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Seeds of Disaster

Below the Belt: A Biweekly Column by NOW President Kim Gandy

September 19, 2005

"There cannot be a crisis today; my schedule is already full." No, that wasn't George Bush, flying on to San Diego instead of dealing with the looming disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, but it might as well have been [okay, it was Henry Kissinger].

But this crisis didn't start with Katrina — the seeds were sewn by Hurricane Bush and his cronies long before the storm began gathering steam. And now they're using it to line the pockets of their rich cronies, who will get richer on the rebuilding efforts while those who need the work most will be lucky to get the crumbs.

For seeds, start with FEMA, which Bush demoted from cabinet-level status to a subsidiary of the new Department of Homeland Security in the post-9/11 consolidation of power. And the new department's tunnel-vision focus on terrorism, marginalizing the traditional preparation for natural disasters. Not to mention the last two FEMA directors, first a Bush 2000 campaign manager, and then his former roommate, neither of which was qualified for the job.

Want more Bush seeds? Remember when Bush flew over New Orleans and dipped the wing of Air Force One to take a look, declaring innocently, "Who'd have thought this would happen?" Who? I'll give you a few names: how about the Army Corps of Engineers, for starters? In 1995 the Clinton administration funded the start of a long-term levee rebuilding project - but Bush has cut funding every year. Or how about former Republican Congressmember Michael Parker, who in 2002 was forced out as head of the Corps of Engineers when he dared to protest Bush's funding cuts?

New Orleans' daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune, investigated the situation in 2002 and concluded, with devastating prescience, that a catastrophe was "a matter of when, not if." The paper followed up the report just last year, with another warning to finish the east bank levees, or the city "would fill up with the waters of the lake, leaving those unable to evacuate with little option but to cluster on rooftops...The water itself would become a festering stew of sewage, gasoline, refinery chemicals, and debris."

But really, who would have known?

Still not convinced? Former Senator John Breaux, a Bush ally, recounted his efforts to gain levee funding: "All of us said, 'Look, build it or you're going to have all of Jefferson Parish under water.' And they didn't, and now all of Jefferson Parish is under water."

Bush, of course (in classic poor taste), is calling the cries for an investigation into his Administration's terrible mishandling of the whole thing a "partisan" ploy. So lemme get this straight: trying to figure out why our government left thousands to die in New Orleans is partisan politics, while spending millions of taxpayer dollars to investigate Bill Clinton's sex life was an urgent act of patriotism?

And how do we respond to this devastating situation? Of course we all should pitch in, and so many have. Hooray for those who had the will and the means, like Sean Penn, to go down and help fish survivors out of the lake that engulfed the city. But the answer is not further privatization; Bush's suggestion that we all "open our hearts and our wallets" to the victims is beyond inadequate as a governmental response. Part of the the responsibility of governments is building an infrastructure (roads, levees, bridges) that private enterprise can never do alone.

Of course, there's a much deeper lesson also, one about poverty, and "haves" versus "have-nots." This is an issue the Administration won't touch with a ten-foot pole, won't even fly over on Air Force One, and in this perhaps lies its deepest failing. The Republicans revealed their truest colors when, in the immediate wake of this emergency, Senate Leader Bill Frist's first priority was the permanent repeal of the estate tax, until the chorus of protests caused him to think better of it. Still, we saw, and we know: it was not matters of life and death in New Orleans that Frist saw as most important, but a bill to make the heirs of the richest families richer.

You know something's wrong when even in the wake (literally) of a disaster like this, there's a stunning lack of outrage that Louisiana's poverty rate is above 40%, nearly as high, in fact, as the poverty rate here in our nation's capital. And of course, Bush's response was to immediately give a $500 million no-bid contract to (guess who?) Halliburton, and suspend the federal law requiring that workers on federal contracts be paid the prevailing wage for that area. So Bush's cronies will make billions from the rebuilding, and those who do the work will receive lower wages than workers on any other federal contract. Compassionate conservatism, indeed.

Join NOW in demanding an independent investigation into the handling of this disaster, from beginning to end, as well as independent oversight of the rebuilding efforts, intended to ensure fair contracting, preference to local businesses and contractors (especially those that are women-owned and minority-owned), and priority for employment of local workers at the prevailing wage.

Anton Chekhov said that "any idiot can face a crisis, it is this day-to-day living that wears you out." Well, he definitely wasn't talking about the one in the White House, but he's right on the second count. The day-to-day business here in Washington can wear you down. We were getting up at 5:30 AM all last week to try to stop the oncoming train wreck of John Roberts' confirmation.

Still don't think he's "that bad"? Neither do I — he's worse! Trust me, he is no mild-mannered conservative. Putting this man in charge of the Supreme Court could do to women's rights what the hurricane did to New Orleans. If you don't believe me, find out the facts. We can and MUST do more to halt this nomination - organize a protest rally in front of your Senator's home office! Download fliers and lists of what you can do from our site!

Please, let's not do what George Bush did on Katrina - let's not let this frightening nomination slip by and then say, "How could this have happened?" The day-to-day business may be wearing, but it's doing it well that prevents the crisis. The levee hasn't broken yet on this one, join me in calling your senators before it's too late!

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