, Governor Blanco of Louisiana dispatched a letter to Bush formally requesting assistance as the storm bore down on her state. "Under the provisions of Section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 USC. 5121-5206 (Stafford Act), and implemented by 44 CFR 206.36, I request that you declare an expedited major disaster for the state of Louisiana as Hurricane Katrina, a Category V hurricane approaches our coast south of New Orleans; beginning on August 28, 2005 and continuing," read the letter.
Nineteen hours before Katrina struck, a video conference was held between FEMA Director Brown, National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield and several others. The video conference was required because George W. Bush was still vacationing down in Texas. Bush listened to a long litany of dire predictions regarding the impact of a Category Five hurricane making landfall over New Orleans, and promised swift and decisive action to deal with it.
In fact, he did nothing for days and days. The National Hurricane Center warned of levee failures the day before the storm arrived, and the Governor of Louisiana reached out for help. Bush personally heard his own FEMA director, as well as the Hurricane Center director, similarly warn him. The best response he could muster, after the dying in New Orleans had peaked and receded with the waters, was to lie. "I don't think," he said, "anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
A year later, New Orleans remains shattered. "One year after disaster struck, the slow-motion rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region looks identical to what has happened to date in Afghanistan and Iraq," wrote Pratap Chatterjee in a CorpWatch report on the rebuilding process. "We see a pattern of profiteering, waste and failure - due to the same flawed contracting system and even many of the same players. The process of getting Katrina-stricken areas back on their feet is needlessly behind schedule, in part, due to the shunning of local business people in favor of politically connected corporations from elsewhere in the U.S. that have used their clout to win lucrative no-bid contracts with little or no accountability and who have done little or no work while ripping off the taxpayer."
"The color of the flood is not the blue of the Lake waters that inundated the city," wrote Mark Folse, owner of the excellent blog titled Wet Bank Guide, in a post from July 2006, "or the day-glo orange or red spray paint that make the rescue marks on homes. The color is the brown the water left behind, strikingly revealed by Google Maps now that some areas of New Orleans have been updated with post-flood imagery. You can see the stark difference between the pre-flood photos west of the railway line - the sharp, dark green of trees and lawns, the crisp grays of the city streets from before the Federal flood - and the homogenous brown of the Ninth Ward after. Zoom into highest resolution, then browse to the east past the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (known to most as the Industrial Canal). You can see the homes scattered like an upset Monopoly board found in the mud, without regard for the grid of streets on which these homes once had addresses."
"As I stare at another little screen," wrote Folse about the images of his ruined city, "I imagine the last images captured by the eyes of the people who lived on those streets, synthesizing my own memory of these neighborhoods with the videos of the tsunami, running a monstrous newsreel of my own imagining. It is as if the victims of the Federal Flood were reaching across and directing the camera, telling me: this is what it was like, what we saw, what they did to us. I can almost feel them crowd around me, the cliche of a haunting image made palpable, whispering as I type: Remember."
A few short weeks from now, this nation will pass the fifth anniversary of September 11. Six months after that, we will mark the fourth year of our occupation of Iraq. Tomorrow, we must recall the day Katrina was born, recall her slow, deadly crawl toward a beloved city, recall the unfolding horrors that came at us on our television screens for endless hours, and finally, we must recall the utter indifference the disaster inspired in our government. Katrina stands as the third historic calamity presided over by the Bush administration. As with the other two, this should not have been allowed to happen. As with the other two, thousands are dead and despairing in the aftermath.
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.