Sunday, September 18
- Sept 18: New York Times columnist Frank Rich pens a scathing indictment of the Bush administration's response to Katrina. Rich writes, "The worst storm in our history proved perfect for exposing this president because in one big blast it illuminated all his failings: the rampant cronyism, the empty sloganeering of 'compassionate conservatism,' the lack of concern for the 'underprivileged' his mother condescended to at the Astrodome, the reckless lack of planning for all government operations except tax cuts, the use of spin and photo-ops to camouflage failure and to substitute for action. In the chaos unleashed by Katrina, these plot strands coalesced into a single tragic epic played out in real time on television. The narrative is just too powerful to be undone now by the administration's desperate recycling of its greatest hits: a return Sunshine Boys tour by the surrogate empathizers Clinton and Bush I, another round of prayers at the Washington National Cathedral, another ludicrously overhyped prime-time address flecked with speechwriters' 'poetry' and framed by a picturesque backdrop. ...Nor can the president's acceptance of 'responsibility' for the disaster dislodge what came before. Mr. Bush didn't cough up his modified-limited mea culpa until he'd seen his whole administration flash before his eyes. His admission that some of the buck may stop with him (about a dime's worth, in Truman dollars) came two weeks after the levees burst and five years after he promised to usher in a new post-Clinton 'culture of responsibility.' It came only after the plan to heap all the blame on the indeed blameworthy local Democrats failed to lift Mr. Bush's own record-low poll numbers. It came only after America's highest-rated TV news anchor, Brian Williams, started talking about Katrina the way Walter Cronkite once did about Vietnam."
- Rich is particularly angry about Bush's attempt to cozy up to African-Americans to cloak his own hateful lack of compassion: "The most odious image-mongering, however, has been Mr. Bush's repeated deployment of African-Americans as dress extras to advertise his 'compassion.' In 2000, the Republican convention filled the stage with break dancers and gospel singers, trying to dispel the memory of Mr. Bush's craven appearance at Bob Jones University when it forbade interracial dating. (The few blacks in the convention hall itself were positioned near celebrities so they'd show up in TV shots.) In 2004, the Bush-Cheney campaign Web site had a page titled 'Compassion' devoted mainly to photos of the president with black people, Colin Powell included. Some of these poses are re-enacted in the 'Hurricane Relief' photo gallery currently on display on the White House Web site. But this time the old magic isn't working. The 'compassion' photos are outweighed by the cinema verite of poor people screaming for their lives. The government effort to keep body recovery efforts in New Orleans as invisible as the coffins from Iraq was abandoned when challenged in court by CNN." Rich notes that the person in charge of federal relief efforts, Karl Rove, is Bush's political and PR expert. The two senior deputies at FEMA after Michael Brown's forced resignation are not disaster experts, but PR flacks. And now that it comes to light that the main responsibility for the failure of FEMA to respond to Katrina lies with DHS head Michael Chertoff and not Brown, Chertoff continues to hold his position regardless of his own culpability.
- "When there's money on the line, cronies always come first in this White House, no matter how great the human suffering," Rich writes. "After Katrina, the FEMA Web site directing charitable contributions prominently listed Operation Blessing, a Pat Robertson kitty that, according to IRS documents obtained by ABC News, has given more than half of its yearly cash donations to Mr. Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. If FEMA is that cavalier about charitable donations, imagine what it's doing with the $62 billion (so far) of taxpayers' money sent its way for Katrina relief. Actually, you don't have to imagine: we already know some of it was immediately siphoned into no-bid contracts with a major Republican donor, the Fluor Corporation, as well as with a client of the consultant Joe Allbaugh, the Bush 2000 campaign manager who ran FEMA for this White House until Brownie, Mr. Allbaugh's college roommate, was installed in his place. ...Like his father before him, Mr. Bush has squandered the huge store of political capital he won in a war. His Thursday-night invocation of 'armies of compassion' will prove as worthless as the 'thousand points of light' that the first President Bush bestowed upon the poor from on high in New Orleans (at the Superdome, during the 1988 G.O.P. convention). It will be up to other Republicans in Washington to cut through the empty words and image-mongering to demand effective action from Mr. Bush on the Gulf Coast and in Iraq, if only because their own political lives are at stake. It's up to Democrats, though they show scant signs of realizing it, to step into the vacuum and propose an alternative to a fiscally disastrous conservatism that prizes pork over compassion. If the era of Great Society big government is over, the era of big government for special interests is proving a fiasco. Especially when it's presided over by a self-styled CEO with a consistent three-decade record of running private and public enterprises alike into a ditch. What comes next? Having turned the page on Mr. Bush, the country hungers for a vision that is something other than either liberal boilerplate or Rovian stagecraft. At this point, merely plain old competence, integrity and heart might do." In fact, all but two of the agencies recommended by the federal government as aid providers are faith-based groups, while veteran and highly experienced secular agencies such as Operation USA are not recommended.
- Sept 18: Columnist Les Payne writes that now that Bush's crony corporations are neck-deep in federal dollars allocated for Katrina relief, the real looting and pillaging will begin. Payne writes, "The $200 billion that President George W. Bush has earmarked for rebuilding the Gulf of Mexico region is chum for the big-ticket, GOP contributors. It will bring in the Great White contract-seeking sharks from Maine all the way to Iraq. Compared to this impending Category 5 feeding frenzy, the hurricane looting that so transfixed media cameras was barely a summer breeze. Fox News, for example, spared no cameras in videotaping the looting. The poor of New Orleans were caught wet-handed in the muddy floodwaters of Katrina scavenging for food and drink, and yes, the criminal element were photographed floating off with pilfered weapons and appliances. It did not matter to Fox that there were no clerks handy when the displaced flood victims broke through the store doors for succor certain to be written off as insurance losses. There's no excuse, of course, for hoodlums yielding to the temptations of thievery. But then, such calamities sometimes bring out the worst instincts in the most solid of citizens. New Orleans policemen, for example, were reportedly observed removing plasma televisions from vacated stores. [Later reports surface of the same policemen stealing hundreds of cars from abandoned sales lots.] Such sightings recall accounts of several members of the super-impeccable New York City police and fire departments looting expensive jewelry and even jeans from lower Manhattan stores after the Sept. 11 terror attack on the World Trade Center. Such pilferage in New Orleans, as terrible as Fox News made it out to be, will pale in insignificance compared to what's in store when the Bush administration lets the contracts to the GOP contributors to rebuild the Crescent City and the gulf states. Such looting on the grand scale will likely prove too sophisticated for U.S. media analysts, who gag on a gnat and swallow an elephant.
- "What should not be lost here is that this gargantuan expenditure of $200 billion plays squarely into the hands of the macroeconomic policymakers of the Bush administration. Stealing chapter and verse from Reagonomics, the Bush budgetmeisters insist on tax cuts for the wealthy without curtailing federal spending. ...President Bush's emptying of the national purse has been nothing short of breathtaking. ...Does this bother the president? Not in the least. Bush's plan for rebuilding the gulf states was cavalierly revealed to the American people Thursday night without actually mentioning the cost. Some of the money, Bush emphasized, will finance a Workers Recovery Account of up to $5,000 that evacuees could draw on for job training and child care. Very nice. Other funds would allow for low-income citizens to build homes through a lottery system, and for states that took in displaced residents to be reimbursed. However, the lion's share of the federal money will be used to cover 'the great majority of the cost' of repairing the damaged infrastructure in the gulf region of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. ...[T]he Bush administration is well on its way to weakening the government so dramatically that its successor will be hard- pressed to reverse the trend. This tilt toward federal bankruptcy, as with Reagan, will cripple the prospects for future social programs. For now, the Bush administration will enable the oil companies to continue their looting, the rich to retain their fabulous tax breaks, and the mega-builders, such as Halliburton, to lap up the no-bid contracts and spiral up the cost overruns. This looting will never make it onto Fox TV, or much of the rest of the media for that matter."
Monday, September 19
- Sept 19: The GOP leadership of the House of Representatives has officially scrapped any plans for a joint investigation of the federal government's response to Katrina. The Republican leadership could not secure the cooperation of House Democrats, who insist that any such investigation, which would be led and coordinated by Republicans, would be weak because of its lack of subpoena power, would not have enough Democrats on the panel to make their voices heard, and would not be truly independent. Democrats continue to press for an independent investigation along the lines of the 9/11 Commission. Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Harry Reid, also opposes a similar plan floated by Majority Leader Bill Frist.
