Shit Rolls Uphill to Washington:
"They don't have a clue what's going on down here. They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn, excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed."
United States - On Thursday night New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin gave an interview to a local radio station, WWL-AM, and its correspondent, Garland Robinette. It makes for tough listening, particularly the ending, when Robinette falls to tears, and finds himself struggling with his sign-off.
Robinette had asked the question everyone would want to ask: What had the mayor said to U.S. President George W. Bush, who had not, at least not then, made an appearance on the ground in the besieged city? "I told him we had an incredible crisis here and that his flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice," the mayor told Robinette.
Nagin was referring to the president's ceremonial airborne viewing of the Gulf Coast and the devastation delivered by Hurricane Katrina. After the flypast, the president had held a Rose Garden press briefing in which he quantified shelters (78,000), and tarps (10,400) and ice (3.4 million pounds) and promised that, with time, "New Orleans will be back on its feet." The scene seemed a mere pit stop amid a five-week "working vacation" at the ranch, the one down the road from where the mother mourned the death of her soldier son.
How do you reckon that, when your citizens are dead, and stuck in attics, and on rooftops and there is no optimism anywhere to be spotted in the landscape? "You pull off the doggone ventilator vent and you look down there and they're standing in there in water up to their freaking necks," said Nagin. And then the lootings and the shootings and the rapes. "You have drug addicts that are now walking around this city looking for a fix, and that's the reason why they were breaking in hospitals and drugstores. They're looking for something to take the edge off their jones, if you will. And right now, they don't have anything to take the edge off. And they've probably found guns."
How do you reckon that you've not being given the help you need? "We authorized $8 billion to go to Iraq lickety-quick ... Now, you mean to tell me that a place where most of your oil is coming through, a place that is so unique when you mention New Orleans anywhere around the world, everybody's eyes light up ? you mean to tell me that a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died and thousands more that are dying every day, that we can't figure out a way to authorize the resources that we need?"
Nagin figured that Bush, and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, had better "get their ass on a plane." By the end of the interview, neither man could speak.
Yesterday, Bush quick-stepped across the emerald green veldt of the White House lawn ? suit, white shirt, blue tie ? on his way to make a personal connection with the people of Mobile and Biloxi and New Orleans. It was time. Four days after the fact. "The results," he said of aid and rescue efforts, "were unacceptable."
The words, flat as fetid water, came too late. In this, one of the worst disasters to be visited upon the richest nation in the world, the president failed the test of leadership and could not, even after excoriating criticism started to mount in the media, show himself to be emotionally touched by the events before him. The New York Times had deemed Bush's Rose Garden speech "casual to the point of carelessness." Howell Raines, ex of the Times, compared the "dilatory" performance of the president to that of the president's father. "George H.W. Bush couldn't quite connect to the victims of Hurricane Andrew, nor did he mind being photographed tooling his golf cart around Kennebunkport while American troops died in the first Iraq war," wrote Raines. "After pre-emptively declaring a state of emergency, the younger Bush seemed equally determined to show his successors how to vacation through an apocalypse."
The evocation of Joseph Conrad was fitting. As once-tranquil waterways delivered Conrad's "immense darkness," images of the Gulf Coast bore an eerie resemblance to lawlessness in Sierra Leone or Liberia. Almost as eerie are the premonitions, now being sifted like entrails, which forewarned of this very apocalypse. A single spare fact, cited by Scientific American, makes the point: every 24 minutes, Louisiana loses an acre of land. The deterioration of the coastal wetlands, the patchwork efforts to maintain canals and pumping stations, the constant reallocation of water in the below-sea-level city, was a delicate balance sustainable only by the infusion of massive amounts of capital and the absence of any major disaster. Full-scale restoration was pegged at $14 billion (U.S.)
The capital did not come.
As desperately needed financial resources were denied ? Congress approved $42.2 million, or less than half of what the Army Corps of Engineers sought for flood programs ? scientists forewarned of storm surges in the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain should a high-level hurricane deliver its full force. In mid-July, Ivor van Heerden, director of the Center for the Study of the Public Health Impact of Hurricanes at Louisiana State, was quoted in U.S. News & World Report with this dire message. "If a hurricane comes next month, New Orleans could no longer exist." Even a Level 3 storm was deemed a high enough risk for breaching the levee walls. "You're talking about creating a refugee camp for a million homeless residents," said van Heerden.
When the worst did come, the attachment of blame, or what the first Bush president called "the blame game," predictably commenced. The assessed ineptitude of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in charge of disaster response, has come in for widespread criticism, but that, too, leads back to Washington, as FEMA has been rolled into the Homeland Security Department, and has perhaps become emasculated, or at least disorganized, in the process.
Governor Blanco was inexplicably slow to invoke the activation of the executive order that allowed out-of-jurisdiction law enforcement officers to enter the disaster area. That order wasn't issued until Thursday, the same day President Bush laggardly requested $10.5 billion in emergency aid.
New Orleans Mayor Nagin blamed FEMA, the governor and Homeland Security for taking perilous decisions about the city's pumping stations.
The itemization of blunders and mishandlings is bound to continue.
The person destined to remain in the eye of the storm is Bush himself. Not since the release of the infamous photos of Abu Ghraib has the phrase "failure of leadership" had such currency. Those best positioned to assess that charge are the victims themselves. Some of those in the Big Easy may harken back to the days of Louisiana governor Huey Long, a demagogue and a corrupt demagogue at that, but one who championed the state's poor. Bush now faces charges that the poor and disadvantaged were the most left behind in New Orleans. These are people the president would never call "my base" as he once did his well-heeled benefactors. It will not go unnoticed that the U.S. Senate is scheduled next week to consider a long-promised piece of Bush legislation, the elimination of the estate tax. As Hendrik Hertzberg notes in the current issue of The New Yorker, the tax relief will sift "some $1.5 billion a week ? about the same as the Iraq war ? from the public treasury to the bank accounts of the heirs to the nation's twenty thousand biggest fortunes."
By the end of the day yesterday, Bush, arisen from his torpor, had been given an eyeful. As proof of leadership it was too little, too late.