[[D I S A S T E R S]] * Once again, George W. Bush is reinforcing his creds as the Say One Thing, Do Another President. The matter at hand this time is the wonderful city of New Orleans. Just two months ago, after he and his administration failed to do enough in time to protect Louisiana’s Crescent City from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina--and then compounded that failure by entrusting the drowned burg’s rescue to a political crony, Michael Brown, with insufficient experience to handle the job--Bush made a prime-time TV address from Jackson Square, at the heart of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter. He pledged--without any quibbles and despite qualms voiced by some of his fellow Republicans--to rebuild the storm-thrashed city and the surrounding Gulf Coast in “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.”
That promise made for good television--a note of relief appended to the end of a disastrous and worrisome period for the nation. Sure, some critics such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman doubted that Bush would follow through on his commitment (“Mr. Bush already has a record of trying to renege on pledges to a stricken city ... New York.”). But there were expectations that even a president with such a limited attention span as Bush, and who had already deceived his countrymen into a war, wouldn’t abandon a beloved American city so beleaguered by nature. Bush might be no Franklin D. Roosevelt, a president who was determined to do whatever he could to help his constituents in times of need; but even Herbert Hoover, whose unwillingness to intervene economically to soften the blow of the Great Depression crippled his legacy, is credited with performing masterfully in heading up rescue and restoration projects following the Mississippi River flood of 1927.
Yet now, three and a half months after Katrina struck, Bush seems to be having a hard time even locating New Orleans on a map. And talk of hiring someone with the prominence of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to act as “hurricane czar,” leading the Katrina clean-up and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, has fallen noticably by the wayside. As Washington Post reporter Mike Allen said yesterday on NBC-TV’s Meet the Press:
I’m going to tell you something to amaze you; it amazed me yesterday. The last time the president was in the hurricane region was October 11, two months ago. The president stood in New Orleans and said it was going to be one of the largest reconstruction efforts in the history of the world. You go to the White house home page, there’s [a] Barney cam, there’s Social Security, there’s Renewing Iraq. Where’s renewing New Orleans? A presidential advisor told me that issue has fallen so far off the radar screen, you can’t find it.Has Bush simply lost interest in the Crescent City, the same way he lost interest in balancing the U.S. budget, reducing the size of government (the Department of Homeland Security pretty much killed any hope of that), and focusing federal resources on national safety? Have his GOP advisers convinced him to turn a cold shoulder to both New Orleans and Louisiana out of political bias, because they’re led by Democrats? Or is he ignoring the city and state because their destruction in August was a principal cause of his rapid decline in public approval ratings? The prez would rather tout a Labor Department assessment showing that the November U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 5 percent than point out how the jobless rate among working-age Katrina evacuees stands at a shocking 20.5 percent. He would undoubtedly prefer, as Time suggests, to leave behind his failures around Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast, ignore the continuing CIA leak scandal that has embroiled deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and forced the resignation of Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, and concentrate instead on trying to revitalize his Social Security privatization scheme, rebuild support for the Iraq war, confirm Samuel Alito as the next Supreme Court justice, lay out presidential-sounding “fixes” for Medicare and Medicaid, and endeavor to reconnect with a public that no longer trusts a word that comes out of his mouth.
But ignoring New Orleans won’t make the problem go away. In fact, as The New York Times editorialized today, it can only make things worse:
We are about to lose New Orleans. Whether it is a conscious plan to let the city rot until no one is willing to move back or honest paralysis over difficult questions, the moment is upon us when a major American city will die, leaving nothing but a few shells for tourists to visit like a museum.If Bush is allowed to break his promises to New Orleans, in the same way he and the Republican-controlled Congress sought to abandon New York City, after first using that terrorism-stricken metropolis as a backdrop for their re-election campaigns, then Americans of all stripes, and in all corners of the country, bear part of the blame for not speaking out in opposition. New Orleans is one of the greatest and most historic among U.S. cities. It’s survival can obviously not be entrusted to a prez so isolated and disinterested as George W. Bush. We must, each of us, demand that other, more responsible elected representatives keep the promise that Bush made that night in Jackson Square: “We’ll not just rebuild [New Orleans], we’ll build higher and better.”
