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September 06, 2005

A BBC Rescue Boat in New Orleans

Stephen Darwall: September 6, 2005

Yesterday I saw the most amazing BBC video coverage from New Orleans, which spoke volumes about the character and focus of even our belated relief efforts there.  You can find it at the BBC News site (Thanks to Ciaran.)  What you will see is footage from a small boat that a BBC reporter and crew took into one of the poor African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans.  Winding their way past floating dead bodies, they find their way to a house with five children and their dead mother, whom they rescue.  "It seems quite incredible to me," says the BBC reporter, "that we are the only boat in this neighborhood.  And in every neighborhood we have gone into there are so many people with so many needs."  After taking the family to an evacuation point, they return to the neighborhoods and find two middle-aged African-American brothers still holding on in their house because they don't want to leave their deceased mother, whose body hangs above the water level in a sling.  Presently, the report turns to the relief effort itself and to the high proportion of military/police to medical support.  "When the authorities do come to these streets, it's more often in pickup trucks with guns, more guns than medical workers."  Dr. Greg Anderson is interviewed and says, "There are a lot more cops ... and guns than doctors.  For a long time, I'm sorry to say, I was the only doctor down here in central New Orleans."  An equally distressing proportion is the ratio of  human needs met by that small BBC crew to those met by the enormous US news and "news" operations, not to mention, the national guard and other national support, considered in relation to their relative size.

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Tell Us Again

Neil Buchanan: September 6, 2005

Tell us again that government is the problem, that things will be perfect if we just shrink our governments down to nothing and allow the wonders of private enterprise to solve all of our problems.  As we look in horror at the grisly results of under-funded and ignored public works projects, we need to hear again the song that lulled us to sleep for decades, telling us that we will all be better off if we vilify and ridicule all government programs.  Surveying the terrible human cost of a monumental failure to plan for an emergency that was not only predictable but predicted, we need to hear again that the invisible hand is the best planner and that government planning will inevitably make matters worse.

Tell us again that poverty does not matter.  We loved hearing that people living on welfare really had it pretty good, that they were driving around in Cadillacs, that the poverty line had been manipulated by liberal professors to inflate the amount of money going to undeserving people who refused to get a decent job.  When we worried that maybe some people really could not live on minimum

wage incomes (even supplemented by what remained of the safety net), we loved being told that poverty does not matter because over time some people move out of poverty and into higher income groups.  Sure, at any given time, there might be poor people, but we were happy to hear that they need not be stuck there for a terribly long time.  The people who died last week because they were too poor to leave the path of disaster might have had a shot at middle class status one day.  Or the kids that they might have raised might have had a shot.  Maybe.  Let us hear that one again.  It sounded so good.

Tell us again that discussing race is a divisive ploy, that the civil rights gains of the sixties ended any real need to address lingering issues of racial disadvantage in our country.  We long for the voices that told us how racial discrimination was a thing of the past, that political concerns about race were cynical attempts to create guilty consciences in innocent hearts and minds, that there is no longer institutionalized racism, that nominally color-blind laws mean that we really live in a color-blind society.  Seeing the faces of the most stricken victims of the disaster, we must be reminded that racism has been defeated.  We need to hear that story again.

Tell us again that sending ill-equipped national guard troops to die abroad had no downside at home.  Tell us again that public spending is a waste.  Tell us again what a great idea it is to have guns in the hands of millions of people, so that they will be safe from their government.  Tell us again that the federal government is not needed because local and state governments should handle their own affairs.  Tell us again that one state’s problems are of no concern to people in other states.  Tell us again that we can have anything we want and not have to pay for it.  Tell us again that the most important policy is always, always to cut taxes for rich people.

Tell us again that we were smart to have a nonstop tax-cutting, safety-net-shredding party, even while we ignored warning after warning that the costs of our irresponsibility would be incalculable.  Looking helplessly on as the death count begins, as the damage is assessed, as the most shameless politicians continue to pretend that nothing has changed, we need to hear one more time that all of this really was a great idea.

Tell us again.  Please.

