Browsing the archives for the Hurricanes category.


Shame

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Bush Administration, Hurricanes

Top Gear in New Orleans

This is a clip from a British reality show, Top Gear. In this episode, three Brits buy cheap cars in Florda and take a road trip across the Deep South to New Orleans. A video to another segment is posted at Crooks and Liars.

This clip shows the end of the trip, as the guys drive into New Orleans. Here’s a transcript:

[voiceover] My word; were we in for a shock. We had seen on the news what Hurricane Katrina had done, but seeing the devastation for real was truly astonishing.

[The Brits look around]

[Brit #1:] Oh, my god

[Brit #2:] Oh, look at this

[Brit #3:] Well, now this is extraordinary. Every house! I’ve been driving now, what about 15 miles. There isn’t a pavement, there isn’t a building, there isn’t anything that isn’t smashed. It’s such a vast scale of destruction.

[Voiceover] A year had passed since Katrina had blown through, and we sort of assumed that after 12 months the wealthiest nation on earth would have fixed it. But we were wrong.

How can the rest of America sleep at night knowing that this is here?

Well, how can we?

Happy Mardi Gras. I guess.

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Insurance Industry v. Katrina

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Congress, Hurricanes

More than a year past the devastating hurricane season of 2005, the U.S. insurance industry is getting nervous. Class-action lawsuits and rebellious state legislatures are bad enough, but now some U.S. senators of both parties are threatening to revoke the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which exempts insurance companies from federal antitrust laws.

Yesterday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told bloggers on a conference call that “The insurance industry is the enemy.”

The problem is that the insurance industry is the enemy of most everything we do today. They have an anti-trust exemption from the Depression era that was supposed to last only a few years [the McCarran-Ferguson Act] but is still with us today. This exemption allows the industry to do harmful things to the country. They are fixing prices, which would ordinarily be a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, but there is nothing we can do.

McCarran-Ferguson is under fire from a prominent Republican Senator also. When State Farm rejected a claim for the loss of a $400,000 home in Mississippi, the company wasn’t considering the political connections of the owner, Trent Lott. Lott, who is the Senate Minority Whip, announced last week he wants to revoke McCarran-Ferguson as well. Maria Reico writes for the Mississippi Sun-Herald (January 25, 2007):

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., intends to introduce legislation shortly to remove insurers’ antitrust immunity, along with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. In the House, Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Bay St. Louis, is working with Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Ore., on a similar bill.

“I don’t know what this means for me personally,” Taylor, a litigant in the suit, said in an interview. “Given my experience with State Farm, I’ll believe it when a certified check is deposited in my checking account.”

Taylor said his campaign to eliminate the insurance industry’s antitrust immunity, push for all-perils insurance and secure federal oversight of the state-regulated industry will continue. “I can assure you that effort does not go away. They have hurt too many of my friends.”

Taylor said he was motivated by what he believes is the insurance industry’s ability to fix rates and settle claims. “I’m convinced the big guys did call each other and say ‘don’t pay claims.’ It’s perfectly legal to do so.”

Lott spokesman Lee Youngblood said, “We expect to have hearings early this year.” Lott, who is also a litigant against State Farm, “was surprised to learn they were exempt and he would like to see them subject to laws like everybody else.”

The legislation would repeal the exemption in the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945 and bring the property/casualty insurance industry under federal oversight of the Federal Trade Commission.

Leahy, who has sponsored repeal legislation in other sessions of Congress, “is going to introduce it soon,” said Senate Judiciary Committee spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. The panel will hold a hearing, she said.

Last week State Farm announced a mass settlement with more than 600 Mississippi homeowners who sued the company for refusing to pay damages from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The company also made an agreement with Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood to reopen and pay other disputed claims.

However, today a U.S. District Judge slashed the jury’s award of $2.5 million in punitive damages down to $1 million. Michael Kunzelman of the Associated Press reports,

U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. in Gulfport, Miss., reduced the award to $1 million even though the judge said State Farm acted in a “grossly negligent way” by denying the claim filed by policyholders Norman and Genevieve Broussard, whose Biloxi home was destroyed by the August 2005 storm.

Louisiana has been facing another insurance crisis. After it became clear that the state’s largest commercial insurer was planning to drop all commercial property coverage in the New Orleans, Lafayette and Lake Charles areas, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco took action. She and state Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon intervened. The two Louisiana officials briefed St. Paul Travelers Cos. Inc. on levee improvements and coastal restoration efforts, and Travelers modified its plans.

