Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Saturday, August 26th, 2006.

“New Orleans was Iraq redux with an all-American cast.”

Bush Administration, corruption, Hurricanes

“We will stay until the job is done,” President Bush said today about the Gulf Coast, which is the same thing he said earlier this week about Iraq. But isn’t it odd that he speaks about a region of the U.S. the same way he speaks about a foreign country? “We” will “stay” in the Gulf Coast until the job is done? The Gulf Coast is home; it’s us. We’re staying whether the “job” gets done or not.

[Update: Josh Marshall noticed the same thing

Commenting on Katrina recovery Saturday in his weekly radio address, the President sounded as if he were reading from one of his Iraq speeches by mistake: “We will stay until the job is done.” Well, it’s not as if the federal government can hightail it out of Louisiana or Mississippi. Where would it go exactly?

The further implication of the President’s remarks is that the federal government was not present before Katrina struck, an absurd and offensive suggestion. New Orleans would not have existed as a modern city if not for the Army Corps of Engineers. The President would have us believe that the federal government came to the rescue after this natural disaster, albeit a bit late. In fact, the Corps and decades of federal flood control policy played a pivotal role in what was a manmade disaster in New Orleans–the failure of the levee system. (No one has done a better job of banging this drum than Harry Shearer, the actor, comedian, author, media critic, and sometime journalist.)

It was a really weird thing to say, even for Bush.]

Frank Rich, behind the New York Times subscription firewall [Update: Here’s the column outside the firewall.]

The ineptitude bared by the storm — no planning for a widely predicted catastrophe, no attempt to secure a city besieged by looting, no strategy for anything except spin — is indelible. New Orleans was Iraq redux with an all-American cast. The discrepancy between Mr. Bush’s “heckuva job” shtick and the reality on the ground induced a Cronkite-in-Vietnam epiphany for news anchors. At long last they and the country demanded answers to the questions about the administration’s competence that had been soft-pedaled two years earlier when the war first went south.

And the same federal contractors that soaked up billions in tax dollars to not reconstruct Iraq are getting more billions to not reconstruct the Gulf Coast.

A year after the storm, the reconstruction of New Orleans echoes our reconstruction of Baghdad. A “truth squad” of House Democrats has cataloged the “waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement” in $8.75 billion worth of contracts, most of which were awarded noncompetitively. Only 60 percent of the city has electricity. Half of the hospitals and three-quarters of the child-care centers remain closed. Violent crime is on the rise. Less than half of the population has returned.

Let the cameras roll:

What’s amazing on Katrina’s first anniversary is how little Mr. Bush seems aware of this change in the political weather. He’s still in a bubble. At last week’s White House press conference, he sounded as petulant as Tom Cruise on the “Today” show when Matt Lauer challenged him about his boorish criticism of Brooke Shields. Asked what Iraq had to do with the attack on the World Trade Center, Mr. Bush testily responded, “Nothing,” adding that “nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks.” Like the emasculated movie star, the president is still so infatuated with his own myth that he believes the public will buy such nonsense. …

… with no plan for salvaging either of the catastrophes on his watch, this president can no sooner recover his credibility by putting on an elaborate show of sermonizing and spin this week than Mr. Cruise could levitate his image by jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch. While the White House’s latest screenplay may have been conceived as “Mission Accomplished II,” what we’re likely to see play out in New Orleans won’t even be a patch on “Mission: Impossible III.”

Ann M. Simmons, Richard Fausset and Stephen Braun write for the Los Angeles Times that the Katrina disaster isn’t something that happened a year ago; it is ongoing.

Despite four emergency spending bills passed by Congress to provide more than $110 billion in aid, federal agencies have spent only $44 billion. Even as President Bush insisted last week that “$110 billion is a strong commitment,” he conceded that the recovery effort was plagued with “bureaucratic hurdles.”

The scale of the catastrophe continues to overwhelm the government’s capacity to respond. Aid agencies only now are contending with the long-term needs of hundreds of thousands of evacuees and with the landscape of shattered houses and public infrastructure that will take years to restore.

Many homeowners and business owners have waited impatiently for promised grants and loans as federal and state officials have spent months dickering over how much and where to spend aid — and officials remain at odds over who bears the blame for the inconsistent flow of Katrina aid. …

… But after a year of fielding constituents’ pleas for help, U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., said, “We’re seeing the same thing going on with the recovery as we did with the immediate response. We’re going through another unfolding disaster.”

Get this:

Until last week, when the White House Office of Management and Budget released an agencywide breakdown of recovery spending, the administration had not provided a clear overview of how the money was being doled out. For much of the year, elected officials, government auditors and outside experts had to rely on fragmentary indicators of the pace of recovery spending, which handicapped efforts to monitor the process.