- Sept 19: Hundreds of tons of food and supplies shipped from Britain to the Gulf Coast is slated to be burned instead of distributed to needy victims. The Food and Drug Agency has decided that the NATO ration packs, the same as eaten by British troops in Iraq, are "unfit for human consumption." One British aid worker calls the move "sickening senselessness" and said furious colleagues were "spitting blood." The food, which cost British taxpayers millions, is sitting idle in a huge warehouse after the FDA recalled it when it had already left to be distributed. Dozens of trucks were routed back to a warehouse in Little Rock, Arkansas, to dump their loads at an FDA incineration plant. The Ministry of Defense says that 400,000 operational ration packs had been shipped to the US. British officials blame the US Department of Agriculture, which impounded the shipment under regulations relating to the import and export of meat. He said, "This is the most appalling act of sickening senselessness while people starve. The FDA has recalled aid from Britain because it has been condemned as unfit for human consumption, despite the fact that these are NATO approved rations of exactly the same type fed to British soldiers in Iraq."
- He added, "There will be a cloud of smoke above Little Rock soon -- of burned food, of anger and of shame that the world's richest nation couldn't organise a p*ss-up in a brewery and lets Americans starve while they arrogantly observe petty regulations. Everyone is revolted by the chaotic shambles the US is making of this crisis. Guys from UNICEF are walking around spitting blood. This is utter madness. People have worked their socks off to get food into the region. It is perfectly good NATO approved food of the type British servicemen have. Yet the FDA are saying that because there is a meat content and it has come from Britain it must be destroyed." The Ministry of Defense notes, "We understand there was a glitch and these packs have been impounded by the US Department of Agriculture under regulations relating to the import and export of meat. The situation is changing all the time and at our last meeting on Friday we were told progress was being made in relation to the release of these packs. The Americans certainly haven't indicated to us that there are any more problems and they haven't asked us to take them back." Food from Spain and Italy is also being held because it fails to meet US standards and has been judged unfit for human consumption. And Israeli relief agencies are furious that thousands of gallons of pear juice are to be destroyed because it has been judged unfit. The FDA says: "We did inspect some MREs (meals ready to eat) on September 13. They are the only MREs we looked at. There were 70 huge pallets of vegetarian MREs. They were from a foreign nation. We inspected them and then released them for distribution."
- Sept 19: The White House has waived a number of restrictions that protect worker safety and ensure fair economic treatment for workers in the wake of Katrina. According to watchdog group OMBWatch, the Davis-Bacon Act mandating a fair minimum wage has been waived for emergency relief and reconstruction workers in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi; rules governing truck safety and trucker compliance with safety regulations have been waived for Gulf Coast and other Southern states; and the EPA has waived a number of environmental protection regulations regarding fuel standards. If the Bush administration follows the gameplan outlined by the conservative thinkers at the Heritage Foundation, it will use the Katrina disaster as an excuse to transform the Gulf Coast into a conservative laboratory for all manner of economic experiments. focusing on broad rollbacks of federal environmental, corporate tax, wage, and safety standards. While Heritage calls the disaster area an "Opportunity Zone," the only opportunities in sight are those for wealthy, powerful corporations to exploit the working poor and the displaced.
- Sept 19: US Representative Don Young of Alaska, a Republican, refuses to listen to calls that he should spearhead an effort to redirect the $223 million of federal dollars allocated to the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" he fought to obtain for his state. Young has been asked repeatedly to give up the money he pushed to have allocated for the all-but-useless Knik and Gravina Bridge towards helping rebuild the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast. Young has steadfastly refused. The New York Times writes, "surely Rep. Don Young, the Alaska Republican who is chairman of the transportation committee, might put off that $223 million 'bridge to nowhere' in his state's outback. It's redundant now -- Louisiana suddenly has several bridges to nowhere." And the Wall Street Journal adds, "That same half a billion dollars [for the two Alaska bridges] could rebuild thousands of homes for suffering New Orleans evacuees." Instead, Young has retorted that the people who have made the suggestion, including GOP senator John McCain, can "kiss his ear." He says he has already helped hurricane victims by taking part in a one-day charity golf tournament in Washington state: "I raised enough money to give back to them voluntarily, and that's it!" he snaps.
- Sept 19: FEMA is refusing to allow hundreds of big rigs loaded with much-needed water and ice to deliver their goods in New Orleans or any other stricken Gulf community. Instead, the rigs are being redirected...to Portland, Maine. The ice and water are being kept in cold-storage facilities; whether the supplies will ever be delivered to anyone in need is a question that cannot yet be answered. One of the truck drivers involved complains that moving the ice was a waste of time and money: "The $9,000 they're paying me to move this load should have gone to some family down there. There is definitely millions being wasted that could go to people who need it." In response, FEMA spokesperson Kathy Cable says, "It's more economical to store them and be able to use them right away. When we need it, we need all of it and we need it now. It's better to have it stored than to go out and buy it." But with thousands of people desperately needing water in the area right now and temperatures soaring into the upper 90s, the need for water and ice seems to be critical.
- Sept 19: The New York Times's economic guru, Paul Krugman, observes that racism and racial tensions played a much more significant role in the federal government's lack of response to Katrina than anyone in the administration will admit. There is little evidence to show that anyone in the administration dragged their feet or impeded the response to Katrina on racial grounds. But, Krugman writes, "in a larger sense, the administration's lethally inept response to Hurricane Katrina had a lot to do with race. For race is the biggest reason the United States, uniquely among advanced countries, is ruled by a political movement that is hostile to the idea of helping citizens in need." He continues: "[R]ace-based hostility to the idea of helping the poor created an environment in which a political movement hostile to government aid in general could flourish. ...Under George W. Bush -- who, like Mr. Reagan, isn't personally racist but relies on the support of racists -- the anti-government right has reached a new pinnacle of power. And the incompetent response to Katrina was the direct result of his political philosophy. When an administration doesn't believe in an agency's mission, the agency quickly loses its ability to perform that mission. By now everyone knows that the Bush administration treated the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a dumping ground for cronies and political hacks, leaving the agency incapable of dealing with disasters. But FEMA's degradation isn't unique. It reflects a more general decline in the competence of government agencies whose job is to help people in need." In this country, race and economic class have become inextricably bound together -- and as much as this administration turns its back on those of the lower economic classes, it turns its back on its minority citizens. "I'd like to believe that Katrina will change everything -- that we'll all now realize how important it is to have a government committed to helping those in need, whatever the color of their skin," Krugman concludes. "But I wouldn't bet on it."
Tuesday, September 20
- Sept 20: A new Gulf storm is officially christened Hurricane Rita. Rita will rapidly grow into a monstrous storm rivaling Katrina in potency, and threaten the Texas and Louisiana coastlines. Survivors of the Katrina strike monitor Rita with considerable trepidation.
- Sept 20: Bush selects homeland security advisor and political crony Frances Townsend to head the government's investigation into the Katrina response. The advisor to Bush on homeland security, Townsend faces immediate criticism from Democrats and others who believe the Bush administration is more interested in covering up wrongdoing than exposing and correcting it. Democratic senator Dick Durbin says Townsend "may be a very competent individual. But how in the world can we get to the truth of the question as to what went wrong with Hurricane Katrina -- how can we really hope to discover the incompetence that led to all this human suffering and devastation -- if the administration is going to investigate itself?" The White House counters by promising a "robust" investigation, and also promises a Congressional probe, though Congressional leaders seem unable to compromise on any such efforts. Durbin, the Senate minority whip, also questions why deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, is playing a significant role in reconstruction efforts. "Putting Karl Rove in charge makes no sense whatsoever," Durbin says. "He has no resume and no skills other than running political campaigns -- and if he is being put in place to protect the president politically, that decision does not serve the best interests of the American people, nor of the victims of Hurricane Katrina." White House spokesperson Trent Duffy retorts, "This is not about Karl Rove, it's about helping the victims of Katrina. That is what the administration is focused on. If others want to engage in the worst kind of politics, that's their business. We don't believe that contributes to the recovery effort." It is quite clear that Rove is being placed in charge, not to expedite rescue efforts of help along rescue efforts, but to ensure that any political fallout from the federal relief efforts are managed and minimized.
- Sept 20: The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reports that tax breaks designed to help Hurricane Katrina victims get their hands on needed cash will do more for higher income survivors than for the neediest. Two virtually identical bills passed by the House and Senate will allow hurricane victims get access to their savings by waiving penalties imposed on taxpayers who tap into their retirement savings accounts before retirement, and let taxpayers write off more of their destroyed property, and erase taxes regularly imposed when a debt, like a mortgage, is forgiven. The problem is that lower income survivors are less likely to have retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs to tap into for recovery. Because many lower income individuals and families pay little tax, assistance efforts that lower their taxes may do little good, the report said. The bills do provide some limited tax relief for lower income citizens, but the wealthy will benefit far more than middle- and lower-income hurricane victims. Two Illinois Democrats, senator Barack Obama and representative Rahm Emanuel, suggest getting cash quickly into the hands of hurricane victims through an advance earned income credit payment. Peter Orszag, a budget and tax policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said lawmakers would be better off directing aid through assistance programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance because they "are going to be better targeted to the severe cases of hardship."