But this week high-level executives of the insurance industry invited the Louisiana governor to California for an intervention of their own. Governor Blanco addressed the quarterly board meeting of the Property and Casualty Insurers Association of America, asking them to come to Louisiana to write policies. And the insurers are interested in working with Louisiana.

Why the change of attitude? Rebecca Mowbray wrote in the New Orleans Times-Picayune (January 29, 2007),

In a special legislative session on insurance this month in the nation’s most hurricane-prone state, newly elected Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and the Republican-controlled legislature did a 180-degree turn away from the pro-business efforts to help the insurance industry that have dominated since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They approved a spate of consumer-oriented reforms that one Florida newspaper described as “Ralph Nader-esque.”

Insurers say Florida destroyed its insurance market by rolling back rate increases for the state’s insurer of last resort and increasing the obligations of the state-run catastrophe reinsurance pool without adequate financing, essentially putting the state in competition with the private market. Insurers say the state’s credit rating is now in jeopardy, and that the experiment will have dire consequences and ultimately will prove anticonsumer.

The insurance industry didn’t see it coming, and rattled insurers want to make sure the revolt doesn’t spread to other states.

Hence, a sudden interest in the insurance needs of Louisiana.

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Bleep Lieberman

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Bush Administration, Congress, Hurricanes, War on Terror

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball of Newsweek write that Senator Joe “Vichycrat” Lieberman has “quietly” decided to give President Bush a pass on Katrina.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the only Democrat to endorse President Bush’s new plan for Iraq, has quietly backed away from his pre-election demands that the White House turn over potentially embarrassing documents relating to its handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans.

Lieberman’s reversal underscores the new role that he is seeking to play in the Senate as the leading apostle of bipartisanship, especially on national-security issues.

Conventional wisdom says that Lieberman is so much in love with his self-image of the Good German Democrat that he’d send his mother to Iraq to make Bush happy. Of course, it’s always possible someone is paying him off.

On Wednesday night, Bush conspicuously cited Lieberman’s advice as being the inspiration for creating a new “bipartisan working group” on Capitol Hill that he said will “help us come together across party lines to win the war on terror.”

Talk about someone backing the wrong horse.

Last year, when he was running for re-election in Connecticut, Lieberman was a vocal critic of the administration’s handling of Katrina. He was especially dismayed by its failure to turn over key records that could have shed light on internal White House deliberations about the hurricane, including those involving President Bush.

Asserting that there were “too many important questions that cannot be answered,” Lieberman and other committee Democrats complained in a statement last year that the panel “did not receive information or documents showing what actually was going on in the White House.” …

…But now that he chairs the homeland panel—and is in a position to subpoena the records—Lieberman has decided not to pursue the material, according to Leslie Phillips, the senator’s chief committee spokeswoman. “The senator now intends to focus his attention on the future security of the American people and other matters and does not expect to revisit the White House’s role in Katrina,” she told NEWSWEEK.

Joe is finding other ways to sell us all out. From an editorial in today’s New York Times:

Making his umpteenth pitch to Congress to provide more security money for New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated the obvious when he said that money to defend against terrorism should be divvied up based on an assessment of risks, not “spread across the country like peanut butter.” After all, his testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee echoed one of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The mayor estimated that more than $3 billion had been distributed in this lunatic way to date.

Unfortunately, the committee’s incoming chairman, Senator Joseph Lieberman, is partial to peanut butter. Mr. Lieberman, who won re-election last November as an independent with help from Mr. Bloomberg, continues to believe that every state, regardless of the risks or threats it faces, should be getting antiterrorism money. In negotiations with the House, Mr. Lieberman is seeking a “compromise” formula that preserves guaranteed minimums for relatively low-risk places like his home state of Connecticut. The minimums he wants well exceed the financing favored by the House, and cannot be justified on the basis of national security.

If the Senator isn’t pocketing a generous amount of “thanks” from somebody besides his constituents ….

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New Orleans: The Second Disaster

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blogging, FEMA, Hurricanes

This week I’m guest-blogging on The Drum Major Institute blog. Go give them some traffic. The post I just published is here.

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New Orleans: What a Difference a Year Didn’t Make

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Bush Administration, FEMA, Hurricanes

Jeff Franks writes for Yahoo News,

In New Orleans, 2007 begins much the same way 2006 did, with large swaths of the city still wrecked and abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, and local officials promising that better days lie just ahead.