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September 02, 2005

three views of New Orleans, with no editorial comment in sight

Don Herzog: September 2, 2005

First, from a high-ranking Kuwaiti official:

When the satellite channels reported on the scope of the terrifying destruction in America [caused by] this wind, I was reminded of the words of [Prophet Muhammad]:  "The wind sends torment to one group of people, and sends mercy to others."  I do not think and only Allah [really] knows that this wind, which completely wiped out American cities in these days, is a wind of mercy and blessing.  It is almost certain that this is a wind of torment and evil that Allah has sent to this American empire.  Out of my absolute belief in the truth of the words of the Prophet Muhammad, this wind is the fruit of the planning [of Allah], as is stated in the text of the Hadith of the Prophet.

But I began to ask myself:  Doesn't this country [the U.S.] claim to aspire to establish justice, freedom, and equality amongst the people?  Isn't this country claiming that everything it did in Afghanistan and Iraq was for truth and justice?  How can it be that these American claims are untrue, when we see how good prevails in the streets of Afghanistan, and how it became an oasis of security with America's entrance there?  How can these American claims in the matter of Iraq be untrue, when we see that Iraq has become the most tranquil and secure country in the world?

But how strange it is that after all the tremendous American achievements for the sake of humanity, these mighty winds come and evilly rip [America's] cities to shreds?  Have the storms have joined the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization?

How sad I am for America.  Here it is, poor thing, trying with all its might to lower oil prices which have reached heights unprecedented in all history.  Along with America's phenomenal efforts to lower the price of oil in order to salvage its declining economy and its currency that is still falling due to the "smart" policy America is implementing in the world comes this storm, the fruit of Allah's planning, so that [the price of] a barrel of oil will increase further still.  By Allah, this is not schadenfreude.

Oh honored gentlemen, I began to read about these winds, and I was surprised to discover that the American websites that are translated [into Arabic] are talking about the fact that that the storm Katrina is the fifth equatorial storm to strike Florida this year … and that a large part of the U.S. is subject every year to many storms that extract [a price of] dead, and completely destroy property.  I said, Allah be praised, until when will these successive catastrophes strike them?

But before I went to sleep, I opened the Koran and began to read in Surat Al-R'ad ["The Thunder" chapter], and stopped at these words [of Allah]:  "The disaster will keep striking the unbelievers for what they have done, or it will strike areas close to their territory, until the promise of Allah comes to pass, for, verily, Allah will not fail in His promise." [Koran 13:31].

Second, from Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), Speaker of the House:

Lawmakers have to ask themselves if it’s worth sinking possibly billions of federal dollars into rebuilding New Orleans, a low-lying city which would remain a vulnerable hurricane target even after clean up, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Wednesday.

"It doesn’t make sense to me," said Hastert during an interview with the Daily Herald editorial board.  "And it’s a question that certainly we should ask."

Congress' most powerful Republican undoubtedly wasn’t the first to think such a thought, but as the man at the head of a chamber charged with approving federal disaster aid legislation, he knows the potentially taboo topic won’t go away.

"First of all your heart goes out to the people, the loss of their homes," said Hastert of Plano.  "But there are some real tough questions to ask about how you go about rebuilding this city."

Hastert said his office worked nine weeks straight putting together the disaster relief for New York City following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.  This could take even longer, he said.

"We help replace, we help relieve disaster," Hastert said.  "That is certainly the decision the people of New Orleans are going to make.

"But I think federal insurance and everything goes along with it and we ought to take a second look at it," Hastert added.

"But you know we build Los Angeles and San Francisco on top of earthquake fissures and they rebuild, too.  Stubbornness."

Those remarks were followed by the inevitable "clarification":

"It is important that when we rebuild this historic city that we consider the safety of the citizens first.  I am not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated.  My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt," Hastert said in a statement sent to news organizations Thursday.

Third, from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA):

I will speak for a moment about energy and about what the gulf coast contributes to the energy independence and energy security of this Nation.  As millions of people have been leaving their homes to flee to higher ground, 442 rigs or platforms have been deserted by companies in the Gulf of Mexico.  When I say deserted, not just, of course, left to wreak havoc, but they have been tied down, secured, supported.  All nonessential emergency personnel have had to move out of the Gulf of Mexico.  This evacuation represents 50 percent of the manned rigs and platforms in the gulf.