- Sept 20: National security expert William Arkin warns that the Bush administration, led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, may try to use Katrina as an excuse to suspend fundamental civil liberties. Speculation focuses around the possible suspension or "ignoring" of the Posse Comitatus Act which forbids the US military from taking anything except very limited actions within the nation's borders. Senator John Warner, the defense-friendly Republican, has asked Rumsfeld to conduct a "thorough review" of presidential authority to use the armed forces to "restore public order" in times of civil emergencies, a request Arkin believes Rumsfeld very much wants. Arkin calls it an example of "the oldest Washington game in the book: asking the Defense Department to do something it already wants to do." Rumsfeld, through Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita, has already alerted the country that he and Bush intend to give the military a far larger role in handling civil unrest and civil disobedience, whether triggered by natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or an outpouring of anger and dissent against the current administration. Even Republican lawmakers are uncomfortable. Lindsey Graham tells the media, "I am not comfortable with suspending local laws and state laws and allowing American military people to come into any community, arrest people and seize property, unless there is a very good reason. The Posse Comitatus Act goes back to the 1880's in our history, and it's a prohibition against the federal military coming in and taking over a local community or a state and becoming law enforcement officers." While we might have to look at the laws to make sure the military "can provide assistance" when needed, Graham says, "...we should not allow the federal government, willy-nilly, to take over state and local functions in terms of law enforcement." Arkin writes, "Even before Katrina, contingency planners at the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the military's new homeland security command in Colorado Springs, were given marching orders by Rumsfeld to plan for the worst possible contingency domestically. The resulting plan, currently in draft and called CONPLAN 2002...is predicated on a scenario in which the Defense Department would have to take 'the lead' from the Department of Homeland Security, civil agencies, and the States, that is, to act without civil authority. I think we call that martial law."
- Sept 20: John Kerry and John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic candidates for the White House, slam the Bush administration's response to Katrina. Referring to the demonstrably incompetent Michael Brown, Kerry says, "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.'" Edwards, who has focused on poverty relief efforts since the 2004 campaign, says the Bush administration has long favored wealth over work. He criticizes Bush for suspending a law requiring federal contractors along the Gulf Coast to pay prevailing wages on reconstruction projects. "I might have missed something, but I don't think the president ever talked about putting a cap on the salaries of the CEOs of Halliburton and the other companies...who are getting all these contracts," he says. "This president, who never met an earmark he wouldn't approve or a millionaire's tax cut he wouldn't promote, decided to slash wages for the least of us and the most vulnerable." Kerry says, "This is about the broader pattern of incompetence and negligence that Katrina exposed and beyond that a truly systemic effort to distort and disable the people's government and devote it to the interests of the privileged and the powerful." He charges that the administration is pursuing politics as usual in its prescription for rebuilding: "The plan they're designing for the Gulf Coast turns the region into a vast laboratory for right-wing ideological experiments," citing private-school vouchers, subsidies to business and other proposals. Edwards calls for a restoration of community: "The administration may think every American is an island," he says, "[b]ut Americans know that Katrina's victims shouldn't have been out there on their own and that no American should be out there on their own."
- Sept 20: Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin rips into the Bush administration for its nomination of Julie Myers to head the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security. Malkin calls the nomination "a bad joke," comparing it to Michael Brown's legacy of incompetence at FEMA: "Oh, give me a ****** break and a half! This nomination is a monumental political and policy blunder in the wake of the Michael Brown/FEMA fiasco. And I can tell you that contrary to the Miss Mary Sunshine White House spokeswoman's comments, rank-and-file DHS employees and immigration enforcement officials are absolutely livid about Myers' nomination." Myers is the niece of General Richard Myers, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She is a lawyer with no immigration or customs experience, and most recently was a subordinate on Michael Chertoff's staff at DHS. Many remember Myers as one of Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigators. Malkin snarls, "Everything was supposed to change after 9/11. No more business as usual, blah blah blah. But when it comes to immigration enforcement and border security, Bush keeps installing clueless cronies."
Wednesday, September 21
- Sept 21: The White House is going to great lengths to ensure Bush's visibility, and to promote the federal government's preparations, as Hurricane Rita draws closer to the Texas coast. Bush has issued pre-emptive emergency declarations for Texas and Louisiana, while Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and acting FEMA Director David Paulison have fanned out to tout improved federal preparations and coordination with state and local officials. "We're going to make sure this time, to make sure we have all those resources available," Paulison says. White House officials are already laying the groundwork for Bush to visit or get close to the disaster zone soon after Rita passes, leaving his schedule open for Saturday and Sunday. A smoother response to Rita might help Bush politically, but is unlikely to pull him out of his post-Katrina slump, analysts say. "It does supplant the memories [of Katrina], assuming he does well," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. "But it might be a little hyperbolic to call it a second chance." Though presidential spokesman Scott McClellan refuses to admit that the government needs to learn any lessons from the Katrina debacle, he goes to great pains to inform the press of details of disaster relief preparations, including information about medical teams and search-and-rescue preparations.
- Sept 21: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi puts her foot down about Democrat participation in the Republican whitewash "investigation" of the federal government's response to Katrina: "The Speaker [Dennis Hastert] is not listening to the American people; they have unequivocally said they want an independent commission to find out the truth. They do not want a partisan whitewash of what went wrong in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I will not appoint any Democrats to participate in this sham. Instead, Democrats have proposed an independent commission, based on the rigorous and effective example of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. I ask the Republican Leadership to join me in supporting an independent commission to determine what really went wrong in the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The American people expect and deserve nothing less."
- Sept 21: Grudgingly bowing to tremendous pressure from the public and from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the Federal Trade Commission announces that it will begin an investigation into gas and oil price gouging by oil companies. The problem is that the FTC is headed by a former ChevronTexaco lawyer, Deborah Majoras. Majoras's appointment to the FTC last year was well understood to be yet another move by the administration to block any real regulatory or investigative actions by organizations like the FTC. Majoras is expected to ensure that the investigation goes smoothly and finds nothing.
- Sept 21: Republican fiscal conservatives are balking at the White House's grandiose plans for rebuilding the Gulf Coast. A hastily called session led by White House budget director Josh Bolton did little to mollify the senators, who want to know exactly where the money will come from for all of this planned reconstruction. "Very entertaining," says senator John McCain sarcastically as he left the session. "I haven't heard any specifics from the administration." "At least give us some idea" of how to cover the cost, asks Conrad Burns, a senator from Montana. "We owe that to the American taxpayer." House Republicans are feeling equally balky, leading to unprecedented dissension within the typically lockstep GOP. House GOP member Tom Feeney says he and other fiscal conservatives are feeling "genuine concern [which] could easily turn into frustration and anger." Feeney and other conservatives plan to present to the White House a proposal to cover the cost of the entire Katrina relief and reconstruction package. Dubbed "Operation Offset," it will include repealing many of the pork-barrel projects stuffed into the $286 billion highway bill that Bush signed into law a few weeks before Katrina struck. McCain calls on Bush to undo the Medicare prescription drug law, while a number of lawmakers said the costly benefit should at least be postponed from its January starting date. Republicans are pressing ahead with the Medicare changes, even as the White House spreads the word it is opposed to such a move. And in one of the most unexpected proposals to cover the reconstruction costs, GOP representative Vernon Ehlers raised the possibility of raising taxes. Other Republicans say that while a tax increase is unlikely, Bush tax cuts that are scheduled to take effect in coming years may be in serious jeopardy. Adding to Republicans' worry is the fact that, according to polls, the public's frustration with the administration's response to Katrina and the fiscal mismanagement of the situation may cost Republicans in the 2006 elections.
- Sept 21: While fiscal conservatives are worrying about the government's ability to pay for hurricane reconstruction, private corporations are lining up to feed at the government trough. Worse, they expect, and intend to bring about, a shift in the racial population of New Orleans so profound that some are calling it "ethnic cleansing." Journalist Naomi Klein reports that as she listens to New Orleans's top corporate lobbyist Mark Drennan "enthuse about the opportunities opened up by the storm, I was struck by his reference to African-Americans in New Orleans as 'the minority community.' At 67 percent of the population, they are in fact the clear majority, while whites like Drennen make up just 27 percent. It was no doubt a simple verbal slip, but I couldn't help feeling that it was also a glimpse into the desired demographics of the new-and-improved city being imagined by its white elite, one that won't have much room for [the African-American residents who formerly lived in the city.] "I honestly don't know and I don't think anyone knows how they are going to fit in," Drennen said of the city's unemployed. It is fact that most of the residents returning to the city are white, while most of the permanently displaced are black.
