of the Storm
No one could have seen this coming,
Thursday Sept 1, Ted Koppel interviewed Michael Brown, head
of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For those of
you who don’t know, Michael Brown was nominated by President
Bush as the first Undersecretary of Emergency Preparedness
and Response in the newly created Department of Homeland
Security in January 2003. His job is to lead federal disaster
response and recovery operations. He also oversees the National
Flood Insurance Program and the U.S. Fire Administration,
and initiates proactive mitigation activities. Would you
like this job? Because if there’s any kind of justice in
this world, Mr. Brown won’t have it much longer.
man, whose responsibility is to coordinate more than two
dozen federal agencies and departments and the American
Red Cross, stated that his organization just learned
of the situation at the New Orleans Convention Center that
day. Thursday. FIVE DAYS after Katrina hit. Apparently,
Mr. Brown had been vacationing on Mars that week. Dude,
do you own a television? Can you read?
cry of ignorance as excuse for inaction seems to be the
Bush Administration’s party-line tactic. We didn’t know;
it was worse than we expected; we thought more people would
leave. On the same edition of Nightline, President Bush
claimed that the primary reason for the massive devastation
was the levees breaking. According to him, that was never
bullshit, and more bullshit.
events in New Orleans were predicted years ago, in such
precise detail it’s eerie. The New Orleans Times-Picayune
took much heat from local businesses in June 2002 when journalists
Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid flew in the face of trendy
media optimism and ran a five-day front page series detailing
what would happen in the event of a category 4 or 5 hurricane,
series’ second installment explained how the levees protecting
New Orleans from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain also act
as a threat. They create a bowl around the city, with the
bottom of the bowl below the level of the lake. “Filling the
bowl” has long been recognized as the worst potential scenario
for natural disaster in the entire United States:
this is from an article printed in 2002.
peril of New Orleans has been repeatedly addressed by other
media as well. In August 2002, Adam Cohen of the New York
Times analyzed the situation, as did NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Also in 2002, PBS’s “NOW” presented a two-part story on
the disappearance of the Mississippi River delta. The second
part, “City in a Bowl,” explored the possibility that a
high-level hurricane could drown New Orleans.
2001, Popular Mechanics featured an article titled
“New Orleans is Sinking” by Jim Wilson. It included the
statements: “the surge of a Category 5 storm could put New
Orleans under 18 ft. of water,” and “the potential loss
of life in Louisiana could be catastrophic because there
is just nowhere to go.”
Geographic published a feature in October 2004... The
list is seemingly endless. A database search of science
and trade publications brings up articles with subtitles
like “A major hurricane could swamp the city under 20 feet
of water, killing thousands,” and “The next hurricane could
put the Crescent City underwater,” dating back as far as
the late 1990s.
itself was cited in the Times-Picayune as “preparing
a plan for the unprecedented response that would be needed
if the New Orleans bowl were flooded.” In 2001, FEMA listed
the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America:
a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San
Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans. So the
most devastating scenario was also among the most likely.
was done about this? Flood control funding was cut by 44%.
Among the defunded projects were widening drainage canals,
flood-proofing bridges and building pumping stations in
Orleans and Jefferson parishes, additional levees on the
West Bank, and a study on how to best protect New Orleans
from a high-level hurricane. Oh, and fixing the levees.
levees have been sinking as the sea level has been rising.
The New Orleans District of the Army Corps of Engineers
knew this, and urged that funds be allocated to continue
work on the levee system. They were repeatedly ignored,
and in 2004 saw their funding cut by 80%. Yes, EIGHTY—that’s
not a typo.
flood control spending for southeastern Louisiana has been
chopped from $69 million in 2001 to $36.5 million in 2005,
according to budget documents. The Corps of Engineers’ saw
their budget drop from $14.25 million in 2002 to $5.7 million
this year. Budget cuts at the Corps resulted in a hiring
freeze. Work on the levee system stopped. According to the
Times-Picayune, it was the first such stoppage in
37 years. The levees that Katrina breached were the ones
the canceled funds were intended to strengthen.
back at the ranch, Bush was having none of it. If you were
against him, you were fired. Assistant Secretary of the
Army Mike Parker questioned and criticized Bush’s planned
budget cuts for the Army Corps’ flood efforts in 2002, thus
prompting the indignation of administration officials. He
was asked to resign roughly a year after his nomination.
where did the money go? Just where you think it did: Iraq.
Along with the National Guard Troops whose job, actually,
is to Guard the... ah, Nation. Tough to do when you’re
7,500 miles away. While New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin called
for arms, begged for troops and buses, and declared Martial
Law, the Bush administration—FEMA in particular—sat on their
we are now only prepared to address emergencies related
to terrorist attacks. Bush, it seems, is unfamiliar with
the term multitasking. Not only were monies for flood protection
shunted to the “war on terror,” but once FEMA was absorbed
by the Department of Homeland Security, its focus shifted.
Floods? Hurricanes? Tornadoes? Fuck ‘em. FEMA’s job is now
responding to terrorist attacks.
results of this played out horrifically in New Orleans:
Failure at the state, local and federal levels. Thousands
of people dead for no reason except that they were flooded
and not bombed. Everyone is now aware of the inexcusable,
horrifically slow, and utterly disorganized relief effort
by FEMA. Terry Ebbert, head of emergency operations for
New Orleans, said it best: “This is a national emergency.
This is a national disgrace... FEMA has been here three
days, yet there is no command and control... We can send
massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t
bail out the city of New Orleans.”
is the motive for all this? Is it simple optimism? “Oh,
we won’t get a big scary hurricane.” A childish inability
to address more than one threat at a time? Or are the conspiracy
theorists onto something with their coastal development
statistics? Data suggests many coastal towns where poor
people live are devastated by storms and then claimed by
developers who build condos and resorts. Or maybe it really
is all about oil.
Gulf supplies the U.S. with roughly a quarter of our oil.
In the wake of Katrina, the EPA has decided to temporarily
allow all parties in the fuel distribution system, (refiners,
importers, distributors, carriers and retail outlets) to
supply gasoline that is NOT compliant with the Clean Air
Act. This waiver continues through September 15, but sellers
may continue dispensing this fuel afterwards, until their
supplies are depleted.
Their reasoning for this was the determination that the impact
of Hurricane Katrina will prevent the distribution of an adequate
supply of fuel to consumers that is compliant with the Clean
Air Act. This is “a natural disaster, that could not reasonably
have been foreseen or prevented...” Really.
can we do, beyond giving blood and a little cash? First,
learn who the players are, and hold them accountable. For
example, House Speaker Dennis Hastert opposed calling Congress
back into session to pass a relief package for Katrina victims,
and did not attend the vote, skipping it to instead attend
a colleague’s fundraiser, staff members said, followed by
an antique car auction.
knew this was coming. Gross negligence and misplaced priorities
defunded New Orleans’ protection. Then once the city was underwater,
grievous incompetence withheld required aid. People died.
Every hour that FEMA and the Bush administration delayed,
Americans died. Ray Nagin said New Orleans is “a place
so unique that when you mention [it] everywhere around the
world people’s eyes light up.” He also said the city would
“never be the same.” He’s right. But it didn’t have to happen
that way. Many times more people died in this disaster than
on 9/11. How many of us will be thinking of them the next
time we vote? Media attention has caused FEMA to wake
up and act right. Use your voice to make some good come out
of our country’s shameful loss. Make your government act right.