Thursday, September 22, 2005

Yes Virginia, There IS An Opposition Party!

Finally. The Democrats are finding their voices. In the last two weeks we've been treated to four absolutely suburb analyses of what's wrong with the direction of the country. If the Democrats run on the platform elucidated by these folks, I will be proud of my party again.

John Kerry on Bush's Response to Katrina, speaking at Brown University.
"Katrina is a symbol of all this administration does and doesn't do. Michael Brown -- or Brownie as the President so famously thanked him for doing a heck of a job - Brownie is to Katrina what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq; what George Tenet is to slam dunk intelligence; what Paul Wolfowitz is to parades paved with flowers in Baghdad; what Dick Cheney is to visionary energy policy; what Donald Rumsfeld is to basic war planning; what Tom Delay is to ethics; and what George Bush is to "Mission Accomplished" and "Wanted Dead or Alive." The bottom line is simple: The "we'll do whatever it takes" administration doesn't have what it takes to get the job done.

This is the Katrina administration."
Full text here.

John Edwards on Poverty in America, speaking at the Center for American Progress.
"Down in New Orleans, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and untold numbers lost their lives because the levees we built were too weak and too low. We knew better, but we didn't act because we didn't want to look. That's how it is with the moral foundations of our society.

All over this country, too many children are growing up in harm's way -- and too many lives are being washed away -- because the levees we've built are too weak and too low. When a 13-year-old girl thinks there's nothing wrong with having a baby that will drive them both toward lives of poverty, we haven't built the levees high enough. When 15-year-old boys become fathers, then walk away, get shot, or go to jail, we haven't built the levees high enough. When young people spend more time going to meth labs than chemistry labs, we haven't built the levees high enough.

We know better, but we don't act because we don't want to look. If we believe in community, we must find the courage to do what communities do: Together, we must stand side by side and man the levees."
Full text here (pdf).

Al Gore on just about everything, speaking at the Sierra Club convention.
"All of us know that our nation - all of us, the United States of America - failed the people of New Orleans and the gulf coast when this hurricane was approaching them, and when it struck. When the corpses of American citizens are floating in toxic floodwaters five days after a hurricane strikes, it is time not only to respond directly to the victims of the catastrophe but to hold the processes of our nation accountable, and the leaders of our nation accountable, for the failures that have taken place.

The Bible in which I believe, in my own faith tradition, says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
Full text here.

Robert Kennedy Jr. on the environment and corporate owned media, speaking at the Sierra Club convention.
"Today as a result of the abolishment of that doctrine, six giant multinational corporations now control all 14,000 radio stations in our country, almost all 6,000 TV stations, 80 percent of our newspapers, all of our billboards, and now most of the Internet information services. So you have six guys who are dictating what Americans have as information and what we see as news. The news departments have become corporate profit centers, they no longer have any obligation to benefit the public interest, their only obligation is to their shareholders, and they fulfill that obligation by increasing viewership. How do you do that? Not by reporting the news that we need to hear to make rational decisions in our democracy, but rather by entertaining us, by appealing to the prurient interests that all of us have in the reptilian core of our brain for sex and celebrity gossip.

So they give us Laci Peterson and Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant, and we're today the best-entertained and the least-informed people on the face of the earth, and this is a real threat to American democracy. If you look at the PIPA report, and I've known this for many, many years because I do 40 speeches a year in red states -- Republican audiences -- there is no difference. When people hear this message and what this White House is doing, and the Gingrich Congress, there is no difference between the way Republicans react and Democrats react, except the Republicans come up afterward and say, "Why haven't we ever heard of this before?" I say to them, "It's because you're watching Fox News and listening to Rush." And 80 percent of Republicans are just Democrats who don't know what's going on."
Full text here.

You go guys.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Feds Were Not Always This Incompetent: The Response to Hurricane Marilyn

Will wonders never cease? A friend of mine pointed me to an article in the National Review criticizing the Bush Administration's response to Katrina. They were pretty enthusiastic. Unfortunately, they were blaming bureaucracy in general, as if the notion of a government agency included incompetence by definition, wrapping it up with: "Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to make bureaucracy less bureaucratic."

You can excuse the NatReview for feeling this way. After all, conservatives spend all their time when they're out of power complaining how government doesn't work. Then when in power they spend all their time proving the point.

There is a way to make government work though. You have to want it to work. You have to give a damn about the mission you're about. Then, all things can be possible.