- Klein writes, "This, we are assured, is not a conspiracy; it's simple geography--a reflection of the fact that wealth in New Orleans buys altitude. That means that the driest areas are the whitest (the French Quarter is 90 percent white; the Garden District, 89 percent; Audubon, 86 percent; neighboring Jefferson Parish, where people were also allowed to return, 65 percent). Some dry areas, like Algiers, did have large low-income African-American populations before the storm, but in all the billions for reconstruction, there is no budget for transportation back from the far-flung shelters where those residents ended up. So even when resettlement is permitted, many may not be able to return." While Drennan and his cohorts say that many of the now-deserted African-American neighborhoods were "dysfunctional" and shouldn't be rebuilt, it is also a fact that plenty of housing in New Orleans is available for poor, black residents rendered homeless -- if they were allowed to move back in and take up residence. Malcolm Suber, a longtime New Orleans community activist, is shocked to learn that thousands of livable homes were sitting empty. "If there are empty houses in the city," he says, "then working-class and poor people should be able to live in them." According to Suber, taking over vacant units would do more than provide much-needed immediate shelter: It would move the poor back into the city, preventing the key decisions about its future -- like whether to turn the predominantly black Ninth Ward into marshland or how to rebuild Charity Hospital -- from being made exclusively by those who can afford land on high ground. "We have the right to fully participate in the reconstruction of our city," Suber says. "And that can only happen if we are back inside." But he concedes that it will be a fight: The old-line families in Audubon and the Garden District may pay lip service to "mixed income" housing, "but the Bourbons uptown would have a conniption if a Section 8 tenant moved in next door. It will certainly be interesting." Meanwhile the only plan from the Bush administration is its Urban Homesteading Act, which is designed to allow wealthier (read white) residents to rebuild homes lost in the storm. No provisions are being made for the poorer residents to regain their homes.
- Sept 21: The San Francisco Chronicle's Mark Morford points out an obvious set of facts that all too many seem to have forgotten. "[L]et's be honest. Disaster preparedness is mostly for the middle and upper classes. It is for the informed and the educated, the credit carded and the disposable incomed, the newspaper subscribers and registered voters and people who keep a spare pair of Timberland boots in the trunk of the Range Rover, just in case. As Katrina proved in no uncertain terms, if you're poor or from the lower classes and a massive natural disaster strikes, you are, of course, screwed, given how you do not have extra money, no cash reserves to spend on motels or plane tickets, no credit card numbers to keep written down in a safe place. You do not have a car. You do not own a cell phone. You do not have wealthy relatives in Miami with a few spare rooms in their beach house. When disaster hits, you simply do not have anywhere to go. All of which means the Bush administration will consider you, essentially, trash, disposable, invisible -- except for when the TV cameras find you floating face down in the flooded street and suddenly Bush's poll numbers collapse and Dubya comes on to pretend he understands your plight and will have his mom send you cookies and a warm condescending hug ASAP.
- "See, they just don't know. Or, for that matter, care. The government and the GOP in particular, they just have no idea of true American reality, of how the poor actually live, of the vicious inequities of consumer culture (which their nasty domestic policies only exacerbate), the brutal gap between the haves and the have-nots, between Lands' End and Salvation Army, between stock portfolio and food stamps, between stashing away an emergency block of Brie and a case of Sterling cab for when the Big One strikes, and hoping you don't get stabbed at the emergency shelter over a candy bar. This is, after all, what most baffled the snide and quietly racist GOP leadership: Why didn't all those poor people in New Orleans just leave? Why didn't they hop in the Escalade and fill the tank with a hundred bucks' worth of Unocal premium and hightail it outta New Orleans and head for a Travelodge and watch the disaster on the Panasonic big-screen TV with the rest of us, like any good upstanding citizen? What the hell was wrong with them? ...[T]he irony looms over our culture like a black cloud. Because much like health care and birth control and education and housing and the rest, the people who need disaster preparedness the most are, of course, the ones least likely to have access to it. And if massive natural disasters expose our culture to anything, it's just that type of inequity, the kind that still plagues the world's richest nation like a disease."
Thursday, September 22
- Sept 22: Though the federal government promises that this time will be different, some of the same problems experienced during and after Katrina crop up as Rita moves steadily towards the Texas coast. The government promises that it will send a fleet of C-130 transport planes to airlift hospital patients out of Houston and the southeast Texas region, but the planes never show up. When administrators call to confirm arrival time, all federal officials will say is "they're coming." Serious gasoline shortages make it difficult for Texas residents to evacuate their towns. And thousands of Houston-area residents unable to flee the oncoming hurricane are waiting for a fleet of buses promised to help them leave -- buses that are not arriving. Hundreds of area residents are crowding into a Greyhound station in Houston to wait on the buses promised them by the Red Cross, through the federal government. "I'm stuck here," says one 73-year old Houston resident. "I don't have anywhere else to go."
- Sept 22: House Speaker Dennis Hastert has named 11 reliable Republican congressmen and women to "investigate" the federal response to Katrina. This investigation is the remnants of what Hastert and other GOP House members originally wanted: an ostensibly bipartisan investigation that would marginalize the Democratic members of the committee and render their input useless, while retaining the imprimateur of bipartisanship. Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have refused to participate, instead insisting on an independent investigation not fueled by Republican partisanship. The GOP investigation, led by Republican Tom Davis, intends to begin by hearing from National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center officials, and will soon hear testimony from former FEMA director Michael Brown.
- Sept 22: In a gift almost completely ignored by the US government and media, Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chavez donates one million barrels of petroleum to the US for use in hurricane relief. The donation is channeled through Venezuela's American subsidiary, Citgo.
- Sept 22Bush plans to fly into Texas tomorrow to "personally" supervise storm preparations for Rita. The visit will enable Bush "to get a firsthand look at the preparations that are under way for Hurricane Rita and to show our support for the first responders as they get ready for the response to Hurricane Rita," says White House spokesman Scott McClellan. Bush also plans to visit Colorado's Northern Command center (NORTHCOM) in Colorado Springs, to give him a better chance to review the government's preparations for the strike.
- Sept 22: Karl Rove, the president's political guru who has been inexplicably put in charge of the federal government's restoration and relief efforts in the Gulf, plans to follow a Heritage Foundation blueprint that is little more than another opportunity for Bush's political and corporate donors to cash in on relief efforts. On September 12, a trio of the foundations's top officials -- Ed Meese, the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in Public Policy and Chairman of the Foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, Stuart Butler, a Vice President for Domestic and Economic Policy, and Kim Holmes, a Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and the Director of the Davis Institute for International Studies -- delivered "From Tragedy to Triumph: Principled Solutions for Rebuilding Lives and Communities" to Rove. The Foundation's Special Report asserts that it is essential that the role of the federal government be as limited as possible. All existing "red tape" should be eliminated so that the private sector can be free to do its thing; regulations, that "are barriers to putting people back to work" must be streamlined or suspended; the "vision" of private entrepreneurs -- "not bureaucratic government" -- must be encouraged; and "Opportunity Zones," -- where "capital gains tax on investments is eliminated and regulations eliminated or simplified" -- need to be created.
- On paper, the ideas from the foundation sound quite compelling, in a laissez-faire, marketplace-focused manner. But in reality, the foundation wants to create economic conditions similar to those created in Iraq, where private corporations run rampant without the shadow of public oversight, and profiteering takes precedence over actually getting anything done. These recommendations dovetail with the EPA's intention of rolling back almost all environmental regulations in the Gulf Coast region, another recommendation of the foundation. Columnist Bill Berkowitz writes, "Just as the Iraq War has been a laboratory for Team Bush's neoconservatives to test their foreign policy initiatives, the Gulf Coast could prove to be the mother of all testing grounds for the Heritage Foundation's domestic agenda. ...The report does not detail what mechanisms they would put in place to prevent cronyism, corporate gouging and the turning of the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast into another giant Iraq-like corporate welfare project. In addition, it does not begin to explain how workers -- many of whom have lost everything -- could possibly afford to rebuild their homes and their lives while working for wages below, at, or close to the minimum wage." Neither does the foundation bother to explain about its recommendations, also being adopted by the Bush administration, for additional tax cuts targeted almost exclusively towards the wealthy; nor does it explain how its recommendations for suspending all affirmative action and equal-opportunity laws in the region will help the vast majority of those rendered homeless and jobless by Katrina. New York Times economic columnist Paul Krugman writes, "Is there any way Bush could ensure an honest recovery program? Yes -- he could insulate decisions about reconstruction spending from politics by placing them in the hands of an autonomous agency headed by a political independent, or, if no such person can be found, a Democrat (as a sign of good faith). He hasn't done that and probably won't. There's every reason to believe the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, like the failed reconstruction of Iraq, will be deeply marred by cronyism and corruption."
