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September 14, 2005

Why I'm Blue

Adam Barelski

      There's one major thing that gets under my skin about this devastating situation in the coastal cities along the Gulf of Mexico, namely New Orleans. I understand the fact that the Katrina was unstoppable (despite the fact that Kerry Emanuel published a survey in Nature that concluded that there was a direct, rather astonishing, relationship between mean global temperatures and the destructiveness of tropical cyclones—meaning that stopping global warming might abate some storms). What I do not understand and what makes me rather angry is the utter lack of preparedness for this kind of disaster.

      New Orleans had been sinking, and it was well-known. In fact, in 2001, FEMA identified the threat of a category 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three most destructive disasters likely to occur in the United States (the others being an earthquake in San Francisco and a terrorist attack in NYC). This "theoretical occurrence" was well-covered, too; the Houston Chronicle, for example, reported in 2001, "If a Category 3 storm or greater with at least 111 mph winds were to strike New Orleans, the results would be cataclysmic."

      Moreover, a 2003 survey showed that New Orleans was not adequately prepared to handle, and could not at that time be well-protected against, Katrina or another sizeable hurricane. So why was there no effective evacuation plan?

      The Bush administration had been decreasing funding for the levees in New Orleans for the past three years (because the money needed was being spent on the War in Iraq and tax cuts for the wealthy), and it did not show any seriousness in rebuilding the city's protective delta. The National Guard was not present when the disaster struck; it was not prepared to fulfill the duty for which it was designed because the Bush administration called nearly half of the Louisiana National Guard to service in Iraq.

      Now that the levees have collapsed and tragedy has befallen the coast, officials of the Bush administration—and Bush himself—have claimed that this was unexpected and could not have been anticipated. They have blamed the local authorities. Well, both of these are completely unsatisfactory. The fact is that Chertoff's claim on "Meet the Press" that the impact on the levees by Katrina was unforeseen has been debunked; the man that briefed him prior to Katrina warned Chertoff of the possibility that the levees might break. Regardless of all the reports and models about the possibility of the levees breaking, Bush was insistent on "Good Morning America" that it was unpredictable. And as for the local authorities? The 2004 National Response Plan states explicitly that the federal government must pre-empt the response of the local or state governments in catastrophic circumstances that inundate the capabilities of the local or state governments.

      Last but not least, FEMA under Michael Brown has been utterly incompetent in all of this. I love the bureaucracy as much as the next man, but FEMA's response—turning away fuel offered by the Coast Guard and supplies offered by Wal-Mart—and the lack of planning on its part is inexcusable. This is not an abstract thing, either. People are dying because of Brown's mistakes. Because of Bush's mistakes. And there is no excuse. There was a real warning of this tragedy, but the federal government failed to act. Bush hired an unqualified man to direct FEMA, who has stated that he had believed Katrina would be a "standard hurricane," and as such did not expect its devastating consequences. Michael Brown has demonstrated his inability to properly run one of the most important agencies in the federal government; he should be removed from the job.

      You know what else makes me sad? While President Bush talks about "the fantastic new porch" that will be built on Trent Lott's house, Barbara Bush in all of this has said (in response to the death and relocation of the poor folks of New Orleans) that "so many of the people in the arena here were underprivileged anyway, so this [move to Texas] is working very well for them." It's plain scary how out of touch with the people of the United States this family is.

      Finally, in all of this squalor and death and destruction, Bush has the audacity to ask us not to "play politics" with the situation. The reality of the situation on the ground is such that no one is playing. I, for one, do not think of the lives of American citizens as a game. I have had enough excuses, and I think the administration should be held accountable for its gross failure.

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