Right now, oil and gas from the Gulf of Mexico and coastal Louisiana represents 60 percent of the entire Gulf of Mexico production.  For the time being, that has been shut down....  I have discussed with Members of this Senate the importance of our LOOP facility.  The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port sits right out on the Continental Shelf, near Port Fourchon Louisiana, and is a superport responsible for the entrance of 1 million barrels of oil a day.

We are in Iraq, in an important battle, but part of our objective there is to secure an oil supply for the region and for the Nation and to use that for the betterment of the people of Iraq, for their growth and development and the security and stability of the world, as well as to fight for other issues.  We are fighting to get 1 to 3 million barrels out of Iraq, and right here in the Gulf of Mexico, today, we have a facility that has virtually been shut down because of a hurricane.  Nearly a million barrels is being imported in this country, and exported, a year....

My point is, I hope we will again use this opportunity to focus on the critical infrastructure needs necessary for Louisiana and the gulf coast of Mississippi and Alabama primarily to protect itself not just from homeland security threats from terrorists but real threats of weather.

People might say: Senator, why did they build the port here in the first place?  I understand that.  If we could do it again, knowing what we know now, perhaps that would not have been done.  I will speak for a minute about that because I want people to understand the argument.  Men and women are here because the oil and gas is here.  If we could figure out a way to have people live in Chicago and commute every day down to the Gulf of Mexico to get the oil and gas out of the ground, then people would not have to live here, but we have not figured that out yet.  So real life men and women and children and families live here.  They have to live here to serve as the platform for the oil and gas that keeps the lights on all over the country.  Yet we ask them time and time and time again to literally risk their lives to do so, and we cannot find a few million dollars in this budget to lift this highway so either they can get out or they can be safe....

Let me talk about what else is going on.  Louisiana wetlands are not a beach.  I have spent a lot of my life growing up in the gulf area, and I have spent a lot of time on the Florida beaches, and I have never seen anything more beautiful.  We in Louisiana support those beaches.  We understand the tourism.  We are some of the tourists that go there.  But our coast is not a beach.  We do not have a beach unless you want to count Grand Isle.  It is beautiful and wonderful, but does not look like Destin, Florida.  It is a lovely small beach.  That is about the only beach we have.  The rest of our coast is not a beach.  It is a wetlands.  It is not the wetlands of Louisiana, it is America's wetlands.  It has been washing away at an alarming rate.  The difference between a major hurricane coming out of the gulf in 1940 and a major hurricane coming out of the gulf this year ... is we have lost thousands and thousands of acres.  The size of the State of Rhode Island has been lost in the last 50 years, so the buffer has been shrinking that protects the city of New Orleans and much of the populated portions of Mississippi.  That has been lost.

So the people who live on the gulf coast of Mississippi and the southern part of Mississippi and Louisiana are at greater and greater risk because those barrier islands that once existed, those acres and acres and square miles of wetlands, have been eroded.  Why?  For two reasons.  One, we leveed the Mississippi River for commerce, not just to benefit Mississippi and Louisiana but to benefit the Midwest, the Northeast, the West, to open up trade and opportunity up and down that Mississippi River.  We had no choice.

If you want to go to before the trade and go to when the country started, we had to anchor the mouth of the Mississippi to literally create the Nation  unless we wanted to stop at the Kentucky border or the Shenandoah Valley, which was a choice at one time.  We could have just made the United States go from the east coast to the Shenandoah Valley, and we could have had a wonderful nation right there in the East.  But we decided to go West.  We decided to go all the way to the Oregon Trail with Lewis and Clark.  President Jefferson had a vision, but that vision could not possibly happen without anchoring the security of the mouth of the Mississippi River.  So we did.  We had to basically try to tame this very wild place, very wet place, very low-lying place.

But we did it not just for ourselves; we did it for the whole Nation, with the Nation's help and support.  We did not pay for everything, but we contributed a great deal.  Today we continue to give billions of dollars out of the gulf coast in oil and gas revenues and taxes that go to this country.  We continue to send our labor and our support and our money to this Nation.  Yet time and time again, when Louisiana comes to ask, Could we please have just a portion of the revenue that we send? we are not asking for charity; we are asking for something we earned; we are happy to share with the rest of the country to help invest in infrastructure we are told:  We cannot do it this year.  We do not have enough money.  It is not a high enough priority.