All that’s missing is President Bush to drop in for a photo op.

Sixteen months after Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and killed more than 1,300 people, less than half of the pre-storm population of nearly half a million has returned.

About 80,000 homes in Orleans Parish were damaged, and most remain that way, creating a panorama of blight in the hardest-hit areas, which were largely poor and working-class neighborhoods.

Many businesses remain closed or struggle to survive. The landmark French Quarter restaurant Antoine’s, run by the same family since 1840, said last week its business was down 60 percent from pre-Katrina and its future in doubt.

Franks goes on to discuss the “Road Home” project, which is a state-administered program to distribute $7.5 billion in federal money to people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Katrina. As of this week the program had distributed money to only 97 out of 90,000 homeowners who have applied. Louisiana officials blame Congress, which took its sweet time — ten months — to allocate the money. But there are problems at the state level as well, as this blogger explains. A contractor chosen to distribute the money seems to, um, not be performing up to expectations. The Louisiana House and Senate have passed two resolutions to terminate the contract. Yet the contract remains in effect.

Mayor Ray Nagin also continues to turn in an underwhelming performance. Franks says he “finally appointed a czar to oversee the city’s recovery effort” last month.

Bob Herbert’s New York Times column today looks at the poor of New Orleans.

Sixteen months have passed since the apocalyptic flood that followed Hurricane Katrina. More than 13,000 residents who were displaced by the storm are still living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Another 100,000 to 200,000 evacuees — most of whom want to return home — are scattered throughout the United States.

The undeniable neglect of this population fuels the suspicion among the poor and the black, who constitute a majority of the evacuees, that the city is being handed over to the well-to-do and the white.

If you talk to public officials, you will hear about billions of dollars in aid being funneled through this program or that. The maze of bureaucratic initiatives is dizzying. But when you talk to the people most in need of help — the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the children — you will find in most cases that the help is not reaching them. There is no massive effort, no master plan, to bring back the people who were driven from the city and left destitute by Katrina.

Only the federal government could finance such an effort. Neither the city of New Orleans nor the state of Louisiana has anywhere near the kind of money that would be required. “You’ve got a lot of people who don’t have a place to stay,” Gov. Kathleen Blanco told me in an interview on Friday, “and they’re spread all over creation.”…

… The simple fact is that no one at any level of government, city, state or federal, has shown the leadership that was needed in response to this astounding tragedy.

Herbert writes that the exiled poor and black of New Orleans are increasingly convinced the federal government wants to prevent them from returning to New Orleans. This reminded me of Riverbend’s recent post, in which she said Iraqis are certain the many U.S. blunders in Iraq were actually part of a plan to destroy Iraq. Maybe, but I still think you really cannot overestimate the colossal incompetence and corruption of the Bush Regime.

Yet there are poor people in New Orleans. They aren’t necessarily the same poor who lived there before Katrina, but they’re there. Many are illegal immigrants who were lured to New Orleans, often by federal contractors, to do the hard cleanup work for slave wages so the contractors can pocket more of our tax dollars. And now the city’s fragile health care infrastructure is straining to care for a boom of Latino babies being born to mothers who have no health insurance.

Thus, the city’s former deep poverty is being replaced by deeper poverty.

Instead of using federal money for projects that would have not only rebuilt the city but would also have provided jobs with reasonable pay to the devastated residents — money that by now would be flowing generously through New Orleans retailers and other businesses — tax money is disappearing into the pockets of contractors and subcontractors. And the underground labor pool the contractors are exploiting may be tomorrow’s wretchedly poor residents, clinging to subsistence at the edge of a rich nation.

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How Americans Are

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Bush Administration, FEMA, Health Care, Hurricanes

I’m guest-blogging on Crooks & Liars this week. I am trying to constrain myself over there and not write my usual kitchen-sink-plus posts. Yesterday and today I posted a couple of brief (for me) posts on two of my favorite subjects, post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and America’s failing health care system.

Although both posts were triggered by new news stories, there isn’t any information in them I haven’t ranted on about in the past. For the “kitchen sink” details of the “Katrina” post see The Mahablog “Katrina” archive. Past posts on the health care system issue include this, this, and this.

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a column by Bob Herbert about the New Orleans Ninth Ward that I wish were not behind the subscription firewall. I am too repressed to defy the New York Times copyright and permissions department and post the whole thing here, even though I would probably get away with it. Anyway, Herbert writes that it “boggles the mind” that the U.S. seems to have taken the loss of a major city, New Orleans, in stride. Here’s a portion:

Much of New Orleans is still a ruin. More than half of its population is gone and an enormous percentage of the people who are still in town are suffering.

