Life Lessons

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.

6 thoughts on “Life Lessons

  1. Excellent post!

    It does my heart good to see leading Dems finally getting around to making the obvious (to me) points. (I’ve been particularly fond of the “one week’s Iraq expenditure” unit of comparison.)

    Katrina is yet another case of Bush saying the pretty words, but not actually DOING what he says he will. Though boatloads of money fly out of the treasury in no-bid contracts to the usual suspects.

    It must be hard for Bush’s PR folks. How do you craft a message that both shows him paying attention to the disaster now, yet manages to avoid pointing out the way that he’s been completely ignoring the problem all this time?

  2. If I were a religious man, I’d be thinking God is punishing the good old U.S. of A. Disaster after disaster seem to befall us. from 9/11 to Baghdad to ‘Nawlins, to Beruit, the body count and money pit grows beyond belief.
    We need a new leader, and fast……..

  3. At this moment it appears Ernesto is heading to Grand Bay, Alabama at the Mississippi-Alabama state line after passing over the Mississippi River entrance at the Gulf Of Mexico. Shall we see how the Bush White House reacts let alone proacts to this incident. After moving from a storm ravaged home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi to west Mobile, Alabama I am apprehensive considering Ernesto will pass over our replacement home. Please Mister Dubya make your first photo-op in Bayou Labatre, Alabama which hasn’t recovered from Katrina.

  4. I stand corrected, the 5 PM CDT position shows Ernesto hooking to the right toward Perdido Key, Florida. Let’s see how the Bush Brothers proact to this potential disaster considering the punishment dealt Pensacola by Ivan and Katrina and a host of other recent hurricanes. Dubya and Jeb, we need something better than, “Run for your lives ( you are on your own ) !!!

  5. This has to be the absolutetely most awesome blog that I have read. You cover the issues so completely, that this blogger doesn’t even dare to link or cut and paste from you. You are awesome, and that’s about all the undeniable liberal has to say about that.

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