“It’s not only that we don’t know what’s been spent. We haven’t even had an accurate description of what ‘spent’ means,” said Rob Nabors, Democratic staff director for the House Appropriations Committee. “They talk about ‘commitments’ and ‘obligations’ — they’ve invented new terms for not spending money.”

Somebody better watch ’em to be sure Katrina money isn’t ending up in the Middle East somewhere.

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Life Lessons

Bush Administration, corruption, Hurricanes

In today’s radio address, President Bush delivered a couple of paragraphs about how awful it was and how “Americans responded with heroism and compassion” to last year’s Katrina disaster. And then he said (emphasis added),

Unfortunately, Katrina also revealed that federal, state, and local governments were unprepared to respond to such an extraordinary disaster. And the floodwaters exposed a deep-seated poverty that has cut people off from the opportunities of our country. So last year I made a simple pledge: The federal government would learn the lessons of Katrina, we would do what it takes, and we would stay as long as it takes, to help our brothers and sisters build a new Gulf Coast where every citizen feels part of the great promise of America.

I’d like to know more specifically what lessons he thinks “the federal government” ought to learn, and if he has any clue that “the federal government” has, in fact, learned anything so far.

James Gerstenzang writes in today’s Los Angeles Times that the anniversary of Katrina presents a public relations challenge for Bush’s handlers.

Bush is planning to spend much of Monday and Tuesday in Mississippi and Louisiana, visiting regions that were devastated by the winds and floods that accompanied the storm.

His goal, said White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino, is to “reflect on the many people who died,” as well as on those who rescued others. He will examine “how America opened up its arms and wallets” to care for the survivors.

But in the view of administration officials, their advisors and others, the question of how Bush should approach the anniversary is a difficult one. Speechwriters must craft presidential remarks that recognize devastation and recovery, but that also show an awareness of government failures in responding. Staffers must find locations for his visit that demonstrate progress but do not minimize problems and mistakes.

But electronic and print media are running a flood of feature stories and programs with a unanimous message: The government’s response to Katrina continues to be a bloated, wasteful, inefficient mess. Here are just a few links to stories I found this morning:

Michael Eric Dyson, “Not Much Has Changed,” Newsweek (web exclusive).Blurb: “President Bush made some bold promises to help the Gulf Coast’s poor after Katrina. Too bad he hasn’t kept them.”

Michelle Roberts, “New Orleans awaits billions in fed aid,” Associated Press

William Douglas, “Bush has fallen short in steering recovery, experts say,” McClatchy Newspapers. See also McClatchy’s “Katrina One Year Later” archive.

Eric Lipton, “Despite Steps, Disaster Planning Still Shows Gaps,” New York Times

Stephen Sackur, “One year on: Katrina’s legacy,” BBC. Blurb: “New Orleans sells itself to the world as the Big Easy. But one year after Hurricane Katrina there’s nothing easy about life in New Orleans.”

Ben Macintyre, “Another Katrina and that’s it,” Times (London) Online. Blurb: “The future of New Orleans depends on restoring coastal wetlands. Guess how much has been done.”

Kristin Jenson, “Katrina, One Year Later: A city in ruins, then and today,” Bloomberg. Let’s look at this one:

This is New Orleans a year later:

Fewer than half the city’s hospitals are open.

More than 85 million gallons of drinking water are leaking into the ground each day.

Mangled cars, mounds of debris and broken traffic lights mar a city with half the population that lived there Aug. 29, 2005 — the day Hurricane Katrina struck.

Thousands of homes stand deserted.

That’s just a tiny sampling. If you do a news google for “Katrina” you get hit after hit with the same bleak message. What you don’t get are news stories about how President George W. Bush showed excellent leadership and expedited timely and efficient federal response to the recovery effort. And that’s because he didn’t.

The President’s recent statements on Katrina emphasise the big appropriations made by Congress for Gulf Coast recovery. But this Associated Press story by Michelle Roberts says that, so far, New Orleans has received only “$117 million for largest urban restoration in U.S. history.” This is mostly because of bureaucratic hurdles at the federal level —

For every repair project, city officials must follow a lengthy application process — and spend their own money — before getting a dime of federal aid to fix at least 833 projects such as police stations, courtrooms, baseball fields or auditoriums.

Residents don’t care much what the cause is. They’re just tired of crater-like potholes, sudden drops in water pressure and debris-clogged storm drains.

‘‘We’re not asking for a lot. At this point, we’re just looking for basic services: power, gas, water. Sewer that doesn’t back up into your house would be nice too,’’ said Jeb Bruneau, president of the neighborhood association in the Lakeview area. ‘‘Whatever the snafu was, the result is Joe Blow Citizen isn’t seeing the effect of that federal money.’’