As Mr. [Spike] Lee noted, the public face of the city is to some extent a deceptive feel-good story. The Superdome, a chamber of horrors during the flood, has been made new again. And the city’s football team, the Saints, has turned its fortunes around and is sprinting into the National Football League playoffs. (They beat the Giants in New York yesterday, 30-7.)

“They spent the money on the Superdome, and you can get drunk in the French Quarter again, and some of the conventions are coming back,” Mr. Lee said, “so people are trying to say that everything’s O.K. But that’s a lie.

“They need to stop this focus on downtown and the Superdome because it does a disservice to all those people who are still in very deep trouble. They need to get the cameras out of the French Quarter and go to New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward. Or go to St. Bernard Parish. You’ll see that everything is not O.K. Far from it.”

Vast acreages of ruined homes and staggering amounts of garbage and filth still burden the city. Scores of thousands of people remain jobless and homeless. The public schools that are open, for the most part, are a scandal. And the mental health situation, for the people in New Orleans and the evacuees scattered across the rest of the U.S., is yet another burgeoning tragedy.

There’s actually a fifth act, only recently completed, to “When the Levees Broke,” in which a number of people reflect on what has been happening since the storm. Wynton Marsalis, ordinarily the mildest of individuals, looks into the camera with an expression of anger and deep disgust. “What is the government doing?” he asks. “They’re trying to figure out how to hand out contracts. How to lower the minimum wage so the subcontractors can make all the money. Steal money from me and you, man. We’re paying taxes, you understand what I’m saying?”

For most of America, Katrina is an old story. In Mr. Lee’s words, people are suffering from “Katrina fatigue.” They’re not much interested in how the levees have only been patched up to pre-Katrina levels of safety, or how the insurance companies have ripped off thousands upon thousands of hard-working homeowners who are now destitute, or how, as USA Today reported, “One $7.5 billion Louisiana program to help people rebuild or relocate has put money in the hands of just 87 of the 89,403 homeowners who applied.”

There are other matters vying for attention. The war in Iraq is going badly. Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell are feuding. And, after all, it’s Christmas.

“You know how Americans are,” Mr. Lee said. “We’re on to the next thing.”

That may be how Americans are, but what it says to me is that we have no effective national leadership. One of the most important functions of a leader is to keep people focused and working together on what needs to be done. And we just plain don’t have anyone filling that role right now. Dear Leader Bush is floating around in his bubble oblivious even to the basic responsibilities of the job of POTUS. In a nutshell, whatever doesn’t glorify him doesn’t interest him. And he is way disinterested in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. Meanwhile, the favored federal contractors are profiteering with abandon, getting fat and rich on our tax dollars, while New Orleans stagnates. And while some individuals have worked hard to help New Orleans, without effective national leadership most of us feel helpless to effect any real improvement.

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Outsource This

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Bush Administration, FEMA, Hurricanes

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman explains how rightie “privatization” theories are compromising national security, and lots of other stuff.

For example, an article in Saturday’s New York Times describes how the Coast Guard has run a $17 billion modernization program: “Instead of managing the project itself, the Coast Guard hired Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, two of the nation’s largest military contractors, to plan, supervise and deliver the new vessels and helicopters.”

The result? Expensive ships that aren’t seaworthy. The Coast Guard ignored “repeated warnings from its own engineers that the boats and ships were poorly designed and perhaps unsafe,” while “the contractors failed to fulfill their obligation to make sure the government got the best price, frequently steering work to their subsidiaries or business partners instead of competitors.”

Here’s the story Professor Krugman cites. It explains that this screwup has seriously “compromised the Coast Guard’s ability to fulfill its mission, which greatly expanded after the 2001 attacks to include guarding the nation’s shores against terrorists.”

Professor Krugman continues,

In Afghanistan, the job of training a new police force was outsourced to DynCorp International, a private contractor, under very loose supervision: when conducting a recent review, auditors couldn’t even find a copy of DynCorp’s contract to see what it called for. And $1.1 billion later, Afghanistan still doesn’t have an effective police training program.

In July 2004, Government Executive magazine published an article titled “Outsourcing Iraq,” documenting how the U.S. occupation authorities had transferred responsibility for reconstruction to private contractors, with hardly any oversight. “The only plan,” it said, “appears to have been to let the private sector manage nation-building, mostly on their own.” We all know how that turned out.

