I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Why Katrina matters (still)

GUEST POST - by Film Diva

Note (from Glenn): I receive a fairly regular flow of e-mails asking me why I don't address this issue or that issue which is, in the view of the inquirer, The Issue of Supreme Importance. Usually, there's an implicit (and often explicit) chiding component to the inquiry -- a suggestion that I am being lax (or worse) in failing to address Incomparably Important Issue X.

Usually, the reason I haven't addressed the issue in question is simply because I don't think I have anything to say about it that isn't being said in many other venues. One can develop an expertise or form a unique perspective only with regard to a finite number of issues, and I try only to blog when I think I have something worth saying.

In any event, ever since it became apparent to me that I would have to reduce my blogging for a few weeks in order to devote more time and attention to that still-unrevealed project, I began responding to such inquiries -- at least when they came from regular commenters here -- by telling them that they should write a post about the issue that they think is so important (rather than assigning that task to me) and I will post it as a guest post.

Following is the first such post from the superb and astute commenter Film Diva, who wanted to know why I haven't written about the Bush Administration's failures re: Katrina, in response to which I asked her to write a post containing what she thought should be said on the issue:


By Film Diva

Beyond its status as one of the worst natural disasters in American history, beyond the fact that within one week Katrina displaced more Americans than at any another time in our history (according to
CBS News, Katrina "displaced some 770,000 residents — the most since the great Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s. The storm destroyed or made uninhabitable some 300,000 homes"), even beyond the fact that Federal, State and local responses to Katrina have been met with polarized critique largely falling along party-lines, Katrina (and subsequent actions in response to it) matters urgently for every American.


It took hundreds of years (350 of it with African slave or Asian conscripted labor, not to mention the indentured servitude of Irish and other European immigrants) to build the infrastructure of our American cities (the conditions of our roads, power grids, reservoirs, dams, you name it). It is also one of the most critical issues facing every state in America. These things don't build themselves, and they certainly aren't paid for by private corporations out of their profits (not even the energy industry). Are we prepared to abandon our cities once they reach a critical damage-to-repair-cost ratio? Have we come to that place in (the decline) American history where we must abandon whole regions for lack of funding?


In the House report on Katrina entitled:
A Failure of Initiative this is clearly pointed out: "Government failed because it did not learn from past experiences, or because lessons thought to be learned were somehow not implemented. If 9/11 was a failure of imagination, then Katrina was a failure of initiative. It was a failure of leadership" (emphasis in original).

Katrina was not a tropical storm, nor was it a panhandle hurricane, roaring along a coastline, displacing hundreds of folks. Katrina struck one of the most vulnerable sections of the US -- vulnerable because of the relative poverty levels in the area, vulnerable because of the state of the marshlands and coastline after literally hundreds of years of mismanagement, vulnerable because of the high percentage of oil and gas that flows into and out of the region. As users of petrol energy all over the U.S. know, Katrina's disruption, in addition to the political and military issues we are having with virtually every supplier on Earth, is still rippling through the economy.

And the next hurricane season is about to begin. Thanks to the transcripts we know the Director of the National Hurricane Center specifically told the President and FEMA in briefings that Katrina would be a disaster: "
Only the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 and Hurricane Camille had more pressure."

From the House Report:

Our investigation revealed that Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare. At every level – individual, corporate, philanthropic, and governmental – we failed to meet the challenge that was Katrina. In this cautionary tale, all the little pigs built houses of straw. Of all we found along the timeline running from the fictional Hurricane Pam to the tragically real devastation along the Gulf coast, this conclusion stands out: A National Response Plan is not enough. What’s needed is a National Action Plan. Not a plan that says Washington will do everything, but one that says, when all else fails, the federal government must do something, whether it’s formally requested or not. Not even the perfect bureaucratic storm of flaws and failures can wash away the fundamental governmental responsibility to protect public health and safety (emphasis mine).

How is Bush responsible? Well, in my family, we learned the importance of leading from the front. As a leader it's important that our President show up for catastrophic events. Take this gem of misdirection from the White House "Lessons Learned" about Katrina. In a foreword similar to the House report, but with a critical lack of date/time information, makes President Bush appear to have launched himself into the center of the catastrophe instead of the truth which is that he flew over the flooded city of New Orleans in Air Force One -- not making this appearance until days later:

Even as parts of New Orleans were still under water, President Bush spoke to the Nation from the city’s historic Jackson Square. He stated unequivocally, that “[f]our years after the frightening experience of September the 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I, as President, am responsible for the problem, and for the solution.”

Watching the AP video report on the Katrina briefings, it's clear that, in fact, the President did not feel responsible for the problem or its solution. Instead, continuing his curious mix of forcing states to rely on their own resources (FEMA withheld resources waiting for the State and Local authorities to ask for them and let’s not forget the latest uproar among State Governors over the Medicare plan) and consolidating power in the Executive branch (I can't even get into the use of illegal wiretaps here).

Bush's utter lack of engagement in the unfolding of this crisis is criminal. Period. Hell, the National Guard is supposed to perform disaster relief functions, however as they are subject to federalization (and are the Pentagon’s answer to deployments lasting up to 3 years), then clearly we, as Americans, can’t rely on their presence (as the folks in LA and AL found out when their own Nat’l Guard was in Iraq during the storm thus delaying response while units were mustered from thousands of miles away).