Well, I do not know when it is going to get to be a high enough priority.  I hate to say maybe it is going to take the loss thousands of lives on the gulf coast to make this country wake up and realize in what we are under-investing.  Again, we lose a football field every 30 minutes.  We have lost more than 1,900 square miles in the past 70 years, and the U.S. Geological Survey predicts we will lose another 1,000 square miles if decisive action is not taken now.

Now, we have made good plans in the last several years to save the Everglades.  We are well on our way to do that.  We have plans underway to restore the Chesapeake Basin, which is an extremely important ecosystem to this part of the country.  We have some preliminary plans underway in the Great Lakes.  But no area not the Everglades, not the Chesapeake, and not the Great Lakes of this great Nation contributes more economically or energy-wise than the wetlands of America that lay to the south along the gulf coast.  They do not compare to the energy contribution; they do not compare to the fisheries contribution; they do not compare to the commerce contribution of this Nation or the port contribution when you put it together.  Yet we seem to be getting less, not more....

We also have a bill through the WRDA legislation, which is the traditional funding for the Corps of Engineers, the Federal agency primarily responsible to keep the waterways dredged, to keep the levees up as high as possible, to work with our local flood control folks, particularly our levee boards in Louisiana, which are some of the most important public entities we have, that literally keep people dry from heavy rains and from floods and storms of this nature.

But let me also repeat, again for the record, I know every time a hurricane hits in North Carolina or South Carolina or Florida, other people who are not familiar with hurricanes say:  Why do the people live along the coast?  Why do we let people live along the coast?  I think that is a legitimate argument that could be made for resort communities.  It is not mandatory they live there.  They choose to live there because, of course, the coastlines are very pleasant and beautiful places to live.  In fact, Americans really agree with that because two-thirds of the entire population of the United States live within 50 miles of the coast.  So that is an issue that could be debated, and we could talk about that.

But Louisiana people who live in Port Fourchon, while they enjoy living there, believe me, and while they love to shrimp and they love to fish, they are there doing a great service for this Nation, working in an energy industry and trying to dig out of the gulf the resources this country needs.  Where people live along these bayous, they are fishing and they are contributing to industries.  They do not have a lot of fish in downtown New York.  They do not have a lot of fish in Chicago.  The only place you are going to catch fish is in the water.  So you have to live there basically to catch the fish.  They are living there for a livelihood....

Now people want to say, maybe we should if a big storm hits just move New Orleans.  I do not know how you move a major metropolitan area.  But I also say this about my great city, where I grew up and have represented, still to this day and in many different ways throughout my life the people, the city is 9 feet generally below sea level.  But we have some of the most sophisticated pumping systems in the world.

In fact, the engineers who built the pumping stations that supply New Orleans with flood control were the engineers who helped Holland and studied in Venice.  We do not have halfway pumping systems.  We have the best in the world.  We have the best engineers, the finest pumping systems.  We are an old city, and we spend a lot of our money to keep those pumping systems up to date.  In fact, the Federal Government has been a major partner.  I am proud to have led the effort.  The Southeast Louisiana Flood Control program has invested hundreds of millions of dollars, Federal and State money, to upgrade those pumping systems.  So we are not Pollyanna about this.  We are not Johnny-come-lately.  We have great engineers.  We are smart.  If fact, we have taught the world how to drain floodwaters because we have been doing it the longest, for over 300 years.

But the city can do just so much, when it has a population that is challenged.  We are not the wealthiest State.  We are not the richest State.  We need our Federal Government to understand that we are happy to share our resources and riches with the world, but we do deserve a greater portion of these revenues to keep our people safe, to keep our infrastructure intact, and, most certainly, to be respectful of what the people of Louisiana and the entire gulf coast contribute to our national well-being and security.

Sen. Landrieu offered those remarks on the Senate floor.  She was worrying about Hurricane Ivan, on September 15, 2004.

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