Update: Red Cross--Donate to aid relief efforts
I'm having trouble thinking about, much less reading, what's going on in New Orleans right now. The pictures--aerial shots of multi-story buildings mostly submerged--seem unreal, doctored, a trick of editing like a photo-surrealism calendar someone once gave me. My mind shies away from thinking about what the death count ultimately will be; I think about those thousands left in the Superdome--mostly non-white, pretty much all poor--with a deep sense of shame.
But the human tragedy, the fundamental disaster that has befallen that community, is just one of the stories here. Another is why it's important to vote, to speak out, to make sure that public stewardship is in the hands of those who will use it responsibly. This New Orleans disaster didn't have to be as bad as it is; the two levees that broke tonight evidently went unfinished.
They weren't finished, in part, because the public funds that were to go toward finishing them were diverted to the Iraq war effort. The Philadelphia Daily News blog Attytood has the details:
New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.
Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.
Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.
The specifics are extraordinarily damning. After last year's hurricane season, New Orleans officials well understood the danger they were facing and wanted to speed up the work of SELA. But the money, and the commitment, simply wasn't there.
The 2004 hurricane season, as you probably recall, was the worst in decades. In spite of that, the federal government came back this spring with the steepest reduction in hurricane- and flood-control funding for New Orleans in history. Because of the proposed cuts, the Corps office there imposed a hiring freeze. Officials said that money targeted for the SELA project -- $10.4 million, down from $36.5 million -- was not enough to start any new jobs. According to New Orleans CityBusiness this June 5:
The district has identified $35 million in projects to build and improve levees, floodwalls and pumping stations in St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson and St. Charles parishes. Those projects are included in a Corps line item called Lake Pontchartrain, where funding is scheduled to be cut from $5.7 million this year to $2.9 million in 2006. Naomi said it's enough to pay salaries but little else.
"We'll do some design work. We'll design the contracts and get them ready to go if we get the money. But we don't have the money to put the work in the field, and that's the problem," Naomi said.
There was, at the same time, a growing recognition that more research was needed to see what New Orleans must do to protect itself from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. But once again, the money was not there. As the Times-Picayune reported last Sept. 22:
That second study would take about four years to complete and would cost about $4 million, said Army Corps of Engineers project manager Al Naomi. About $300,000 in federal money was proposed for the 2005 fiscal-year budget, and the state had agreed to match that amount.
But the cost of the Iraq war forced the Bush administration to order the New Orleans district office not to begin any new studies, and the 2005 budget no longer includes the needed money, he said.
The Senate was seeking to restore some of the SELA funding cuts for 2006. But now it's too late. One project that a contractor had been racing to finish this summer was a bridge and levee job right at the 17th Street Canal, site of the main breach.
What self-proclaimed "small government conservatives" always fail to understand is that THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO DO THESE SORTS OF THINGS than government action. Projects like this are the whole fucking reason we *have* government: to protect lives and property. And not only should they get top priority, their successful completion really depends upon those in charge fully understanding that this has to be the priority.
Instead, we have a bunch of armchair war fetishists and crony capitalists who generally have never faced disaster at the hands of impersonal forces--whether natural, like the hurricane, or systemic, like job loss caused by macroeconomic change. Their lack of foresight, their lack of care, their lack of felt responsibility shouldn't surprise us. But it should make us reconsider just what it is we look for in leadership, and remember what a sacred trust it is.