And it’s not enough for BushCo to cite faulty intelligence from state and local officials. We know from various sources (including the above-referenced House report) there was a “lack of Federal representatives in the city” even “Louisiana State Senator Robert Barham, chairman of the State Senate's homeland security committee, summed up the situation in Louisiana by stating, ‘People could not communicate. It got to the point that people were literally writing messages on paper, putting them in bottles and dropping them from helicopters to other people on the ground.’” (emphasis mine)

LA Congresswoman Landrieu said in her speech requesting the initial emergency aid, “Let’s fix the problem, not the blame.” Six months later, we’re still grappling with it.


There is so much that isn’t going right with the rebuilding in New Orleans it’s hard to decide where to begin. I’ll highlight just a few.

Criminal Justice (from KATRINA ACTION NETWORK):

In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans (and I’m sure many other parishes and counties throughout the Gulf States) lost court records, evidence, the courthouse and the jail. What does this mean for criminal justice in a part of the country notorious for its lack? Just what you think it does: MSM outlets hype the fear that rapists and murderers are going free (no doubt true), meanwhile petty thieves and innocent citizens languish in a prison system that no longer allows for representation, or a speedy trial. Basic constitutional rights are being denied.

* The poor - over 80% of defendants qualify as indigent -- too poor to afford an attorney. (MCC report "Performance of the New Orleans Criminal Justice System 2003-2004"

* Low-level offenders - 85% of the people arrested in New Orleans are arrested for non-violent offenses. 67% of all court convictions are for simple possession. (MCC report "Performance of the New Orleans Criminal Justice System 2003-2004")

* Innocents - Louisiana has the highest rate of wrongful convictions in the country. (Professor Samuel Gross Univ. Of Michigan, EXONERATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES 1989 THROUGH 2003)

How differently do you think YOUR municipality will act in the event of catastrophic destruction of the physical infrastructure of justice?


According to a
February 10, 2006 report filed with the LA TIMES, there are literally TEN THOUSAND trailers sitting in Arkansas right now, unable to be delivered because no one (meaning BushCo or the state/local officials) has cut through the red tape of FEMA restrictions regarding their placement (one of which is a NO FLOOD PLAINS restriction – clearly a big problem for almost any Gulf Coast resident hoping to return).

Even upper-middle class White folks are having a tough time getting their homes rebuilt. And these are people with insurance, relatives with a plot large enough to host a FEMA trailer, and access to health care (below is from the CBS news story at the top).

Ann and George Yarbrough

This was the Yarbroughs' retirement home, a spot by the sea near their grandchildren. But Katrina wiped their two-story house off the face of the earth when the eye of the storm came through Waveland, Miss., on the Gulf Coast. While almost all of their possessions disappeared with the wind, they knew they would return and rebuild. They finally received a FEMA trailer in December and parked it on their daughter and son-in-law's lot, not far from their own. Just this week, the couple received the architectural plans for their new, smaller home — to be raised 24 feet above ground. They have a builder lined up, but have to wait until he is available. "Seeing these plans and knowing that we are going to be able to rebuild makes living in this trailer worthwhile," says Yarbrough, wiping back tears.

Imagine what it must be like to someone who was living on the financial margins of American life. I am. As a young Angeleno renting (because the housing market out here is outrageous), I would be hard-pressed to recover from a total loss. I think most of the folks out here who have purchased homes and are paying interest-only loans would be hard-pressed as well. Although they may not know it yet. Bush’s plan to give out $150,000 to homeowners (meaning renters get diddly) is clearly a mid-term election year ploy coming 6 months after the fact. Too little, too late for folks looking to rebuild their entire lives from top to bottom. Especially given the number of outside investors looking to (finally) gentrify the 9th Ward.

Physical and Mental Health:

Folks are still finding bodies down there. At least 1300 people are unaccounted for, many of the remains haven’t been identified. This is in addition to the massive pollution of Lake Pontchartrain and the city itself. If the EPA is issuing warnings then trust that the truth is much much worse. The White House’s own Lesson’s Learned report gives ominous statistics, “The storm’s surge flooded three Superfund65 toxic waste sites in the New Orleans area, and destroyed or compromised at least 170 drinking water facilities and forty-seven wastewater treatment works along the Gulf Coast.” (Notes from original, emphasis mine).

This should be something that unites folks across the aisle, but the MSM has ADD, and Democrats haven't pushed hard enough to keep this in the national consciousness even though it’s clear from the level of support the American Red Cross has received (and other charities like Habitat for Humanity) that it has broad popular support and isn’t one of those Not In My Backyard issues because, thanks to 9/11, we can all imagine a catastrophe in our home towns. If ever there was an issue that would turn the worm of Republican base support in the so-called red-states this is it.

Even country music stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw are speaking out against the President’s lack of leadership and initiative. So, volunteer, donate, agitate, whatever you can do to move this issue to the forefront of the National Debate. There’s a red flag on the field: BushCo is so unplugged from the reality of being middle-class in America that the Houston Astrodome looks like upward mobility (at least to his mom), homeowner grants leave non-property owners swinging in the wind (hello, anyone under the age of 35), and faith-based initiative funding has a place in Federal budgeting (I can't wait for the Church of Satan to apply for one of these grants...or the Scientologists). Bush can’t win on this issue because he’s already failed.

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