And then there’s FEMA.

On the home front, the Bush administration outsourced many responsibilities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For example, the job of evacuating people from disaster areas was given to a trucking logistics firm, Landstar Express America. When Hurricane Katrina struck, Landstar didn’t even know where to get buses. According to Carey Limousine, which was eventually hired, Landstar “found us on the Web site.”

Brilliant. Now, note this:

It’s now clear that there’s a fundamental error in the antigovernment ideology embraced by today’s conservative movement. Conservatives look at the virtues of market competition and leap to the conclusion that private ownership, in itself, is some kind of magic elixir. But there’s no reason to assume that a private company hired to perform a public service will do better than people employed directly by the government.

You know that for years, one of the cornerstones of rightie civic religion is that private is always better than public. The rightie answer to all government problems has been (after cutting taxes) to first deregulate, then privatize. Righties have a pure and abiding faith that public bureaucracies are wasteful and stupid and corrupt, while private companies are efficient and competent and always do the job better, whatever that job is.

Personally, I suspect anyone who’s had a middle management position in any American company for more than ten minutes knows that’s a crock. But let’s go on …

It would be interesting to trace exactly how this bit of dogma came to be so rigidly fixed in the rightie brain. Certainly there’s been an anti-government streak in America since, well, the Revolution. But the traditional anti-government argument has been that government should have strict limits to its functions to keep it from becoming dictatorial, or too intrusive into people’s private business. And, of course, taking on more tasks also leads to more taxes. I postulate that the idea that government shouldn’t do stuff because it isn’t competent to do stuff is relatively recent — dating maybe from the 1960s, when memories of World War II were starting to fade. But by the 1980s St. Ronald’s axiom that government is not the solution, but the problem, was conventional wisdom. Ayn Rand contribution to the “private is better” myth, and the 1990s saw a full-blown “CEO as superman” cult. If anyone has any other ideas of where this nonsense originated, please speak up.

Professor Krugman tells us why some people love privatization:

In fact, the private company will almost surely do a worse job if its political connections insulate it from accountability — which has, of course, consistently been the case under Mr. Bush. The inspectors’ report on Afghanistan’s police conspicuously avoided assessing DynCorp’s performance; even as government auditors found fault with Landstar, the company received a plaque from the Department of Transportation honoring its hurricane relief efforts.

Underlying this lack of accountability are the real motives for turning government functions over to private companies, which have little to do with efficiency. To say the obvious: when you see a story about failed outsourcing, you can be sure that the company in question is a major contributor to the Republican Party, is run by people with strong G.O.P. connections, or both.

Another way that the Bush Administration “outsources” is to invite outside interests into government — for example, making the chief lobbyist of the beef industry chief of staff at the Agriculture Department. Or naming an executive with the National Food Processors Association to head the Food and Drug Administration. Eric Schlosser explains,

Since 2000, the fast-food and meatpacking industries have given about four-fifths of their political donations to Republican candidates for national office. In return, these industries have effectively been given control of the agencies created to regulate them.

Combine this trend with cutbacks in FDA budget and staff — gotta pay for those tax cuts for multimillionaires somehow — and the result a sharp increase in deaths by food poisoning, Schlosser says. See also this story in today’s Washington Post.

Last week the New York Times published a series of articles on the salvage effort that rebuilt the Pacific Fleet after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. These serve as a reminder of what government — transparent government, accountable government — can accomplish. Compare the work at Pearl Harbor one year after the attacks, as reported at the time by Robert Trumbell, to New Orleans today. And weep.

Professor Krugman:

So what happens now? The failure of privatization under the Bush administration offers a target-rich environment to newly empowered Congressional Democrats — and I say, let the subpoenas fly. Bear in mind that we’re not talking just about wasted money: contracting failures in Iraq helped us lose one war, similar failures in Afghanistan may help us lose another, and FEMA’s failures helped us lose a great American city.

And maybe, just maybe, the abject failure of this administration’s efforts to outsource essential functions to the private sector will diminish the antigovernment prejudice created by decades of right-wing propaganda.

I’m not saying the private sector isn’t better than government at some things — production, distribution, and sale of consumer goods, for example. Pitting the public against the private sector is, IMO, another of the false dichotomies to which righties seem susceptible. Public and private sectors should work to support each other, not supplant each other.

