Unnatural Disaster

How policy decisions doomed New Orleans

Joel Bleifuss and Brian Cook

Stranded victims of Hurricane Katrina wait outside the Superdome to be evacuated.

White House Press Spokesman Scott McClel­lan told reporters in response to ques­tions about the dev­as­tat­ing hav­oc wreaked by Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, This is not a time for politics.”

But with New Orleans now under­wa­ter, hun­dreds – if not thou­sands – dead and tens of thou­sands in des­per­ate need of food, shel­ter and water, the nat­ur­al ques­tion is: What could the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment have done to lessen this cat­a­stro­phe? The answer is all about politics.

The Bush admin­is­tra­tion, hav­ing done its best to real­ize Grover Norquist’s dream of cut­ting gov­ern­ment to the size where we can drown it in the bath­tub,” for days watched impo­tent­ly as cit­i­zens of New Orleans were drowned. It is a dis­as­ter that is large­ly the con­se­quence of the pol­i­cy deci­sions that the White House has made over the past five years.

The faults of FEMA

The first defense was to plead igno­rance. On Sep­tem­ber 1, Pres­i­dent George W. Bush told Good Morn­ing Amer­i­ca,” I don’t think any­body antic­i­pat­ed the breach of the levees.”

Except Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (FEMA). In 2001 FEMA des­ig­nat­ed a major hur­ri­cane hit­ting New Orleans as one of the three like­li­est, most cat­a­stroph­ic dis­as­ters fac­ing this coun­ty.” At the time, FEMA was head­ed by Bush’s for­mer chief of staff in Texas, Joe All­baugh, a self described polit­i­cal heavy” who had no back­ground in dis­as­ter relief.

With FEMA under Allbaugh’s watch, White House bud­get direc­tor Mitch Daniels announced in April 2001 the goal of pri­va­tiz­ing much of FEMA’s work. As All­baugh explained to Con­gress a month lat­er, Many are con­cerned that fed­er­al dis­as­ter assis­tance may have evolved into both an over­sized enti­tle­ment pro­gram and a dis­in­cen­tive to effec­tive state and local risk man­age­ment. Expec­ta­tions of when the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should be involved and the degree of involve­ment may have bal­looned beyond what is an appro­pri­ate level.”

All­baugh resigned in Decem­ber 2002, announc­ing that he was going to seek his for­tune by set­ting up a con­sult­ing firm that would help cor­po­ra­tions hop­ing to do busi­ness in Iraq. His replace­ment, Michael Brown, also had no expe­ri­ence with dis­as­ter relief. 

In March 2003, FEMA became a part of the Home­land Secu­ri­ty Depart­ment and its empha­sis shift­ed from deal­ing with nat­ur­al dis­as­ters to poten­tial ter­ror­ist attacks. Writ­ing in the Sep­tem­ber 1 Wash­ing­ton Post, Eric Holde­man, emer­gency man­age­ment direc­tor for King Coun­ty, Wash­ing­ton, asked why the country’s pre­mier agency for deal­ing with such events [has been] sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly down­grad­ed and all but dis­man­tled by the Depart­ment of Home­land Security.” 

He not­ed that this year it was announced that FEMA is to offi­cial­ly’ lose [its] dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness func­tion. … In fact, FEMA employ­ees have been direct­ed not to become involved in dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness func­tions, since a new direc­torate (yet to be estab­lished) will have that mission.”

Holde­man praised James Lee Witt, direc­tor of FEMA under Clin­ton, for show­ing a seri­ous regard for the cost of nat­ur­al dis­as­ters in both eco­nom­ic impact and lives lost or dis­rupt­ed.” In the 90s, Witt had devel­oped a plan for just such a New Orleans dis­as­ter that would have pre-deployed hos­pi­tal ships and ships with pumps to remove water from the city. Accord­ing to Knight Rid­der, fed­er­al offi­cials said a hos­pi­tal ship was pre­pared to leave Bal­ti­more on Sep­tem­ber 2 – four days after the hurricane.

Pri­vate prof­its, pub­lic risk

Why was the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment so poor­ly pre­pared for a dis­as­ter on the Gulf Coast?