We said this wouldn’t happen. President Bush said it wouldn’t happen. He stood in Jackson Square and said, “There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans.” But it has been over three months since Hurricane Katrina struck and the city is in complete shambles.
There are many unanswered questions that will take years to work out, but one is make-or-break and needs to be dealt with immediately. It all boils down to the levee system. People will clear garbage, live in tents, work their fingers to the bone to reclaim homes and lives, but not if they don’t believe they will be protected by more than patches to the same old system that failed during the deadly storm. Homeowners, businesses and insurance companies all need a commitment before they will stake their futures on the city.
At this moment the reconstruction is a rudderless ship. There is no effective leadership that we can identify. How many people could even name the president’s liaison for the reconstruction effort, Donald Powell? Lawmakers need to understand that for New Orleans the words “pending in Congress” are a death warrant requiring no signature.
The rumbling from Washington that the proposed cost of better levees is too much has grown louder. Pretending we are going to do the necessary work eventually, while stalling until the next hurricane season is upon us, is dishonest and cowardly. Unless some clear, quick commitments are made, the displaced will have no choice
but to sink roots in the alien communities where they landed.
The price tag for protection against a Category 5 hurricane, which would involve not just stronger and higher levees but also new drainage canals and environmental restoration, would very likely run to well over $32 billion. That is a lot of money. But that starting point represents just 1.2 percent of this year’s estimated $2.6 trillion in federal spending, which actually overstates the case, since the cost would be spread over many years. And it is barely one-third the cost of the $95 billion in tax cuts passed just last week by the House of Representatives.
Total allocations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror have topped $300 billion. All that money has been appropriated as the cost of protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. But what was the worst possible case we fought to prevent?
Losing a major American city. ...
Maybe America does not want to rebuild New Orleans. Maybe we have decided that the deficits are too large and the money too scarce, and that it is better just to look the other way until the city withers and disappears. If that is truly the case, then it is incumbent on President Bush and Congress to admit it, and organize a real plan to help the dislocated residents resettle into new homes. The communities that opened their hearts to the Katrina refugees need to know that their short-term act of charity has turned into a permanent commitment.
If the rest of the nation has decided it is too expensive to give the people of New Orleans a chance at renewal, we have to tell them so. We must tell them we spent our rainy-day fund on a costly stalemate in Iraq, that we gave it away in tax cuts for wealthy families and shareholders. We must tell them America is too broke and too weak to rebuild one of its great cities.
Our nation would then look like a feeble giant indeed. But whether we admit it or not, this is our choice to make. We decide whether New Orleans lives or dies.
MESSAGE: I’M NOT REALLY CLUELESS. WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?: Boy, how sad is Bush that he has to appear before the press to deny that he’s living in a bubble at the White House, as Newsweek portrays him in its cover story this week, surrounded by folks who protect him from news and opinions that conflict with his/their perceptions of the world? Nobody ever worried that Bill Clinton, or even Bush Sr., spent his days in the Oval ignoring reality. What must people in other countries think, to hear Dubya’s pathetic insistence that “I’m very aware of what’s going on”?
AGAIN WITH THE BUBBLE: Maureen Dowd writes in The New York Times: “The president’s bubble requires constant care. It’s not easy to keep out huge tragedies like Katrina, or flawed policies like Iraq. As Newsweek noted, a foreign diplomat ‘was startled when Secretary of State Rice warned him not to lay bad news on the president. “Don’t upset him,” she said.’ Heaven forbid. Don’t burst his bubble.” Read on.
READ MORE: “The Promiser in Chief,” by Paul Krugman (The New York Times); “Katrina: The Forgotten Tragedy” (American Progress Action Fund); “Questions for Those Still Approving of Bush,” by Bob Geiger (Yellow Dog Blog).