Monday, August 29, 2011

Katrina: The 6 Year Itch

It would be easy to dismiss the failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in New Orleans six years ago today on Monday, August 29, 2005, thusly:

It was a storm of virtually unprecedented size and ferocity, so much so that levees, pump stations and emergency preparedness plans were immediately overwhelmed. And, up to a point, that was true. Katrina's rainfall extended from the Gulf Coast up to, amazingly, much of northern New England and even Canada. In terms of sheer, destructive, landscape-altering power, the likes of Katrina hadn't been seen since 1969's Hurricane Camille.

But, of course, it doesn't explain all the failures of local, state and especially the federal government. As disaster tends to do, the heroism of individuals came to the fore, such as that 21 year-old man who essentially commandeered a bus and drove dozens of refugees all the way to Houston.

And, as far as police, media, military and government authorities, Katrina brought out the worst in them as well as highlighting their real attitude and ultimate agenda toward a vulnerable citizenry. In short, Hurricane Katrina was a harsh headmistress instructing us as to how not to conduct an emergency response and she betrayed the shocking inhumanity of those in power toward those not in power, including passive and active racism that resulted in the deaths of nearly 2000 innocents.

Since Irene made landfall and hit New England just yesterday right after being downgraded to a tropical storm, I think I speak for millions when I say we breathed a sigh of relief not only at the far lesser damage she'd left in her wake than her big sister Katrina but relief that we didn't have to rely on Uncle Sam to bail us out.

It would literally require a book or a long miniseries documentary to list all the failures in judgment and humanity before, during and after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.

These failures actually began to quietly rack up back in 2002 when George W. Bush denied the necessary funds to the Army Corps of Engineers the money they needed to fix the levees and pump stations. By this time, the New Orleans levees was a stereotypical government project: Ongoing for roughly 80 years by Katrina's landfall, it still had never been completed. Later, the Army Corps of Engineers, not the Bush administration, was sued for its negligence. Years later, the Bush administration had the chutzpah to request that Louisiana pay the ACOE $1.5 billion to help complete work on the levee.

Just a year before Katrina, a computer simulation was done to see how a Category 5 hurricane would affect New Orleans. The fictional storm, Hurricane Pam, provided the scientists with data that would prove stunningly prescient: The simulation predicted that 80% of the city would be under as much as 20 feet of water and would pack winds over 150 mph. The only miscalculation was that Katrina, at the height of her fury, was packing winds of 185 mph.

The Bush administration paid a GOP-friendly New Orleans consulting firm, IEM or Innovative Emergency Management, $500,000 to draft out a disaster evacuation plan that was apparently never written. “We can’t find your plan. Neither can FEMA,” the BBC's Greg Palast told an IEM representative who was hiding behind a glass wall. “I guess it’s kind of hard to evacuate a city if you can’t find the plan itself.”

Meanwhile, back in Crawford, in between ignoring Cindy Sheehan and going to GOP fundraisers, Bush was getting briefed by Michael Brown, head of FEMA (by now long since demoted to below a Cabinet-level position) and NHC's then director, Max Mayfield, tried to brief the "president" about the storm's likely outcome, including the topping if not the breaching of the levees. Bush then cut his vacation short... to go on another GOP fundraiser in San Diego so he could compare himself to FDR.

Was this a lapse in judgment on Bush's part? Sure. But there were several. The day Katrina made landfall, Bush helped John McCain celebrate his 69th birthday and had cake with him. He also got a guitar and played it while hundreds drowned, thereby becoming the Nero of the 21st century.

Then, when his vacation was officially over, Bush did flyovers to view the damage but not low enough to see the half-eaten corpses of African Americans and alligators floating in the streets of the French Quarter in highly toxic water nor to see the coffins that had been washed from what was supposed to be their final resting places.

Then Bush landed, thereby grounding rescue helicopters so he could tell former horse inspector Michael Brown, "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie."

Geraldo Rivera of Fox News September 5, 2005 in perhaps his finest hour from a dark and damp Convention Center packed with 25,000 refugees. The Convention Center wasn't built to take in even one.

Sure, part of Geraldo's conduct was theater but underpinning that was a shocked disbelief shared by many of us that our government could be so cruel, callous and essentially worthless in the face of a storm. That same night, from the Super Dome, Shep Smith had a similar epiphany and was practically screaming at the injustice of the horrors he was witnessing while host Sean Hannity sat in his climate-controlled sound stage 1500 miles away and calmly but idiotically asked Smith for "context." 55,000 people were packed into two large buildings with no food, water or medical aid while all those things and more awaited them on the other end of the bridge.

Meanwhile, Blackwater, arriving in New Orleans unannounced, would eventually get $70,000,000 of "security" contracts from the Bush administration while Halliburton would get billions in cleanup contracts over local businesses and would qualify for small business tax breaks simply because the oil services behemoth didn't ordinarily get cost-plus no-bid cleanup contracts. Then Bush tried to suspend the Bacon-Davis Act so that the people doing the actual cleanup would get paid under minimum wage.

The USS Bataan sat off the coast waiting to have their 800 hospital beds filled and saw not one occupied. The ship also had the capacity to desalinize daily 100,000 gallons of salt water yet was not used.

70 nations had pledged and offered well over a billion dollars in money and aid and we'd refused it with the arrogance of a pirate captain who would not allow his crew to be rescued by another ship. Wal-Mart trucks trying to deliver water and ice were diverted from where it was needed the most to where it wasn't needed. It looked, for all the world, as if the Bush administration was committing genocide under our very noses.

The aftermath was hardly any better. Charter schools began replacing the public schools so that the children who'd once attended those schools could no longer afford to go to them. Houses and entire neighborhoods were razed and replaced by luxury condos. The gentrification had begun and Mardi Gras suddenly started looking a lot whiter.

The former residents of NOLA were shunted to tiny trailers bought by FEMA that contained dangerously high levels of formaldehyde. Right wing cocksuckers like Neal Boortz began calling the victims "scumbags" for being unfortunate enough to get in the way of Katrina and embarrassing the Bush administration. Their jobs were gone, their homes were gone and, in many cases, their families were gone.

Then in 2009, just days before leaving an office that he'd shamelessly stolen while being stupendously unqualified for it, Bush snarled at mild media criticism over Katrina and claimed that he'd rescued 30,000 people as if the 1800 deaths were unavoidable and unworthy of mention. Let me know if I've forgotten anything because I know I have.

The overall impression we were getting from both the media and the government was that, at the slightest sign of anarchy, black people would immediately resort to barbarism and rape, kill and loot at the first opportunity. The facts speak otherwise: It was the white people, especially those in unaffected Algiers Point and the New Orleans Police Department, especially at the Danziger bridge, who were the ones who'd resorted to barbarism.

Note that I am not providing the usual linkage because these and many other clusterfucks, the countless hundreds of moral, mental and administrative failures are, I would hope, eternally etched into our collective memory. These and many other stories that didn't make the grade for the 5 and 10 o'clock news should serve as a referendum that our government, especially when run by right wingers, is far more prone to position itself rather than the infrastructure and its citizenry for damage control.

And when the government's credibility is impugned, no matter who's in power, we the people will be snarled at and eventually deemed expendable.


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