I was looking around to find out how well the Feds have responded to previous hurricanes and came across this excellent resource at the Quick Response Program and the Natural Hazards Center of the University of Colorado. That center reminded me of an excellent test case measuring the response of the Bush I and Clinton administrations to similar situations. In 1989
the Bush administration spearheaded relief efforts in the US Virgin Islands following Hurricane Hugo, while the Clinton administration relied on many of the same personnel and resources to respond to Hurricane Marilyn's USVI destruction six years later.

Quick Response Report #82 , written by Betty Hearn Morrow and A. Kathleen Ragsdale of the International Hurricane Center of Florida International University, reported on the response to Marilyn, with specific reference to comparing that response to Hugo. The Hugo response was very unsatisfactory:
"In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, many St. Croix residents had expressed anger that the first federal planes to finally arrive several days after the storm carried troops armed with guns, not food and water, in what many felt was an overreaction to earlier looting reports (Morrow, 1992). There was a strong racial tone to the perception of many that the U.S. troops had arrived to protect white tourists from black locals, not to provide disaster assistance to the U.S. citizens of St. Croix, most of whom were people of color."
The notion that a majority Black community had to wait several days for Federal relief efforts to arrive should have a familiar ring to it for anyone following the controversy of Federal response to Katrina in New Orleans. Even so, was that just a function of the remoteness of the Virgin Islands and the difficulty in mobilizing a large relief effort? Apparently not, as the Clinton administration's response to Marilyn was quite different:
"In anticipation of their need, a number of FEMA disaster specialists had been sent to St. Thomas before Hurricane Marilyn's landfall. By daybreak on September 16, relief supplies and personnel had already begun arriving (FEMA, 1995e). This was the first deployment of the new Federal Interagency/State Field Assessment Team designed to provide quick and technically accurate early damage assessments. According to their reports, St. Thomas received the heaviest impact - 80% of the homes were damaged, 40% were uninhabitable, and 20-30% of the businesses were destroyed (FEMA, 1995b, 1995c)...

"Within one week after the storm, FEMA had directed close to 60 strategic missions transporting more than 1,500 emergency personnel and 1.3 million tons of essential cargo, including food, water, and plastic sheeting for roofs (FEMA, 1995a). Federal Coordinating Officer Dennis Kwiatkowski was quoted as saying, "We are pulling out all the stops in getting supplies down here to make recovery happen" (FEMA, 1995e). Five distribution sites were being operated by the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) on St. Thomas. More than 2,100 federal agency personnel had been deployed. Four contracts had been awarded for immediate housing repairs. Dive teams had begun assessing infrastructural damage to the area's harbors and Navy Seabees had begun structural repairs to public buildings. Military and security forces included about 500 Army, Air Force, and Navy personnel, 500 National Guardsmen, and 500 federal law enforcement personnel (FEMA, 1995d). All major roads had been cleared, the St. Thomas airport was open for visual flight operations using a mobile air traffic control tower, and the St. Thomas Hospital was operational using generators for power."
So all of this happened "within one week", meaning that much of the work was already done on the ground in the time that the Federal Katrina responders took to glom onto the fact that they needed to respond at all.

Was the vastly quicker response to Katrina due to a much more talented force on the ground? No, most of the people involved were also involved with Hugo's response and could compare the two:

"Indeed one veteran FEMA reservist made these unsolicited remarks: "One thing that is noteworthy for your study, is that we seem to have had more active Army with weapons at Hugo. Here we have an adequate supply of federal marshals and they're doing a good job, but they [the military] were much more noticeable at Hugo. He had been one of the first FEMA workers to be sent to St. Croix after Hugo, which he attributed to having a military background. Yet, he stated, "I never felt one iota threatened on St. Croix . . . Other than the tension involved with going through one of these things [a hurricane], I found the people very helpful and honest." He had driven his rental car all over the island and was often helped when he lost his way. There was a general feeling that the atmosphere was more relaxed on St. Thomas
and, yet, the recovery process was going a lot faster than it had six years earlier on St. Croix."
So the Bush I Administration waited several days before getting help to the victims of Hurricane Hugo. When help arrived the first response was to send in the army to stop looting.

The Clinton administration responded much quicker, with humanitarian disaster relief in position in real time, offering much faster response to a devastating situation in St. Thomas. Because help was already there, looting by desperate people never happened.

Fast forward to Bush II's administration, which reverted to Bush I's pathetic too late and a dollar short response to Hugo. Once again the main initial concern was sending in the troops to stop looting, instead of disaster relief efforts. Once again help comes days too late.