In any event, the Right’s antigovernment prejudice clearly isn’t making government better. We need to replace the antigovernment bias with a simple truth: The nation will have as good a government as We, the People, are determined to have.

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Katrina’s Children

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Bush Administration, FEMA, Hurricanes

If indeed the GOP had hoped post-Katrina New Orleans would be whiter (and redder) than pre-Katrina New Orleans, it seems they hoped in vain. Eduardo Porter writes in today’s New York Times that the mostly Latino illegal immigrant community in New Orleans is growing fast.

First came the storm. Then came the workers. Now comes the baby boom.

In the latest twist to the demographic transformation of New Orleans since it was swamped by Hurricane Katrina last year, hundreds of babies are being born to Latino immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, who flocked to the city to toil on its reconstruction.

The throng of babies gurgling in the handful of operational maternity wards here has come as a big surprise — and a financial strain — to this historically black and white city, which before the hurricane had only a small Latino community and virtually no experience of illegal immigration. …

… There has been a small Latino population in New Orleans for several decades, mostly Hondurans who came after Hurricane Mitch battered Central America in 1998. But that population has started to grow.

According to the Louisiana Health and Population Survey, released in November, the number of Latinos living in households in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes has increased by about 10,000 since 2004, to 60,000, even as the total population has fallen by about a quarter, to roughly 625,000.

Last summer, researchers at Tulane University estimated that there were 5,000 to 7,000 illegal Latino workers in Orleans Parish alone, excluding nonworking relatives. But some community workers estimate that tens of thousands have arrived since the storm.

Immigrants can be seen working on roofs, installing Sheetrock and laying tile all over town, from the up-market Lakeview neighborhood in the west to East New Orleans. At the Lowe’s home improvement store in the city’s Bywater neighborhood, clusters of day laborers mill about in the parking lot every morning, waiting for jobs.

A year ago reports came out that the federal contractors the Bush Administration favored with lucrative contracts were recruiting illegals to do the work, and paying them near-slave wages. In the December 18, 2005, Washington Post, Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote,

The come-on was irresistible: Hop in the truck. Go to New Orleans. Make a pile of cash.

Arturo jumped at it. Since that day when he left Houston, more than two months ago, he has slept on the floors of moldy houses, idled endlessly at day-laborer pickup stops and second-guessed himself nearly every minute. …

… Arturo, a dour Mexican from Michoacan who did not want to disclose his last name for fear of deportation, stands at the nexus of the post-Hurricane Katrina labor crisis in New Orleans. A city desperate for workers is filling with desperate workers who either cannot find jobs or whose conditions are so miserable, and whose salaries are so low, that they become discouraged and leave.

Our President keeps telling us these are jobs “our people” won’t do … um, wait a minute, here …

At a New Orleans town hall meeting in Atlanta, displaced black civil rights activist Carl Galmon complained: “They’re bringing in foreign workers from South America, Central America and Mexico, paying them $5 an hour sometimes for 80 hours a week. They are undercutting the American labor force in New Orleans.”…

…For those who find work, conditions can be abominable, with laborers such as Rico Barrios and his wife, Guadalupe Garcia, slashing through the cough-inducing mold on walls in flooded Lakeview with only thin masks to shield their lungs, even though she is pregnant. “It’s hard,” said Barrios, who is from Mexico City, his face glistening with sweat.

This doesn’t have anything to do with jobs “our people” won’t do. It has to do with work “our federal contractors” don’t want to pay for.

David Sirota has a relevant post today at Huffington Post

… employers are using immigration and temporary visa programs to short circuit the labor market. The rules of supply and demand that corporations tell us we must never mess with are only applicable when those rules help corporations – but when they begin helping ordinary workers, the supply (in this case, of labor) must be artificially rigged to keep wages down.

It isn’t just wages that are affected. In New Orleans, the baby boom among illegals is swamping the hospitals and health care system generally. Of course, the mothers have no money, no health insurance, and they are barred from most government assistance. The few clinics that will provide free prenatal care to illegal immigrants are overloaded. So many mothers get no prenatal care; they don’t see a doctor until they go into labor. Emergency rooms have to take them at that point. After the babies are born the mothers hesitate to ask for assistance for the babies (who are citizens) because the mothers fear being arrested.

After Katrina there was talk about the inequality and poverty the storm had exposed. Even the President, in his famous Jackson Square speech of September 15, 2005, spoke of the “lessons” of Katrina and the problems of poverty —

When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there’s also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created.

