Col. Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for New Orleans, reports that the waters have apparently stopped rising in the streets of the Crescent City… but not due to some amazing feat by the Army Corps of Engineers. No, the credit goes to gravity. Lake Pontchartrain has finished draining itself into the city streets, to the point where the water is now level on both sides of the broken levees. The lake and the city have become one.
Thousands may lie dead in the nearly deserted city, their bodies floating in the streets or trapped in their attics where they drowned in the slowly rising flood waters. Hundreds of thousands are homeless, and estimates of damage now top $25 billion. And as a NY Times editorial scathingly points out, our president once again appears clueless in the face of crisis.
George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday, especially given the level of national distress and the need for words of consolation and wisdom. In what seems to be a ritual in this administration, the president appeared a day later than he was needed. He then read an address of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration: a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast. He advised the public that anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end.
We will, of course, endure, and the city of New Orleans must come back. But looking at the pictures on television yesterday of a place abandoned to the forces of flood, fire and looting, it was hard not to wonder exactly how that is going to come to pass. Right now, hundreds of thousands of American refugees need our national concern and care. Thousands of people still need to be rescued from imminent peril. Public health threats must be controlled in New Orleans and throughout southern Mississippi. Drivers must be given confidence that gasoline will be available, and profiteering must be brought under control at a moment when television has been showing long lines at some pumps and spot prices approaching $4 a gallon have been reported.
Sacrifices may be necessary to make sure that all these things happen in an orderly, efficient way. But this administration has never been one to counsel sacrifice. And nothing about the president’s demeanor yesterday – which seemed casual to the point of carelessness – suggested that he understood the depth of the current crisis.
While our attention must now be on the Gulf Coast’s most immediate needs, the nation will soon ask why New Orleans’s levees remained so inadequate. Publications from the local newspaper to National Geographic have fulminated about the bad state of flood protection in this beloved city, which is below sea level. Why were developers permitted to destroy wetlands and barrier islands that could have held back the hurricane’s surge? Why was Congress, before it wandered off to vacation, engaged in slashing the budget for correcting some of the gaping holes in the area’s flood protection?
It would be some comfort to think that, as Mr. Bush cheerily announced, America “will be a stronger place” for enduring this crisis. Complacency will no longer suffice, especially if experts are right in warning that global warming may increase the intensity of future hurricanes. But since this administration won’t acknowledge that global warming exists, the chances of leadership seem minimal.
For the past couple days I’ve tried to avoid politicizing this terrible, human tragedy… a fit of self-restraint I now deeply regret. If progressives should have learned anything from the aftermath of 9/11, it is that rallying around this president at a time of crisis only leads to further tragedy somewhere down the road. This is an administration whose arrogance is only matched by its incompetence and stupidity, and while Bush cannot be blamed for Hurricane Katrina itself, the lack of preparation for this inevitable disaster, and the slow response in its wake, is absolutely inexcusable.
As Philadelphia Daily News writer Will Bunch notes in an article that has been making the rounds of the internet, the Bush administration had nearly cut off desperately needed federal funds from New Orleans’ flood control projects… some of which would had been targeted directly at the 17th Street Canal, the site of the main levee breech. But even if the flooding couldn’t have been avoided, surely some of the chaos and loss of life could have. With 40% of its forces deployed overseas, the Louisiana National Guard lacks the manpower to conduct rescue operations and impose order on the flooded streets. And while forecasters knew days in advance that one of the strongest storms of the century was headed straight towards vulnerable areas of the Gulf coast… our military did nothing to prepare for rescue and relief.
If there is any bright spot in this whole debacle, it is that perhaps the people of Iraq will come to realize that our failure to rebuild their water, electricity and other essential infrastructure, or to ensure security, is not due simply to some malicious disregard for their welfare and safety. Apparently, we really are this incompetent.
A track record that doesn’t bode well for the people of New Orleans.