Columns » Warwick Sabin

Saving New Orleans, saving ourselves

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush gave a nationally televised speech in New Orleans’ Jackson Square and said “We will do what it takes.”

One year later, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast remain in critical condition.

According to a report by the Institute for Southern Studies, tens of thousands of residents in the region still don’t have homes. Aid for homeowners in Louisiana and Mississippi was approved 10 months after the storms, but none has been disbursed. The rebuilding of rental units also has stalled, causing rents to skyrocket. Eighty percent of public housing in New Orleans is still closed, despite minimal storm damage, and three coastal facilities in Mississippi will be shut down soon.

Only 57 of the 117 public schools that existed in New Orleans before Katrina are scheduled to open for the new school year, which will prevent many families from returning.

And the recovery is plagued by contracting scandals and other special-interest dealings, including $136.7 million in corporate fraud. Government investigators also have highlighted contracts worth $428.7 million that are troubling due to lack of oversight or misappropriation. One study found that corporate contracting abuse has cost taxpayers 50 times more than widely-publicized scandals involving individuals wrongfully collecting assistance.

Another obvious challenge is the environmental degradation caused by the disaster. Residents in the region continue to be exposed to a wide range of toxins, and federal officials have yet to commit the resources to restore coastal wetlands, which are the area’s best defense against future storms.

All of this amounts to a serious failure of leadership. Most troubling is that it is a willful failure. After all, does anyone doubt that Bush could assemble the resources and direct a full-scale recovery if he was determined to do so?

This is the same man who used the full power of the U.S. military to invade Iraq under false pretenses and over the objections of most other nations, and who refuses to remove our forces despite the overwhelming expense and the worsening situation there. In other words, when he wants to do something, he finds a way.

Instead, his administration has absolved itself of responsibility and shifted the blame entirely to state and local officials.

“You never ever want the state or local governments to fail in their response,” James Lee Witt told me. “That means the federal government didn’t do a good job through preparedness training and exercise.”

Witt directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Bill Clinton and is universally regarded as the most capable person to have held that position.

He also said FEMA was “handicapped” by the Bush administration.

“It was minimized in program dollars,” Witt said. “People with experience and capability were moved to other positions. It drained FEMA and left it in a weaker position.”

In that sense, the Katrina experience is merely a microcosm of Bush’s approach to governing. He has drained and weakened government in service to an ideology that doesn’t believe in government.

He’s actually pulled off the ultimate parlor trick, turning every fiasco into the ultimate justification for his actions. Bush can remove the resources from government, causing it to fail, and then use that failure to call for further cuts that will weaken government even more.

You can see that pattern in No Child Left Behind, which offers no help to underperforming schools, and instead puts them on a track to lose funding, accelerating their downfall. You can see it in Bush’s health care reforms, which simply shift the burden to the states, ensuring less money for basic services and eventual wholesale cuts. And that is where he wants to go with Social Security, diminishing it to the point where no one will come to depend upon it.

In fact, that may be the perfect encapsulation of the Bush philosophy: diminishing government to the point where no one will come to depend on it. But it’s one thing to hope for a world where no one needs assistance of any kind. It’s quite another to be indifferent to the suffering caused by the pursuit of a vision such as this.

One of the few major forces outside Bush’s control — the weather — stepped in to prove that there are some challenges only a government can confront effectively. Bush’s insensitive refusal to concede this point has resulted in poverty, cultural erosion and lost hope. Unless the nation unites to respond to those challenges, it will be haunted by Katrina forever.

The salvation of New Orleans is truly our own.

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