Righties like to whine about the evils of bureaucrats and bureaucracies, but the fact is bureaucracies are as good or bad as their management. Clearly, the management of FEMA continues to be the same morass of incompetence it was a year ago. Early this year there was some noise about reforming FEMA, but as Seth Borenstein reported for Knight Ridder, the “reforms” under discussion amounted to tweaking the morass. Borenstein wrote that the disaster experts he interviewed …

… pointed to a recent Government Accountability Office report and to the upcoming House report, saying the problem is leadership and accountability and that it starts at the Department of Homeland Security.

Penn State University public administration professor Beverly Cigler, who studied the response to Katrina for an association of public administration professionals, said some of the administration’s changes would make matters worse by removing preparedness from FEMA.

“The way it is now, none of these piecemeal things will deal with FEMA being buried in a gigantic bureaucracy,” Cigler said. “I think we are in worse shape now than we were pre-Katrina.”

This summer, Congress was still debating whether to keep FEMA within the Department of Homeland Security or make it separate. Nothing substantive has yet been attempted to untangle the morass. (Do a news google for “FEMA reform” and you’ll get hits guaranteed to raise your blood pressure.)

Back to this Associated Press story

President Bush has acknowledged the problems posed by excessive bureaucracy.

‘‘To the extent that there still are bureaucratic hurdles and the need for the federal government to help eradicate those hurdles, we want to do that,’’ Bush said Wednesday at the White House.

A year has passed. What is he waiting for?

FEMA has signed off on $4.8 billion worth of rebuilding in Louisiana and $1.7 billion in Mississippi so far, said Darryl Madden, a spokesman for FEMA’s Gulf Coast recovery office. … The procedural requirements for local governments to collect federal aid are designed to ensure the money is spent properly, Madden said.

‘‘We are dealing with very, very large dollars. There has to be accountability,’’ he said.

Accountability? That’s rich. As I wrote a couple of days ago, the Bushies refuse to be accountable for anything they do, but they are determined to be sure state and local governments don’t misspend a penny. (For more on why the feds need a bit of watching, see Jordan Green, “Profiting from Disaster,” at CounterPunch.)

What’s stunning about this mess is that President Bush continues to be disengaged from the problems of the Gulf Coast. Sure, he’s flown down to the Gulf to get his picture taken from time to time, but what has he actually accomplished, other than sign some congressional appropriations? What has he even tried to do? Even after he blew the initial response, the Katrina disaster was still a big, fat opportunity for the President to restore his credibility. For example, he could have followed Franklin Roosevelt’s “100 days” example and call a special session of Congress to work out exactly how relief and recovery could be expedited. He could have called in the heads of agencies involved and demand that he be updated regularly on what was being accomplished, not on how much money was appropriated. He could have rattled some cages and demand accountability for ongoing problems months ago.

Yet last December I quoted a Time magazine article (no longer free content) in which the White House seemed at a loss to think of something to do.

The plan is to make January a critical month in what the President’s aides hope will be a turning-point year. The White House expects a quick victory on Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, and the State of the Union speech will nod to big goals. But when it comes to fresh and concrete ideas, the list of what Bush will actually try to accomplish in 2006 is so modest that one bewildered Republican adviser calls it “an insult to incrementalism.” …

…White House advisers tell TIME that the agenda for 2006 is in flux and that senior aide Karl Rove is still cooking up ideas. But the initiatives they have settled on sound more like Clinton’s brand of small-bore governance: computerizing medical records; making it easier for workers to take their health benefits with them when they leave a job and–an idea that captured Bush’s imagination in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina–giving a boost to Catholic and other private schools as an alternative for inner-city children.

Karl Rove was the guy in charge of Katrina recovery, remember. It seems to have slipped his mind.

Well, one politician’s screwup is another politician’s opportunity — Jim Kuhnhenn writes for the Associated Press

On the verge of Katrina’s one-year anniversary, Democrats from New Orleans to New Haven, Conn., to New York are launching a coordinated political assault on the Bush administration’s response to the devastation that struck the Gulf Coast.

Democratic lawmakers began arriving in the stricken region Thursday, making a stand that will culminate Monday when about 20 House Democrats convene in Bay St. Louis, Miss., for a town hall meeting. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana plans to deliver the Democratic response to President Bush’s Saturday radio address.

I like this part —

House Democrats on Thursday accused the administration of poorly managing the recovery effort, saying 70 percent of $10 billion in recovery and reconstruction funds were awarded to contractors without competitive bids.

“There is no question that incompetence by the Republican administration and their leaders in Congress, the lack of open government and honest leadership is a campaign issue,” said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee.

In New Orleans on Thursday, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said after a tour that the city needs a massive public works project to rebuild it physically and economically.

“For as much money as we spend in one week, one week, in Iraq – $3 billion – we would create 150,000 jobs in America,” he said. “If we spend it all along here in New Orleans, that would be 150,000 high-paying jobs. That’s where we have to go.”

That’s a great message. Dems should keep pounding it into the public from now until election day.

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