Is it possible that Bush actually believed this when he said it?

I realize there is fault to be found in all levels of government, but — damn, this is just bleeped up.

I’m speed-blogging today during jury recesses, so if the post is incoherent in spots — well, I know you’ll add corrections to the comments.

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Black Holes

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Bush Administration, Congress, corruption, FEMA, Hurricanes, National Security, Republican Party

Spencer S. Hsu writes for The New York Times,

The Bush administration unconstitutionally denied aid to tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and must resume payments immediately, a federal judge ordered yesterday.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said the Federal Emergency Management Agency created a “Kafkaesque” process that began cutting off rental aid in February to victims of the 2005 storms, did not provide clear reasons for the denials, and hindered applicants’ due-process rights to fix errors or appeal government mistakes.

“It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights,” Leon, a D.C. federal judge, wrote in a 19-page opinion.

“Free these evacuees from the ‘Kafkaesque’ application process they have had to endure,” he wrote.

With FEMA, it’s hard to know how much of this nonsense is incompetence and how much of it is a deliberate strategy to avoid paying money. Possibly both.

As of June, Congress had allocated more than $107 billion “to provide emergency support and assist in longer-term recovery in the Gulf Coast,” according to the Brookings Institution. If you google for information on what has happened to that money, the words waste, fraud, and Byzantine pop up abundantly. In June, Eric Lipton wrote in the New York Times that

Among the many superlatives associated with Hurricane Katrina can now be added this one: it produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion. …

… The estimate of up to $2 billion in fraud and waste represents nearly 11 percent of the $19 billion spent by FEMA on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as of mid-June, or about 6 percent of total money that has been obligated.

Awhile back the Justice Department established a Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force. Browsing through their news releases gives the impression that the task force is focused exclusively on fraudulent claims for assistance, and certainly there’s plenty of that to keep them busy. Fraud on the part of government contractors, however massive, seems not to be a concern. And the Republican-controlled Congress seems to have done little more than go through the motions of providing oversight.

Let’s hope that’s about to change.

Meanwhile, via The Talking Dog, we find that Homeland Security misdirector Michael Chertoff has admitted that maybe Homeland Security funds are not being allocated sensibly.

Remember how this summer, the Department of Homeland Security reduced the amount of anti-terror funding NYC would get? Sure, NYC was still getting most of the funding, but funds were being increased in less risky areas with, well, influential politicians. And then the press had a field day with how Homeland Security didn’t think there were any national monuments or major buildings at risk? And then Homeland Security claimed that NY State and NYC didn’t file their request properly?

That’s pretty much what FEMA said about the people who’d had their rent aid cut off.

Well, now Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has come out and tacitly stated – though not outright admitting – that the DHS was wrong. The Post reports that at a grand-writing [grant-writing?] conference, Chertoff offered a mea culpa:

    “We’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps there was a little too much bean counting and a little less standing back and applying common sense to look at the total picture,” Chertoff told a grant-writing conference.

    “And I’ve heard the complaints about it, looking like we’re playing kind of a pop-quiz type of game with local communities,” he said.

    “They have to try to guess what we’re looking for – and if they guess wrong, they don’t get the money that they think they’re entitled to, and that they may be entitled to.”

The DHS was quick to say that Chertoff isn’t admitting the funding allocation was a mistake, but that “He’s pretty much just saying that this year we will apply some common sense [and] look at the risk in the city.” … Remember, he’s the same man who said that a terrorist attack on a subway is less catastrophic than a terrorist attack on an airplane, because it’s not like subways are connected to large stations or terminals or anything.

From here, it’s hard to know how much tax money given to the DHS (including FEMA) is actually being applied to homeland security, and how much is being sucked into a black hole. It’s also hard to know how much of the bureaucratic “bungling” is really a cover for payoffs, kickbacks, and other less-than-savory uses of taxpayers’ monies.

But I do get a strong impression that a whole lot of that $107 billion meant for Katrina relief and recovery got lost somewhere between Washington DC and the Gulf Coast.