The difference in these situations is that the Clinton administration WANTED to use government to make a difference for people. It's part and parcel to the Democratic Party ideology. The Republicans on the other hand have since Reagan wanted to shrink government down to a size small enough so that he could "drown it in a bathtub", as Grover Norquist famously said.

In a recent blog post I opined that right wingers were not qualified to run government, because their incompetence sprang from the simple fact that they hate their jobs, preferring to drown their jobs in a bathtub rather than execute them to the best of their ability. That blog post went up months ago. Unfortunately, Katrina just added a deadly exclamation point to the argument.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Hurricane Katrina: When the Alarm Bells Ring, Bush Hits the Snooze Button

At first blush it seems unfair to lay the disaster of Hurricane Katrina on George Bush's doorstep. After all, who can stop hurricanes from going wherever they want to go? However, the Bush administration, and the longer term policies of those who support the Bush administration, have a lot to do with how bad the carnage and destruction really are.

Failed: Protecting New Orleans from Flooding
First off, those levees did not have to have been breached. The Army Corps of Engineers has been working on shoring them up for some time, but they've been hampered by budget cuts through the years. The Southern Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project was started in 1995 under the Clinton administration. Over the years about $500 million of an estimated needed $750 million was spent shoring up levees. Under Bush, the money to complete the project was diverted in 2003, by pressures resulting from the Iraq war and the need for tax cuts for the rich.

Again, from Editor and Publisher:
"On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."
Failed: Redirecting the National Guard Away from the Scene
Speaking of the war in Iraq, are you wondering why the government emergency response so far has been so tepid? While not denigrating the heroic efforts of those that ARE on the scene, I'm sure they would be a lot happier if so much of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard was there helping, instead of helplessly watching from Iraq.

Failed: Abandoning the Gulf Coast Poor
Lots of questions abound concerning why so many people didn't leave New Orleans beforehand. Well maybe that's because that the population of New Orleans is desperately poor and unable to hop into their handy Hummers or Esplanades to truck their way out to their summer homes. That might also explain the looting. When the infrastructure of civilization collapses all around you, you still have to eat, change the baby, take your medicine and survive.

New Orleans had a poverty rate in excess of 34% before the Bush administration came to town. Since then, the national poverty rate has climbed each and every year . Had there been a continuation of the Clinton administration's economic policies towards poverty, which reduced poverty by the largest degree in 30 years, it is likely that fewer people in New Orleans would have been in such vulnerable straits when Katrina hit. I tried to check New Orleans specific figures, but for some strange reason the New Orleans municipal web server isn't responding.

Failed: Where's the Proactive Government Response?
Speaking of all of that, there's a lot of talk about how ill-prepared the government response was, from the New York Times, "Waiting for a Leader" down to one citizen talking to the Chicago Sun Times comparing Fidel Castro's response to hurricane preparations versus the U.S. response.
"I detest Fidel Castro, but I will tell you this. When a hurricane is approaching Cuba, Castro has set up a system to bus everybody out of harm's way before disaster hits.

"We knew the hurricane was going to hit New Orleans and Mississippi hard. Why didn't we send buses in to get the poor people out before disaster hit? We spend millions on recovery and rescue AFTERWARDS . . . when we could have alleviated so much death BEFORE?"
The New Orleans Times-Picayune said on Tuesday:
"No one can say they didn't see it coming. ... Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation."
But of course, there's more. Turns out that on July 24 of this year, the Times-Picayune reported that government plans for evacuation of the poor began and ended with a DVD distributed throughout the city with the message that the poor were on their own if they needed to evacuate: From that Times-Picayune story (courtesy of Attytood at the Philadelphia Daily News)
"City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans' poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you're on your own."
Keep this callous laissez faire attitude in mind when you peruse this excellent Katrina timeline.

Failed: Combating Global Warming and the Increasing Ferocity of Hurricanes
And finally, the big 800 pound elephant in the room. Fact is that just last month scientists at MIT nailed the connection between the increasing ferocity of hurricanes with global warming, specifically oceanic water temperatures. Years of global warming denial by Bush administration partisans and oil industry paid hacks have meant billions of tons of carbon dioxide warming the Earth that could have been ameliorated by now. Had we gotten to work on ratifying and implementing the Kyoto Treaty when we should have, that category 5 hurricane might have been a category 4 or 3 hurricane. That, as the people in the Gulf States are now painfully aware, makes a huge difference.

A concerned citizenry needs to respond. Over at the new NewOrleansJustice blog, there's a handy reference reminding us what the Constitutional duties of government officials are, naming names of those in charge of this unfolding catastrophe.