Bush’s Second Gulf Disaster [Archives:2005/877/Opinion]

September 15 2005

By Terry Kark
President Bush has asked that Americans not “play politics” at this moment of terrible national disaster. But asking hard questions of our nation's leaders is exactly what democracy demands when the government's response to Hurricane Katrina is widely viewed as “a national disgrace.”

Katrina came with at least two days' warning, but authorities waited to issue an evacuation order. There was no transportation for people without cars or money, facilities to house and care for refugees were insufficient, there were no forces in place to deliver desperately needed supplies or to secure order, and there was nowhere near the number of boats, helicopters, and other craft necessary to rescue the stranded.

Hampered by a National Guard with 40% of its people in Iraq, the pace of getting military personnel to the hardest hit areas was inordinately slow. For four days, there was simply no clear center of command and control. As a result, countless people suffered and died.

Much of this failure is the result of the Bush administration's policies, which effectively eroded the capacities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the government agency primarily responsible for dealing with disasters. Obsessed with the war on terror as well as an ideology of privatizing the functions of government, the administration systematically sapped FEMA's long-term ability to prevent disaster or at least cushion the blows when prevention is not possible.

FEMA was downsized and downgraded from a cabinet position, then placed under the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission of disaster planning and preparation was dropped entirely, and its focus was altered to fight terrorists. Its leadership had no experience in disaster management. The past director was one of Bush's Texas political cronies, and the current director's qualifications include a stint as commissioner for judges and stewards with the International Arabian Horse Association, where he was asked to resign for “supervision failures.”

Since 2001, billions of dollars were shifted from disaster relief to homeland security and the war in Iraq. Key disaster mitigation programs were slashed and federal funding for post-disaster relief was cut in half. The Army Corps of Engineers' budget for levee construction in New Orleans was gutted, including funds specifically aimed at the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project. Preventive measures to protect people and property were not carried out despite FEMA's own conclusion in 2001 that a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three “likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country.”

Believing FEMA to be an “oversized entitlement program” and that the “business of government is not to provide services,” Bush's first FEMA director instituted new outsourcing requirements as part of a major privatization effort. This provoked a brain drain as experienced FEMA personnel moved into the private sector

Privatization also left poorer states and poorer communities especially vulnerable. As money dried up and federal programs were contracted out to private firms at higher rates, only the richest and politically most important states and communities could compete successfully for the scarce federal grants necessary to pay for services.

For example, Florida (with 16 more electoral votes than Louisiana and where the president's brother governs) received its requested funding to protect its wetlands. By contrast, a more needy Louisiana (with its staggering 24% poverty rate) was denied its request for flood-mitigation funds in 2004. With Louisiana's ability to protect itself weakened and the center of disaster relief badly undermined, an inadequate government response and unnecessary destruction were almost inevitable – with the poor paying the price.

But the failure of this administration runs deeper than its chronic and intentional diversion of resources away from the types of policies that keep people safe from disaster. Despite scientific evidence demonstrating that the increased intensity and frequency of hurricanes is related to climate change, the Bush administration systematically rejects participation in international climate-protection regimes. Rather than continue a ban on wetlands development instituted by previous administrations, the Bush administration overturned it. Because development-provoked erosion has brought the Gulf of Mexico 20 miles closer to land than it was in 1965, hurricanes are able to retain more strength, and their winds and waves pack more speed and destructive power.

Similarly, loss of wetlands threatened New Orleans' levees, which were built on the assumption that they would have 40 to 50 miles of protective swamp as buffer between the city and the Gulf of Mexico. Despite every major study showing that a massive coastal restoration program and higher levees were needed to protect New Orleans, the administration permitted federal agencies to stop protecting 20 million acres of wetlands, allowed developers to drain thousands of acres and in 2004 cut funding for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80%.

New Orleans is America's canary in the mineshaft. Ideologies of privatization that incapacitate effective government, permitting the privileged to save themselves while leaving the poor clinging to roofs, must now be challenged. This disaster is a chilling reminder of what happens when government fails to protect its citizens, and it is imperative that Americans demand accountability. Officials who did not do their jobs must be dismissed, and elected officials whose policies aggravated the devastation wrought by Katrina must be removed from office. We owe this to the dead and to the survivors.

Terry Lynn Karl is Professor of Political Science at Stanford University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2005.