The way the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress budgets and allocates money makes it damn hard to follow that money. The over-use of “emergency” supplemental appropriations has made the official budget something of a joke. Veronique de Rugy writes for Reason Online:

Supplemental spending, “emergency” spending in particular, has become Washington’s tool of choice for evading annual budget limits and increasing spending across the board. Funding predictable, nonemergency needs through supplementals hides skyrocketing military costs and allows Congress to boost regular appropriations for both defense and nondefense programs, thereby enabling the spending explosion of the last five years. …

… The Bush administration has used supplementals to hide the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years in, the Iraq war can hardly be called an emergency or an unpredictable event. This is especially true since one of the largest expenditures goes to the salaries and benefits of Army National Guard personnel and reservists called to active duty. Yet each year President Bush leaves out all war costs when he presents his budget to Congress, knowing that he will be able to secure the funding later through the supplemental process. This year Congress will appropriate nearly 20 percent of total military spending via supplementals.

“Emergency” supplemental spending bills have included monies for hurricane relief and recovery. Congress critters hate to vote against hurricane relief and recovery. But we have no way to know how much of that money, if any, is actually being spent on hurricane relief and recovery.

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Priorities

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Bush Administration, FEMA, Hurricanes

You can learn a lot about what’s on someone’s mind by looking at his priorities. For example, during the famous “military phase” of the Iraq invasion (March 20-May 1 2003), U.S. troops moved quickly to secure oil fields, rip up the floor mosaic depicting George H.W. Bush in the lobby of the Rashid Hotel (visitors had stepped on Poppy’s face), and haul down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square (staged so that in photos it would appear Iraqis were doing the hauling). They did these things, of course, because these were priorities for the Commander in Chief.

What were the troops not ordered to do? They were not ordered to secure: stockpiles of conventional weapons and explosives; the old nuclear research facilities at Tuwaitha; the offices of the Military Industrialization Commission, where any records of WMDs would likely have been kept; the Iraq National Museum; and many other facilities that were looted and destroyed while U.S. troops looked on. (And note that I do not blame the troops for this. I blame whoever issued the orders.)

What does this tell us about the Bush Administration’s priorities? It tells us that oil and personal revenge were priorities; WMDs and conventional weapons that might have — hell, probably did — fall into the hands of terrorists were not priorities. Finding those pesky WMDs didn’t become a priority until later, when their absence was becoming a political liability for the Bushies.

And what does it tell us about priorities that, before the invasion, the White House was gung ho about handing out contracts to their good buddies in the defense industry, but forgot to plan for an occupation at all? I’m sure I don’t have to explain what this says about priorities.

For that matter, when President Bush finally began to focus on the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, one of his first acts was to suspend the Davis Bacon Act, so that his contractor buddies wouldn’t have to bother about paying prevailing wages to workers. After he was persuaded to reverse the suspension he seems to have lost interest in the Gulf Coast entirely except as an occasional photo op backdrop. If he couldn’t exploit Katrina to devalue labor, the Gulf just wasn’t a priority.

The priority thing came to mind when I read this editorial in today’s Washington Post:

THE BUSH administration has pushed aggressively for expanded surveillance powers, military commissions and rough interrogation techniques. When it comes to fighting the war on terrorism, just about anything goes. Except, that is, those routine steps with no civil liberties implications at all that might significantly interrupt terrorism — such as, say, reading the mail of convicted terrorists housed in American prisons. The federal Bureau of Prisons, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote, “does not read all the mail for terrorist and other high-risk inmates on its mail monitoring lists.” It is also “unable to effectively monitor high-risk inmates’ verbal communications,” including phone calls. So while the administration won’t reveal the circumstances under which it spies on innocent Americans, the communications of imprisoned terrorists, at least, appear sadly secure.

WTF?

This is not a hypothetical problem. Jailed terrorists and organized-crime figures try to communicate with confederates outside of prison walls. Three inmates involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, while housed at the federal government’s highest-security prison, managed to exchange around 90 letters with Islamist extremists between 2002 and 2004, including with terrorists in Spain who were planning attacks there. Just last month, federal prosecutors accused a drug lord at the same facility of running a huge distribution network in Los Angeles using coded conversations and messages. Imprisoned people can direct major crimes from behind bars.

The mail isn’t scrutinized, the editorial continues, because there aren’t enough translators available to read it, and those officers who do take a look at the mail are not trained to recognize suspicious content.

This doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable problem. It requires only the allocation of resources to do the job. Somehow, it fell way down the White House priority list, which suggests to me that gathering intelligence on terrorism is not a high priority. Expanding executive power is the priority.

Here’s another one: What does it tell us that Congress has set aside $20 million for an Iraq victory party? This $20 million is in the 2007 budget. The 2007 budget cuts medical and prosthetic research — including research to improve treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, blast-related injuries and Gulf War related illness — by $13 million.

Priorities, anyone?

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