WASHINGTON, Sep 1 (IPS) – With state, local, and federal officials still grappling with the extent of the devastation and human suffering inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and points east, suggestions that the already plunging political standing of Pres. George W. Bush could also be a major casualty of the disaster have begun taking hold.
While few observers underestimate the Bush teamâ€™s proven ability to seize the political initiative, particularly in times of crisis, as in the aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the fact that the kind of destruction wreaked by Katrina was both predictable â€“ and indeed actually predicted â€“ and avoidable gives the presidentâ€™s foes much more ammunition than they had after 9/11.
The soaring costs of the Iraq war, combined with Bushâ€™s huge tax cuts and a dangerously narrow definition of â€œhomeland security”, translated directly into sharp reductions in the amount of government money that was made available for the battered areaâ€™s hurricane- and flood-control projects over the last several years, according to a series of articles published in 2004 and 2005 by New Orleansâ€™ largest-circulation newspaper, The Times-Picayune.
â€œNo one can say they didnâ€™t see it coming,â€ reported Newhouse News Service in an article posted earlier this week at the website of the Times-Picayune, which has been unable to print since its presses were submerged by the floodwaters that still cover an estimated 80 percent of New Orleans. â€œNow in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation.â€
In addition, the Bush administrationâ€™s effective downgrading of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which had won considerable praise for its performance in natural disasters during the 1990s, as well as the absence of at least one-third of the National Guard forces and their equipment for the two hardest-hit states, Louisiana and Mississippi, due to their deployment to Iraq, will also provide grist to the political mill in the coming days and weeks.
â€œEven before Hurricane Katrina, governors were beginning to question whether National Guard units stretched to the breaking point by service in Iraq would be available for domestic emergencies,â€ noted The New York Times Thursday. â€œThose concerns have now been amplified by scenes of looting and disorder.â€
So far, hundreds â€“ and possibly thousands, according to the mayor of New Orleans â€“ of mostly poor people, who were either unwilling or unable to evacuate the city before Katrina hit landfall Monday, are believed to have died as a result of the storm. Well over one million people have been displaced from their homes and are unlikely to be able to return for many weeks, if not months.
While rescue and evacuation operations for the tens of thousands of people who remain stranded in New Orleans and surrounding areas continue, FEMA and local officials say it is far too early to put a dollar figure on the damages caused by the Category Five hurricane, although preliminary estimates have surpassed 20 billion dollars.
Those costs, however, do not include the much greater collateral damage caused by the disruption of the shipping, trucking, and rail lines that transport agricultural goods, lumber products, and manufactured goods to and from the Middle West along the Mississippi River, as well as the shutdown of at least nine oil refineries in the Gulf area.
The resulting increase in prices for covering everything from gasoline â€“ already at historic highs â€“ to imported coffee is certain to act as a brake on the economy that had recently showed signs of renewed strength.
â€œHurricane Andrew (in 1992) was a destructive hurricane, the most destructive of the past 30 or 40 years,â€ Bruce Kasman, an economist at JP Morgan Chase Bank, told the Wall Street Journal. â€œBut if you look at the macro-economy, it had negligible effect. â€¦What may make this even unique: It does have the potential to do some real damage to the flow of oil â€“ and to the flow of goods up the Mississippi.â€
Bush, who was already under attack even by some of his own supporters for taking off virtually all of August to stay at his Texas ranch before Katrina hit, returned to Washington last night after flying low over the devastated region, and immediately delivered what the Times called â€œone of the worst speeches of his lifeâ€ that consisted mainly of â€œa long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators, and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast”.
On Thursday morning, he appeared on an ABC public-affairs programme, describing the destruction, promising aid, and arguing, as his administration did after 9/11, that the disaster, in New Orleans in particular, could not have been foreseen.
â€œI donâ€™t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,â€ he said. â€œThey did appreciate a serious storm but these levees got breached and as a result much of New Orleans is flooded and now weâ€™re having to deal with it and will.â€
This was much the same message of some of Bushâ€™s strongest supporters, notably the Journalâ€™s editorial page, which was quick to reject the notion that global warming had anything to do with the intensity of the storm or that the administration could have done anything in time to have prevented the flooding.
â€œRight now, the lesson chiefly worth noting,â€ it wrote, â€œis also the most obvious: All the cunning of man cannot defeat the greatest fury of nature.â€
But it is precisely this contention that is now coming under scrutiny. In a much-circulated article in the newspaper trade journal Editor & Publisher (E&P) entitled â€œDid New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen?”, author Will Bunch noted that the Times-Picayune had consistently reported over the past several years that the administration had slashed tens of million dollars for hurricane- and flood-control projects, and, in nine articles, had related the cuts explicitly to the unanticipated costs of the Iraq War.
â€œAfter 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward (the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA) dropped to a trickle,â€ according to the article. â€œThe Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security â€“ coming at the same time as federal tax cuts â€“ was the reason for the strain.â€
On Jun. 8, 2004, according to the E&P report, the emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Walter Maestri, complained to the Times-Picayune: â€œIt appears that the money (proposed by the Corps of Engineers for SELA) has been moved in the presidentâ€™s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose thatâ€™s the price we pay. Nobody is happy that the levees canâ€™t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.â€
The Corpsâ€™ project manager, Al Naomi, was quoted at the same time as warning that â€œthe levees are sinkingâ€¦ and if we donâ€™t get the money fast enough to raise them, then we canâ€™t stay ahead of the settlement. The problem that we have isnâ€™t that the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that we canâ€™t raise them.â€
Members of the Louisiana congressional delegation also repeatedly called on the administration to restore funding to the Corps to strengthen the levees and other coastal protection measures but were repeatedly rebuffed, according to other accounts.
Despite the increased frequency of hurricanes in 2003 and 2004, Bush earlier this year requested only 10.4 million dollars for SELAâ€™s hurricane-protection project, a sixth of what local officials had said they needed, according to Newhouse News.