- Sept 22: The EPA is drafting legislation that would authorize sweeping waivers for environmental laws, including authorizing the EPA to waive every single provision of the Clean Air Act without public input or approval if the director deems it necessary. Democrat Henry Waxman writes, "It appears that this Administration may be using the Katrina catastrophe to justify unrelated, unnecessary, and highly damaging changes to environmental law. I strongly urge you not to compound Katrina's harms by attempting to eviscerate the laws that Americans depend on to provide healthy air, safe drinking water, clean lakes and rivers, and protection from toxic pollutants." He adds, "While the documents [supporting the legislation] include purported justifications for the proposals, they do not provide a single concrete example of environmental laws or regulations hindering Hurricane Katrina response efforts. Instead, a number of the proposals appear to be identical to regulatory roll-backs called for by industry prior to Hurricane Katrina. EPA already has extensive discretion to choose not to enforce existing legal requirements during a time of emergency, and EPA's exercise of such discretion has consistently been upheld by the courts. Yet the proposal does not explain why these existing authorities are inadequate. ...[I]t would be unconscionable for the Administration to proceed with these proposals. Just as it is wrong for oil companies to use Hurricane Katrina as a reason to gouge consumers, it is wrong for the Administration to use the disaster as an excuse to gut the Clean Air Act. Taking advantage of the incredible hardships inflicted by the hurricane is despicable whether it occurs at the gas pump or at the legislative drafting table. For these reasons, I call upon you to abandon these misguided and unnecessary efforts to amend the Clean Air Act and any similar efforts directed at the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or other environmental laws."
- Sept 22: House Democrats are lining up to fight the Bush administration's executive order rescinding the fair wage laws in the Gulf Coast. A similar effort, spearheaded by Ted Kennedy, is gearing up in the Senate. Even some Republicans are joining the effort. Press secretary Scott McClellan is asked if the president would consider a reversal, and replies: "We suspended [the Davis-Bacon A]ct for the reasons that we stated previously. This will open up access to more business -- small businesses, including women-owned and minority-owned businesses. It cuts through the red tape and helps us move forward quickly to address the needs of the people in the region and to provide substantial savings. We're talking about savings here in terms of spending. That's an important part of that, too." When asked, "But how does lowering people's wages help with rebuilding the economy?" McClellan refuses to answer. One blogger does answer: "Everybody knows lower wages increases profits for the businesses involved, putting the same amount of money into the region, but carefully choosing whose hands to place it in." And another responds, "so, let me get this straight. This is going to allow woman-owned and minority-owned businesses to be involved in rebuilding the gulf coast because they wouldn't be able to otherwise? Are woman-owned and minority-owned businesses to cheap and/or poor to pay fair wages? Is this affirmative action or something?" And a third acidly observes, "McClellan...is using the women and minority-owned businss BS because it sounds good and makes people who don't support the prez on this look bad for not supporting women and minority-owned businesses but also makes them look obstructionist on rebuilding. The millions of $$$ are going to go the big contractors...."
- Sept 22: White House press secretary Scott McClellan gives a truly inane explanation of Bush's infamous "guitar photo" of August 30 (used by this site, among others, to demonstrate Bush's complete lack of caring about the ravages of Katrina.) A reporter asks McClellan if Bush's planned trip to Texas isn't just another photo op: "But it sounds like a bit of a photo op, one that he'd prefer over playing the guitar at the airport photo op." McClellan retorts, "Well, first of all, let's correct the record on that. There was a reporter from your news organization that was backstage during that event. That was an event to go and thank our troops and talk about the war on terrorism. And it was not an event, as you may have portrayed to some people that are watching this out there by this simple statement. It was --" The reporter interjects in amazement, "He didn't pick up the guitar while the hurricane was rolling into Louisiana?" McClellan continues, "-- much more than that. The person that was entertaining our troops there presented a gift to the President. So I think you need to make that clear to everybody who's watching this or to your viewers. And it was one of your colleagues at ABC News who was backstage taking a picture of that. ...[T]hat picture was taken by some people way out of context. And it was portrayed that the President was simply doing that, and that's not the case, as you and I know. ...As you and I know, we had announced the President -- the day before -- all the briefings he was participating in. The President spoke the day before. He spoke that day about the hurricane. So let's just set the record straight." This site extensively documents Bush's actions during the first few days of the Katrina disaster, and McClellan's suggestion that the guitar photo is irrelevant and misinterpreted is completely without basis.
Friday, September 23
- Sept 23: Hurricane Rita, now approaching landfall on the southeastern coast of Texas, has caused levees in New Orleans weakened by Katrina to once again breach, letting floodwaters back into the ravaged city. A storm surge of seven feet pushed water from Lake Pontchartrain through the Industrial Canal and over a repaired levee into the Lower Ninth Ward. Texas cities such as Beaumont and Galveston are being hard-hit by storm surges and high winds from the powerful category 3 storm. Rita is expected to inflict serious damage on Texas's offshore oil rigs and refineries. 2.5 million evacuees from the threatened areas are stranded on the highways leading north and west, many without adequate food and water; many cars stall on the crowded highways, thousands suffer heat prostration, and a bus full of elderly evacuees explodes on the highway, probably because of the numerous oxygen tanks on board. Some city officials reverse course and urge residents to stay in their homes, contradicting what officials were saying hours before.
- Sept 23: Britain's head of the Royal Commission of Environmental Pollution, Sir John Lawton, says that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita should be all the proof that anyone needs of the dangers of global warming. Hurricanes were getting more intense, just as computer models predicted they would, because of the rising temperature of the sea, he says: "The increased intensity of these kinds of extreme storms is very likely to be due to global warming." Referring to the arrival of Hurricane Rita, Lawton says, "If this makes the climate loonies in the States realize we've got a problem, some good will come out of a truly awful situation." Asked what conclusion the Bush administration should draw from two hurricanes of such high intensity hitting the US in quick succession, Lawton replies, "If what looks like is going to be a horrible mess causes the extreme skeptics about climate change in the US to reconsider their opinion, that would be an extremely valuable outcome."
- Asked about characterizing them as "loonies," he says, "There are a group of people in various parts of the world...who simply don't want to accept human activities can change climate and are changing the climate. I'd liken them to the people who denied that smoking causes lung cancer." Lawton is making thinly veiled references to the senior officials in the Bush administration who have long fought against the idea that global warming even exists, much less has any impact on the world's climate. Lawton joins a chorus of British and other scientists attacking the Bush administration over its determination to cast doubt on global warming as a real phenomenon. Lawton's comments follow and support recent research, much of it from America itself, showing that hurricanes are getting more violent and suggesting climate change is the cause. A paper by US researchers, published last week in the US journal Science, showed that storms of the intensity of Hurricane Katrina have become almost twice as common in the past 35 years. Although the overall frequency of tropical storms worldwide has remained broadly level since 1970, the number of extreme category 4 and 5 events has sharply risen. In the 1970s, there was an average of about 10 category 4 and 5 hurricanes per year but, since 1990, they have nearly doubled to an average of about 18 a year. During the same period, sea surface temperatures, among the key drivers of hurricane intensity, have increased by an average of a degree Fahrenheit. Lawton warns, "Increasingly it looks like a smoking gun. It's a fair conclusion to draw that global warming, caused to a substantial extent by people, is driving increased sea surface temperatures and increasing the violence of hurricanes."
- Sept 23: Environmental reporter Eric Schmeltzer writes thatthe EPA's tests of the toxin-laden floodwaters being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico are suspiciously flawed. He writes that EPA's tests show a "mysterious absence of two key chemicals in all water and sediment testing. Toluene and benzene are two key components of petroleum products like gasoline and oil. Yet no testing shows ANY levels of these chemicals. Therefore, the testing is either falsified, which is hard to prove, or incomplete, which is 100% true. If it is incomplete, what other chemicals and metals are not turning up? Most likely a whole lot. If this is a cover-up, what purpose would it serve? Well, for starters, if water and sediment is declared to be no dangerous, it doesn't have to be cleaned up. If they did admit to levels of benzene and toluene and other chemicals, guess who could be held liable? Oil and chemical companies! I'm willing to bet a few CEOs are calling their buddy, W, about it. Mayor Ray Nagin is playing a part too by not questioning these findings for a second, and happily sending people back into the city. A real Mayor would stop reinhabitation, and ask for all findings to be independently verified. After all, this is the same Administration that told us they were 100% sure Saddam had WMD. Keep a close eye on this. I'm not ready to say it's a cover-up, but as time goes on, it's starting to smell a lot worse than the stench in New Orleans that is caused by the chemicals the EPA says it cannot detect."
