Report from Louisiana and Texas

In Shreveport, Louisiana the “f” word now stands for FEMA, a Methodist minister informed me. Prompted by the looming hurricane season, residents of this Red River city have become very conscious of the thousands of refugees FEMA placed here from last year’s New Orleans disaster. They still occupy trailers on the city’s outskirts.

FEMA’s disappearing act when the hurricane hit has become legendary. The disaster agency’s post-hurricane waste of money has just become public. “Sloppy mistakes and con artists,” began USA Today’s June 14 story, “cost FEMA at least $1 billion in questionable disaster relief claims.”

According to a GAO (Government Accountability Office) report, FEMA mistakenly sent money to prison inmates and paid $5.3 million to people who registered for relief using only a post office box as address. In addition, FEMA purchased unusable supplies and paid exorbitant fees for unnecessary services.

Compounding FEMA’s mismanagement of federal funds, Shreveport authorities placed their spending priorities in places other than Katrina aid. The gambling casinos that dot the river banks have become beautified by the city’s outlay of funds to make gaming neighborhood attractive. But gambling brings tourists and refugees grief.

Other Katrina refugees from Shreveport and elsewhere found themselves evicted from hotels that FEMA had paid for until two months ago, when the agency declared it had run out of funds. Some live on the street. The lucky ones found generous parishioners to house them in churches.

Churches and other charitable groups and individuals have chipped in, but the federal government has minimized its funding for the needy survivors of natural disasters. “They find the money to keep fighting that damned war over in Iraq,” said an angry Shreveport resident, “but they can’t find a dime for the poor people who got hit in New Orleans.”

I walked into the El Dorado Casino with a man who had glued a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker to his car. “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. They can do the same. I didn’t beg the government for help when I was poor and my folks were down and out.” I left him as the slots commanded his attention.

The Shreveport local authorities set up emergency phone centers to help the refugees with questions about food, housing and medical care. But these temporary and make-shift remedies will not re-settle the tens of thousands that Hurricane Katrina displaced.

The richer class returned and recast New Orleans as a whiter and wealthier city. Those areas that took Katrina refugees appear to have increased their already heavy tax burdens. The Bush government has become a prominent non actor in post emergency periods. It maintains keen interest in increasing the money share to the very rich, by abolishing the estate tax. Poor Paris Hilton, deprived of the desperately needed security that all people of her class seem to feel!

A Center for Budget and Policy Priorities study cited Congressional Budget Office figures, “had the estate tax not existed in 2000, charitable donations would have been $13 billion to $25 billion lower that year. The amount by which CBO found that charitable donations would have fallen in 2000 exceeds the total amount of corporate charitable donations in the United States in that year. Estate tax proposals that would slash the tax rate – such as a proposal by Senator Jon Kyl that would reduce the rate to 15 percent – would be almost as detrimental to charitable giving as repealing the estate tax altogether.”

In the downtown Holiday Inn, three Shreveport men in suits and ties sipped coffee and discussed the difficulties in dealing with FEMA. I presumed they were sales executives. “I just don’t deal with FEMA. They ordered thousands of boxed meals and we waited months before we got a check for some of what we delivered. FEMA people would quit or get replaced or not replaced. Hell, I’d rather deal with the government of the Congo.” This kind of talk from Republicans has caused Bush’s approval ratings to drop. “Bush stands for nothing, except a seemingly endless war. He has no exit strategy,” said an old Shreveport accountant who had voted Republican for decades.

The Bush Administration has a clear strategy, however, for perpetuating its power. In the face of rampant globalization, Bush preaches old-time religion. As Wal-Marts envelop Texas towns, and small businesses shut down, as downtowns turn into deserted areas or centers of ye olde gifte shoppes, the message from the White House stays on point: gay marriage, abortion and activist judges cause America’s problems, not the dramatic shifts in life styles, income gaps and demography.

Georgetown, Texas is one example: “It has been malled,” laughed one member of the 1965 graduating class, back in town for a reunion. The woman drove through the new and vast shopping centers built on the edge of town, next to new condos and gated communities – bedrooms for those who work in Austin some 30 miles south. Every few hundred miles, a mammoth Wal-Mart warehouse collides with the meadows and gentle green rises of the East Texas countryside. These vast structures, surrounded by hundreds of Wal-Mart trucks, feed the Chinese-made goods into the super stores.

At the Georgetown High reunion, a white haired man had “retired from computers” and become a volunteer chaplain at a maximum security prison. “I’m a George Bush man, all the way. Law and order, lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”

I asked why he had volunteered to counsel hardened criminals if he didn’t believe they could be redeemed.

“I introduce them to Jesus. Many of them pray to Odin, a criminal God. I think they can find solace in real Christian teaching. But I wouldn’t want any of them out on the street where they could prey upon law-abiding people.”

Another classmate who had listened and decided I belonged to the “liberal persuasion” decided to educate me further on the virtues of Republican policy. “Bush is doing the best he can in a bad situation. Look at the sneaky tactics of the terrorists,” he said, referring to the three prisoners who hung themselves in their Guantanamo prison cells on June 9.

The Pentagon called the suicides “an act of asymmetrical war.” I didn’t ask whether the U.S. military would try to urge three of its officers to create symmetry.

“It’s just like the Pentagon said, a PR move to draw attention to their fanatical anti-Christian cause.” (The government subsequently modified its initial statements.)

I asked him if he thought the Pentagon’s high tech, $650 billion budget could really defend the country against such PR tactics, much less dedicated fanatics with box-cutters who can fly jumbo jets?

“The Chinese may well become what the Soviets used to be,” he answered. “We can’t let our guard down as the Democrats would do.”

But Wal-Mart gets its goods from China, and China holds hundred of billions in U.S. debt paper?

“They’re nothing if not tricky, those Chinese,” he replied. He did not elaborate. If Wal-Mart were to close its stores in small and middle sized Texas towns, the local economies would be devastated, I guessed.

Nothing, I concluded, would dampen the gun business in Texas. Gun stores and shooting ranges seem to proliferate. Who are the targets?

In the midst of heavy anti-immigrant pressure, in a state with millions of “illegals,” recent arrivals from Mexico feel less than secure. Texas governor Rick Perry, a Bush Republican, has called for the citizens of the state to form into a hunting posse. He planned “to install hundreds of night-vision cameras on private land along the Mexican border and to put the live video on the Internet, so that anyone with a computer who spots illegal aliens trying to slip across the border can report it on a toll-free hot line.” For $5 million in Texas Taxpayers’ money, internet users can report at any time of the day or night “anything that looks like trespassing, drug smuggling or something else that is suspicious.” (http://insider.washingtontimes.com/articles/normal.php)

Air America, the liberal answer to right wing talk radio, broadcasts in Texas as well, with an opposite message on most subjects. A liberal Georgetown High graduate listens regularly. “Texas is a one party state,” he said. It used to be Democrat and now it’s Republican. Let’s see how much more scandal, corruption, incompetence and downright stupidity the people of this state can take before it occurs to them that the issues of the time are not abortion, gay marriage and activist judges.” He paused. “It’s our forty first high school reunion – we missed the boat last year – and I just hope the change happens in my lifetime. I don’t want to see my grandkids having to live under the idiocy of the Bush crowd.”

Amen, I thought. I hope this kind of talk provides Democrats with the drop of courage needed to take strong opposition positions.

Landau accompanied his Texas-born wife to visit family and attend a reunion in Texas. He is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow.

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