I watched the first half of Spike Lee’s documentary on Hurricane Katrina last night. Riveting and gut-wrenching. If you get HBO, be sure to see it.
Among many things revealed by the storm was our ambivalence about federalism and the respective roles of state and federal government. You might remember that as people waited for rescue from the flood, the Bush Administration’s attitude was that the hurricane was a state and local problem.
The President was asked about Katrina during yesterday’s press conference. His response, in short, was that a whole lot of money had been allocated, but that it was entirely up to people at state and local levels to figure out how to proceed. And I agree that governors and mayors and people close to the destruction should be determining what needs to be done and making decisions about allocation of resources.
However, something seems to be seriously out of whack, somewhere. Chris Adams, Jack Douglas, and Sharon Schmickle report for McClatchy Newspapers:
Hundreds of thousands of lives are on hold throughout New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One year after Katrina devastated the area on Aug. 29, huge swaths of the region are barely beyond the basic cleanup stage.
Life for many survivors is still one obstacle after another:
New Orleanians must contend with the loss of public schools (only 29 percent are open), bus routes (only 49 percent are operating) and child-care centers (only 23 percent are open), according to an index of Katrina statistics compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Everybody has insurance hassles to deal with or FEMA stories to tell.
One big flaw in the “it’s the states’ problem” theory is that a big chunk of the federally allocated money is going into the pockets of federally contracted businesses. And these people are doing to the Gulf what they did to Iraq. Justin Park reports for The New Standard:
Taxpayers around the nation who urged the federal government to pay for relief and reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina probably didnâ€™t expect their money to be spent on $279 meals and $2,500 tarps. But according to a newly released report, corporations hired by the federal government have not only inflated costs but committed labor abuses and delayed the reconstruction process, making millions while local companies and workers have been left behind.
The report, released last week by the Oakland-based non-profit CorpWatch, which investigates the private sector, details corporate price gouging, contracting pyramid schemes, labor abuses and unnecessary delays in the wake of last yearâ€™s hurricane season. The “disaster profiteers,” as CorpWatch calls them, include Halliburton, Blackwater, Fluor, CH2M Hill and Bechtel â€“ all of which have also received federal contracts for work in Iraq.
“What we found is that rampant disaster profiteering abuses are needlessly slowing down the reconstruction of New Orleans and the rest of the stricken Gulf Coast region after Katrina,” CorpWatch director Pratap Chatterjee told reporters. Chatterjee, who is author of the book Iraq Inc. about contractor abuses in halfway around the world, compared the situation along the Gulf Coast to that of the Middle East.
According to the report, the clearest instances of waste in Gulf Coast reconstruction are the contracting pyramids schemes â€“ layers of subcontracting that turn an easy profit for the many middlemen. This layering creates distance between corporations such as Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) and the subcontractor that ultimately performs the work. It allows KBR, for example, to plead ignorance when labor abuses are uncovered, as happened when a subcontractor was caught employing undocumented immigrants late last year and accused of mistreating them.
I like this part:
The report also alleges that many workers, both undocumented and otherwise, remain unpaid. As also reported by The NewStandard, immigrant workers â€“ many of them undocumented â€“ were drawn to the disaster zone by promises of high wages and plentiful work. When they arrive, many face hazardous work conditions and often are stiffed out of pay.
Slavery is the new capitalism.
Let’s look at some of the comments made by the President yesterday:
Q Thank you, Mr. President. As you know, the one-year anniversary of Katrina is coming up. And there are a lot of retrospectives about what went wrong down there last year. Specifically, what has your administration done in the past year to help the folks down there, and what remains to be done?
THE PRESIDENT: Thanks. You know, I went to New Orleans, in Jackson Square, and made a commitment that we would help the people there recover. I also want the people down there to understand that it’s going to take a while to recover. This was a huge storm.
First things — the first thing that’s necessary to help the recovery is money. And our government has committed over $110 billion to help. Of that, a lot of money went to — went out the door to help people adjust from having to be moved because of the storm. And then there’s rental assistance, infrastructure repair, debris removal. Mississippi removed about 97 percent, 98 percent of its — what they call dry debris. We’re now in the process of getting debris from the water removed. Louisiana is slower in terms of getting debris removed. The money is available to help remove that debris. People can get after it, and I would hope they would.
Q What —
THE PRESIDENT: Let me finish. Thank you.
We provided about $1.8 billion for education. That money has gone out the door. We want those schools up and running. As I understand, the schools are running now in New Orleans, a lot of schools are.
Only 29 percent of those schools are open, according to the McClatchy Newspapers report quoted above.
Flood insurance, we’re spending money on flood insurance. There is more work to be done, particularly when it comes to housing. We’ve spent about — appropriated about $16 billion, $17 billion for direct housing grants to people in the Gulf Coast and in Louisiana.
I’m not sure to which “$17 billion for direct housing grants” the President refers. I googled and learned that there is a program called “Road Home” that has $7.5 billion for individual grants to Louisiana homeowners who want to rebuild and repair, and another $1.7 billion for relocation. And as of today, guess how much of the housing grant money has made it into the hands of homeowners?
Zero. However, 42 homeowners should get checks by the end of this week.
The program was delayed at several points. It took Congress ten months to allocate the money, and Governor Kathleen Blanco held it up a couple more months to make sure safeguards were in place to prevent fraudulent claims.
But I bet Franklin Roosevelt wouldn’t have let Congress dither for ten months over an appropriation like this. He would have shoved it through Congress. Personally.
Bush says he wants “local folks” to be in charge:
I thought it would be best that there be a local plan developed and implemented by local folks. And so there’s now, as I mentioned, $16 billion of direct housing grants. Each state has developed its own plan, how much money goes to each homeowner to help these people rebuild their lives. And so I think the area where people will see the most effect in their lives is when they start getting this individualized CDBG grant money.
And that sounds grand, but if most of the recovery money is going to contractors, and the contracts are being made in Washington, and all these federal contractors are operating without oversight, then seems to me those local folks don’t have much control over what’s getting done. And from what I can tell not much is getting done, except where private capital is available to get it done.
And it also seems to me that there is more to be considered than just rebuilding homes and businesses. IMO there should be a master, multi-state plan that takes meta-issues like flood prevention, wetlands and ecosystems into consideration. Otherwise, decisions made by local officials now might create big problems later. I’m not saying the feds should dictate every detail of the recovery, but they should be providing some general oversight and parameters. A big chunk of the United States was damaged; and the success or failure of the recovery will have long-term effects on the entire country. The feds should have some responsibility beyond allocating money.