- Sept 23: Many political analysts say that Bush's efforts to appear more involved in Rita than with Katrina won't make much impact among voters. "I don't think there's any question that Katrina influenced the way he responded to Rita and good for him [for] being on top of it," says former presidential advisor David Gergen, who then adds, "This weekend is not going to move the needle. He's not going to come up in the polls. He's got a long, long way out of this." Fox News host Juan Williams adds, "It's done damage to what is the stem and stern of the Bush presidency, which is his leadership. What you're going to see here is people holding this president responsible for this event when the government did not intervene to help people at a time of great need."
Saturday, September 24
- Sept 24: Hurricane Rita, now a strong Category 3 storm, hits the southeast Texas coast around 2:30 am. Bush declares nine area counties disaster areas. Much of the area experiences flooding, though nowhere near the calamitous scale of the floods caused by Katrina.
- Sept 24: Bush journeys to NORTHCOM, the Northern Command military headquarters, in Colorado Springs to monitor the response for Rita. He plans on flying to Austin, Texas, and then spend the night in San Antonio, as part of his PR blitz to ensure that no one thinks he is not personally involved in hurricane response operations. The Pentagon has already named Lieutenant General Robert Clark to head up the military's disaster response. Newsweek reporter Evan Thomas is one of the reporters covering Bush's visit to NORTHCOM. Thomas, inside the command center with Bush, reports that he appears "cranky and fidgety," and seems "as though he resent[s] having to strike a pose for the press."
Sunday, September 25
- Sept 25: During Bush's briefing with military task force commander Lieutenant General Robert Clark and others, he is informed bluntly that the US needs a plan to deal with natural and terrorist-led disasters. In other words, four years after 9/11, the Bush administration hasn't bothered to prepare for the next calamity. "With a national plan, we'll have a quick jump-start and an opportunity to save more people," task force member Major General John White tells Bush. Bush's response is to consider giving over the whole kit and kaboodle of decision-making and response to the military. Some leadership.
- Sept 25: Conservatives have tried nine times over the past ten years to overturn or limit laws mandating fair wages for work in a particular region. Conservatives have tried repeatedly and failed to get public school funds to be diverted into vouchers that could be used for private and/or religious schools. But the GOP is now using the excuse of a disaster in the Gulf Coast to implement both of these, and other, decisions to "reconstruct" the area. Bush's reconstruction package for the Gulf region includes nearly $500 million for vouchers that children can use at private schools anywhere in the nation. And Bush declared a "'national emergency" to waive the prevailing wage law during the cleanup, freeing contractors to pay construction workers as little as the minimum wage, rather than the $8 to $10 prevailing wages in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. As the federal government's response to Katrina takes shape, the White House and Congress are enacting or seeking to pass a wide range of policies that have been consistently rejected by Congress, despite Republican majorities in the House and Senate. The Bush administration has lifted the requirement that contractors have affirmative-action plans, is seeking to weaken clean-air standards in the Gulf region, and has shelved rules governing the number of hours truckers can work. Republicans in Congress have proposed allowing the EPA to waive all environmental regulations during the rebuilding.
- Conservative senator Rick Santorum defends the decision: "The conditions that people were living in I would argue were a result of liberal policies. And now we've got some alternative ideas -- give us an opportunity to try to positively impact the lives of the poor in these communities.... Let's try something different that may work, because what has been tried in the past hasn't worked." But Democrats contend that Republicans are using a national tragedy to slip in proposals they have not been able to achieve through the legislative process during normal times. "They couldn't do these things under normal circumstances," says House member George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the education and workforce committee. "The hurricane presents them an option to do this, under the guise of emergency. They say all of these things are suddenly necessary." And Democrat Barney Frank adds, "They're putting ideology ahead of everything else." As for proposed environmental law changes that would enable the EPA to suspend any and all provisions of the Clean Air Act whenever it sees fit, Democrat Henry Waxman says, "The victims of Hurricane Katrina are going to be hurt again; they're going to be exposed to more toxic chemicals." Union officials say that numerous rules changes proposed or already implemented by the Bush administration are targeted at their organizations, with the express intent of weakening employee unions.
- "It is unconscionable that President Bush would use a national tragedy to promote his antiworker agenda," says Richard Rogers, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council. And of educational vouchers, Democratic senator Edward Kennedy says, "We ought to be reopening schools, not reopening ideological debates of the past. With all the challenges we're facing, to add ideological battles is unworthy of the generosity of Americans. This is unconscionable." (Boston Globe)
- Sept 25: While the national media seems happy to get on board with the story that the federal government is handling the Rita crisis much better than Katrina, the Beaumont, Texas Enterprise is reporting a very different story. Beaumont is the town that was in the dead center of the Rita landfall. Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith and other local leaders, "haggard after days of almost non-stop work with little sleep, pleaded with the federal government to get itself in a higher gear," the paper reports. Griffith says he wants to return services to residents who remain but that "it seems like they can't figure out how to get it done." Texas lieutenant governor David Dewhurst adds, "There's a drastic shortage of generators in Beaumont to provide emergency power. There are generators at Ford Park, and FEMA is withholding their release. They want to finish their damage assessment." Jefferson County officials have a plan to distribute Meals-Ready-to-Eat from local fire stations, but Griffith says the MREs, like the generators, are being withheld by FEMA. "They won't let us have them," Griffith says. "They said we had to go through the state -- which we already did -- to get them. I'm going over there now to figure this out." Griffith says he's sending fire officials to local stores to get supplies, including propane for cooking. "We're going into stores and taking food out," he says. "We're going to do what we got to do to get the job done.... There's just a breakdown in the state and federal government that you saw in Katrina and you've seen in other disasters." Griffith says he hopes to see a change "so at least the next people that have to go through it...will have some kind of process that makes sense that can immediately deliver what people need."
- Sept 25: Unhappy with the media and citizen reactions to the response to Katrina, Bush is considering placing the military --specifically, the Department of Defense -- in charge of all domestic disaster relief efforts. Major General John White, who yesterday briefed Bush at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, urged him to create a national plan for large-scale disasters like Katrina. Illustrating the disorganization in Katrina's wake, White recounted an incident in New Orleans in which five helicopters showed up at the same time to rescue one person. "That's the sort of simplistic thing we'd like to avoid," White told Bush. "That was a train wreck that we saw in New Orleans." Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu says that, while the military has a strong role to play in disaster relief, "so do our governors and our local elected officials. I mean we do have a democracy and a citizenship that has elected mayors, county commissioners and governors particularly. I'm not sure the governors association or all the mayors in America would be willing to step aside," she says. Others note that the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878
bans American soldiers from engaging in any sort of police activity on American soil.
- It is well known that many in the Bush administration have long sought a way to get around, if not eliminate, the Posse Comitatus Act. Republican senator John Warner's recent request to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to conduct a "thorough review" of presidential authority to use the armed forces to "restore public order" in an emergency like Katrina. Many fear that administration lawmakers will either cripple or repeal the Act, removing a key legal barrier between civilian rule and martial law. No law on the books prevents the federal government from using the military to assist in emergency situations like Katrina. Gene Healy, a senior editor at the conservative Cato Institute, says Bush risks undermining "a fundamental principle of American law" by weakening the act. Healy says the act does not hinder the military's ability to respond to a crisis. "What it does is set a high bar for the use of federal troops in a policing role," he writes. "That reflects America's traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that's well-justified."
- Sept 25: The head of Operation USA, a private international disaster relief fund, says that most of the donations received by the Red Cross -- approximately 70% of the monies donated by concerned people across the globe -- will not be used for disaster relief in the Gulf. Richard Walden notes that about $1.2 billion was donated to all Katrina-based relief organizations, with the Red Cross receiving about $826 million of that money. Much of this money was steered to the Red Cross by FEMA, which publicized a list of 19 obscure, faith-based charities (including Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing) along with the Red Cross, the Humane Society, and three lesser-known relief organizations, as the government's recommended targets for donations. The Red Cross is paying for the shelter of 300,000 Gulf Coast evacuees, but that is paid for by the US government and not by private donations, as part of the Red Cross's longtime affiliation with the federal government -- indeed, many see the Red Cross as a government department and not a private organization. The Red Cross may be most famous for its periodic blood drives, but what isn't well known is that it does not donate the blood given to it -- it resells it to the tune of $1.5 billion a year, constituting half of its annual $3 billion revenue.