In June 2004, FEMA pri­va­tized its hur­ri­cane dis­as­ter plan for New Orleans, con­tract­ing the work to the Baton Rouge, La., firm Inno­v­a­tive Emer­gency Man­age­ment (IEM) whose mot­to is Man­ag­ing Risk in a Com­plex World.”

IEM announced the con­tract on its Web site on June 3, 2004, trum­pet­ing that the com­pa­ny will lead the devel­op­ment of a cat­a­stroph­ic hur­ri­cane dis­as­ter plan for South­east Louisiana and the City of New Orleans under a more than half a mil­lion dol­lar con­tract with the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Security/​Federal Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (FEMA).” But in the days after Kat­ri­na hit, the press release was removed from the company’s online press release archives, as Chi­na Mieville not­ed on the blog Lenin’s Tomb.

IEM Direc­tor of Home­land Secu­ri­ty Wayne Thomas told the mag­a­zine Biz New Orleans, Giv­en this area’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, unique geo­graph­ic loca­tion and ele­va­tion, and trou­bled escape routes, a plan that facil­i­tates a rapid and effec­tive hur­ri­cane response and recov­ery is crit­i­cal. The IEM team’s approach to cat­a­stroph­ic plan­ning meets the chal­lenges asso­ci­at­ed with inte­grat­ing mul­ti-juris­dic­tion­al needs and capa­bil­i­ties into an effec­tive plan for address­ing cat­a­stroph­ic hur­ri­cane strikes, as well as man-made cat­a­stroph­ic events.”

As Mieville opined, So, the IEM team’s approach isn’t to siphon off tax mon­ey, spout man­age­ment shit, pro­vide a demon­stra­bly cat­a­stroph­i­cal­ly inad­e­quate plan, then fuck off like craven fuck­ing cave­worms and hide the evi­dence when the fuck­ing corpses start pil­ing up?”

New Orleans’ lev­ees left behind

For years, Louisiana and the Army Corps of Engi­neers have tried to get fund­ing to shore up New Orleans’ levees.

In 2004, fund­ing cut­backs stopped major work on New Orleans’ east bank hur­ri­cane lev­ees, the ones that col­lapsed, for the first time in 37 years. In 2004, the Army Corps request­ed $11 mil­lion for work on the Lake Pontchar­train and Vicin­i­ty Hur­ri­cane Pro­tec­tion project, Bush request­ed $3 mil­lion and Con­gress approved $5.5 mil­lion. In 2005, the Army Corps request­ed $22.5 mil­lion, Bush request­ed $3.9 mil­lion and Con­gress approved $5.7 mil­lion. In 2006, Bush request­ed $2.9 million. 

On June 8, 2004, after the Army Corps of Engi­neers’ bud­get for lev­ee con­struc­tion in New Orleans had been cut severe­ly, Wal­ter Maestri, the emer­gency man­age­ment chief of Jef­fer­son Parish, told reporters, 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.”

And pay they have.

Accord­ing to Won­kette, a Wash­ing­ton D.C.-based blog, a source at the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency had this to say about flood­ed New Orleans: 

We’re nam­ing it Lake George, cause it’s his frickin’ fault. Have you seen all that data about the lev­ee projects’ fund­ing being cut over the past three years by the Prez, and the fund­ing trans­ferred to Iraq? The lev­ee, as designed, might not have held back the surge from a direct Class 5 hit, but it cer­tain­ly would not have crum­bled on Mon­day night from sat­u­ra­tion and scour ero­sion fol­low­ing a glanc­ing blow from a Class 3. The fail­ure was in a spot that had just been rebuilt, not yet com­pact­ed, not plant­ed, and not armed (hard­ened with rock/​concrete). The project should have been done two years ago, but the fed­er­al gov’t divert­ed 80 per­cent of the fund­ing to Iraq. Oth­er areas had set­tled by a few feet from their design specs, and the mon­ey to repair them was divert­ed to Iraq. … This was sense­less, use­less death caused not by nature but by bud­get decisions.”

Not every one is so pes­simistic. When George Bush looks at New Orleans he sees a city half full. The good news is – and it is hard for some to see it now – that out of this chaos is going to come a fan­tas­tic Gulf Coast, like it was before,” he told reporters on Fri­day. Out of the rub­ble of Trent Lott’s house – the guy lost his entire house – there’s going to be a fan­tas­tic house. I look for­ward to sit­ting on the porch.”

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