- Walden writes, "The Red Cross brand is platinum. Its fundraising vastly outruns its programs because it does very little or nothing to rescue survivors, provide direct medical care or rebuild houses. After 9/11, the Red Cross collected more than $1 billion, a record in philanthropic fundraising after a disaster. But the Red Cross could do little more than trace missing people, help a handful of people in shelters and provide food to firefighters, police, paramedics and evacuation crews during that catastrophe. When New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer asked for documentation of 9/11 expenditures, the Red Cross' response was that it is federally chartered and not answerable to state government regulators. The clamor rose, however, when the media began dissecting Red Cross activities in the 9/11 aftermath. This resulted in the resignation of the organization's president and chief executive, Dr. Bernadine Healy, and the appointment of ex-Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) to oversee its 9/11 fund and help clean up its image. Funds were then pushed out the door -- including millions to New York limo drivers who said they lost income after 9/11, and to upscale residents of lower Manhattan to help pay their utility bills. The organization also ran into trouble after the 1989 San Francisco Bay Area earthquake when it was revealed that it planned to spend only a fraction of the millions of dollars it had collected in the area damaged by the earthquake. When the Bay Area's mayors found out, they insisted that these funds be spent on housing, homeless shelters and health clinics. The Red Cross had to waive, for one time only, its long-standing policy against funding non-Red Cross groups."
- Walden says that the Red Cross expects to raise over $2 billion for Katrina-related causes, which translates into roughly $7000 per victim. "I doubt each victim under Red Cross care will see more than a doughnut, an interview with a social worker and a short-term voucher for a cheap motel, with a few miscellaneous items such as clothes and cooking pots thrown in," Walden writes.
- He concludes, "The Red Cross' 3 million unpaid volunteers, 156,000 of whom it says are deployed in Hurricane Katrina, are salt-of-the-Earth Americans. But asking where all the privately collected money will go and how much Red Cross is billing FEMA and the affected states is a legitimate question -- even if posed by the president of a small relief agency. As Hurricane Rita dissipates, let me answer my unpopular question like this: Giving so high a percentage of all donations to one agency that defines itself only as a first-responder and not a rebuilder is not the wisest choice. Americans ought to give a much larger share of their generous charity to community foundations, grass-roots nonprofit groups based in the affected communities and a large number of international "brand name" relief agencies with decades of expertise in rebuilding communities after disasters.
- Sept 25: While gasoline prices soar to well over $3 a gallon across the country, most consumers aren't aware that the oil companies are pocketing massive profits at a far higher rate than this time last year. The refineries are pulling in 99 cents per gallon, more than three times higher their profit rates exactly a year ago. The companies that pump oil from the ground saw their profits raise by 47 cents per gallon, a 46% raise from one year ago. Losing out in the profit wars are the lower-level operators -- the truckers who transport oil and gasoline, the pipeline operators, and the gas station owners. But if your company is named Exxon, Shell, or something similar, your company is making record-breaking profits, directly at the expense of the consumer. In July ExxonMobil reported 32% profits over the second quarter of 2005, approaching a staggering $8 billion in profits over the three-month period. Other large oil corporations report similar profits. The rapid run-up in prices at the pump when Katrina hit, and their slow decline, has infuriated drivers, many of whom complain that oil companies used the storm as a pretext for boosting prices and profits. Politicians echoed that sentiment and are calling for investigations of the oil industry. In return, the oil companies are offering complex explanations involving vague market forces along with the damage Katrina caused to oil refineries and pumping stations in the Gulf area. Some lawmakers are trying to get some of that money back. Democratic senator Byron Dorgan has introduced a measure that would tax some oil company profits that are not devoted to exploration and development of new production.
- "They obviously are experiencing windfall or excess profits," Dorgan says of the big oil companies. "They are...profiting in an extraordinary way at the expense of the American consumer." Some environmental and consumer advocates are urging the government to lower oil company profits in another way, by reducing demand for gasoline, which has been growing in recent years, by requiring vehicles to get better mileage. Others have called on the government to set gasoline prices, as it did several decades ago. Though corporate representatives and market analysts proffer one explanation after another, it's simple to figure the profit -- for example, a single barrel of oil costs Exxon $20 to produce. Exxon then sells that barrel of oil for almost $70. And the gas consumer pays through the nose.
- Sept 25: Meet the Press's Tim Russert attempts to grill Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard on misstatements Broussard made in Broussard's previous interview on September 4, when Broussard told a tearful story about the death of the mother of the man in charge of emergency management for Jefferson Parish. His mother died in a nursing home waiting to be rescued. Russert tells Broussard that bloggers (whom he does not name, but whom investigations find to be right-wing Bush apologists along with MSNBC's own news staff) have "investigated" Broussard's story and found it to be false. In reality, the story is correct except for the date of the woman's death, which Broussard had gotten wrong. Broussard is infuriated by Russert's attempt to portray him as a liar.
- After Russert tries to interrogate Broussard on why the parish president blames the federal government for the failure to respond to Katrina and not state and local officials, as the Bush administration asserts, Broussard lashes back. Broussard demands to know "what kind of agenda is going on here?" and demands to know "what kind of sick-minded, black-hearted person would nit-pick the death of a man's mother." He tells Russert that "Congress can do an investigation and burn witches. The media can burn witches, they are great at that," and offers to come on to Russert's show and debate anyone. He says, "Wind me up with a good nights sleep, I haven't had one in 30 days, and I will come on your show and debate anyone." He also says it is sick for someone with a cup of coffee and a flushing toilet to take the time to watch his interview and nit-pick his statements about the death of a man's mother.
- Interestingly, while Russert tries, and fails, to portray Broussard as a hysteric by playing selected portions of the September 4 interview, Russert does not replay the portion of the interview where Broussard said that FEMA came in and cut off his emergency communication lines. He does not replay the part of the tape where Broussard said Sheriff Harry Lee restored the communications lines and posted armed guards on them to prevent FEMA from cutting the lines again. He does not replay the portion of Broussard's previous interview where Broussard tells the nation that FEMA turned away three Wal-Mart trucks full of water en route to Jefferson Parish. He also does not replay Broussard telling the story of the Coast Guard offering fuel, but when people from Jefferson Parrish showed up to get the fuel the Coast Guard told them that FEMA had instructed them not to give them the fuel. (The full transcript of the current interview is here; the transcript of the original interview can be found above.) It is plain why Russert attempts to discredit Broussard by focusing on one minor error in Broussard's original interview but leaves out the most damning part of Broussard's case against the federal government -- Russert is, once again, carrying water for the Bush administration. As blogger Karena writes, "Tim Russert should wallow in shame and admit his entire story was designed to prop up Bush at the expense of Aaron Broussard and a dead woman."
- Sept 25: Time magazine publishes an article investigating how many more incompetent and unsuitable Bush cronies occupy places of power within the administration. The answer is, unsurprisingly, a hell of a lot. Bush has gone further than most Presidents to put political stalwarts in some of the most important government jobs you've never heard of, says the article, and to give them genuine power over the bureaucracy. "These folks are really good at using the instruments of government to promote the President's political agenda," says Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and an expert on the machinery of government. "And I think that takes you well into the gray zone where few Presidents have dared to go in the past. It's the coordination and centralization that's important here." The administration's chief of personnel, Clay Johnson, a former roommate of Bush at Yale, says the centralization is "very intentional, and it starts with the people you pick.... They're there to implement the President's priorities." Johnson insists that merit, not political affiliations or loyalties, drives the choices for personnel, but his assertion is difficult to prove. The FDA's drug recommendations are being driven by an ex-doctor turned stock market maven with heavy ties to pharmaceutical companies. At the OMB, $300 billion in spending was overseen by ex-lobbyist David Safavian before he was arrested last week in connection with the Jack Abramoff procurement and fraud scandal. The Department of Homeland Security is staffed top to bottom by inexperienced officials with little more than Bush campaign and fundraising experience to recommend them. And the watchdogs at these federal agencies are themselves political appointees less interested in oversight than in playing ball with their friends and mentors in the White House. The article includes plenty of details about specific officials omitted here.
Monday, September 26
- Sept 26: FEMA's response to Hurricane Rita has been little better than its hatefully lackadaisacal response to Katrina, according to officials in Beaumont, Texas, where Rita made landfall. County Judge Carl Griffith says he has become so frustrated with the federal relief effort that he has instructed all local officials to use police force if they have to to take supplies from FEMA officials. "If you have enough policemen to take it from them," he instructed officials, "take it." Communication between federal, state, and local authorities is characterized as "woeful." "We are very short on food and water, and the FEMA trucks that were supposed to be here just aren't here," says Griffith. Commenting on federal officials such as Bush and acting FEMA director David Paulison, Griffith says, "We can't help it if politicans come here and just want to be seen by the media." "We hit the ground running with our own commodities and our own facilities, but we have no support," Griffith adds. City officials cite a lack of water pumps, generators, food and water, and they complain about federal relief teams failing to show and fuel deliveries not happening as promised. Andre Wimer, city manager for Nederland, says he is tired of getting the runaround from federal officials. "We spend the day faxing and talking and we don't get any feedback. We need somebody helping us." Wimer adds, "I realize that there is a significant logistics issue and I appreciate that, but there is a significant amount of equipment and manpower sitting at [local FEMA headquarters] and for whatever reason, it has not been released and that is a bunch of [nonsense]." (Houston Chronicle)
- Sept 26: Bureaucratic problems are denying thousands of impoverished Gulf Coast residents Medicaid coverage, simply because these residents don't fall under the established eligibility categories of aid recipients. The White House and a few virulent right-wing senators are blocking bipartisan legislation (co-written by Republican senator Charles Grassley and supported by Majority Leader Bill Frist) that would cover all Katrina survivors with incomes below the poverty line and low-income children, pregnant Women and people with disabilities with incomes above the poverty line. The bill is designed to enable the most vulnerable Katrina survivors, a substantial number of whom may have serious medical conditions and are now without any resources, to secure medical attention they need. This coverage would be strictly limited to low-income Katrina survivors and purely temporary in nature.
- Sept 26: The media learns of a report by the Department of Homeland Security from eight months before Hurricane Katrina, warning that DHS and FEMA were "woefully unprepared" for a major disaster, and that they lacked planning and resources to handle mass casualties. The report called for creation of a uniformed medical reserve corps, including specialists, fashioned after the National Guard. "The nation's medical leadership works in isolation, its medical response capability is fragmented and ill-prepared to deal with a mass casualty event and...DHS lacks an adequate medical support capability for its field operating units," said the report. Homeland Security officials say the problems identified in the January 3 report were in the process of being addressed when the hurricanes hit. Secretary Michael Chertoff was reorganizing his department and created a new chief medical officer to take the lead on preparedness, they say. But the report's author, St. Louis transplant surgeon Jeffrey Lowell, says he doesn't believe DHS has implemented enough changes yet, and that the current system of volunteer disaster medical teams was "pretty much shot" when called upon to respond to a second disaster after Katrina. Lowell also said he was startled when then-Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown strongly rejected the ideas Lowell had proposed earlier this year. "He rejected the methodology, the message, the conclusion and the recommendations," Lowell said. "He disagreed with every single everything."
- Brown didn't want then-DHS secretary Tom Ridge to read the report, but Ridge, who hired Lowell to conduct the review, was very receptive to the report's conclusions and recommendations, says Lowell. Instead, Chertoff replaced Ridge, and ordered further reviews. He then reorganized the department, creating a new undersecretary for preparedness and a new position for coordinating medical efforts; the post was not filled until after Katrina hit, by Dr. Jeffrey Runge. "There are parts of that report that are absolutely unanimous with what the [medical] community has been saying, and other parts of the report that are very specific organizational things that are not really what Secretary Chertoff has in mind," says Runge. The report concluded that, among other things, National Disaster Medical System teams often are deployed without full preparation for the disasters they are handling; it is "imperative" that the department realign its resources and create the job of an assistant secretary of medical readiness; conflicts and turf wars must be resolved, particularly between DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services; the federal government lacks a single coordination point for local emergency medical services in communities; the US lacks a "systemwide strategy" for handling a massive surge of patients. Elin Gursky, a public health and biodefense specialist at the Arlington, Va.-based think tank, ANSER, says the nation is "quite conclusively" not prepared to protect people from harm and mitigate disasters: "We still don't know who's in charge, and until we do, people will hesitate to act. The assumption is that someone else is in charge."
- Sept 26: Bush promises to tap into the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserves to offset the losses caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The strategic reserve holds about 700 million barrels of crude oil, and when gas prices spiked dramatically earlier this month because drilling was halted by Hurricane Katrina, the government provided some refineries with limited amounts of crude oil to help ease the crisis.
- Sept 26: Two contractor associations are lobbying the Bush administration for exemptions from liability while providing relief efforts in the Gulf Coast and other disaster areas. Associated Builders and Contractors director Geoff Burr says he wants his contractors to be protected from what he calls "frivolous lawsuits."
Tuesday, September 27
- Sept 27: Most of the stories reported from New Orleans about mass murders, rapes, and pillaging in the aftermath of Katrina were media sensationalisms and fabrications. Now some people are trying to correct the record. National Guardsman Major Ed Bush says of the Superdome, "It just morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable deeds were being done." The New Orleans Times-Picayune describes inflated body counts, unverified "rapes," and unconfirmed sniper attacks as among examples of "scores of myths about the dome and Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials." These stories, spread by local, state, and federal officials as well as the media, may have occurred because of the breakdown of communications in the city after the hurricane strike, making it impossible to get accurate reports of events inside the drowning city. Race also played a factor, with government officials and media reporters evidently being willing to report the wildest and most unsubstantiated tales about blacks that they would likely have hesitated to report about white Americans. Instead, wild rumors filled the vacuum and seemed to gain credence with each retelling: stories of an infant's body being found in a trash can, of sharks from Lake Pontchartrain swimming through the business district, of hundreds of bodies being stacked in the Superdome basement. "It doesn't take anything to start a rumor around here," the Louisiana National Guard's Lance Cagnolatti said at the height of the Superdome relief effort. "There's 20,000 people in here. Think when you were in high school. You whisper something in someone's ear. By the end of the day, everyone in school knows the rumor -- and the rumor isn't the same thing it was when you started it." Among the stories now known to be false are reports reports of a 7-year-old being raped and murdered at the Superdome, roving bands of armed gang members attacking the helpless, and dozens of bodies being shoved into a freezer at the Convention Center.
- A FEMA doctor came to the Superdome on September 2, prepared to remove a reported 200 bodies, according to Louisiana Guard Colonel Thomas Beron. The actual total inside the Superdome: six bodies. Of those six, four died of natural causes, one a drug overdose, and one from jumping to his death in an apparent suicide. The official Superdome death total is ten, but, says Beron, those other four are bodies found outside the dome. No one was found murdered inside the Superdome. The story was similar at the Morial Convention Center: though reports said that "heaps of dead bodies" were in the building, the actual death toll was only 4, with only one of those an apparent murder victim. The vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees -- mass murders, rapes and beatings -- have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law-enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know. "I think 99 percent of it is [expletive]," says Sergeant Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. "Don't get me wrong -- bad things happened. But I didn't see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything.... 99 percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved."
- Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state Health and Human Services Department administrator overseeing the body-recovery operation, says his teams were inundated with false reports. Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan says authorities have only confirmed four murders in the entire city in the aftermath of Katrina, making it a typical week in a city that anticipated more than 200 homicides this year. "I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two sites," he says. "It's unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories saying crime had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn't the case. And they [national media outlets] have done nothing to follow up on any of these cases; they just accepted what people [on the street] told them. ...It's not consistent with the highest standards of journalism."
- As floodwaters forced tens of thousands of evacuees into the Dome and Convention Center, news of unspeakable acts poured out of the nation's media: People firing at helicopters trying to save them; women, children and even babies raped with abandon; people murdered for food and water; a 7-year-old raped and killed at the Convention Center. Police, according to chief Eddie Compass, found themselves in multiple shootouts inside both shelters, and were forced to race toward muzzle flashes through the dark to disarm the criminals; snipers fired at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises. In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of "babies," and mayor Ray Nagin spoke of "hundreds of armed gang members killing and raping people" inside the Dome. Other unidentified evacuees told of children stepping over so many bodies "we couldn't count." The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, overwhelmingly African-American masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. The mayor told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost animalistic state."
- Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of murdered bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines assert that, while anarchy reigned at times and people suffered indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened. "The information I had at the time, I thought it was credible," Compass now says, admitting his earlier statements were false. Asked the source of the information, Compass says he doesn't remember. Nagin frankly acknowledges he doesn't know the extent of the mayhem that occurred inside the Superdome and the Convention Center -- and may never. "I'm having a hard time getting a good body count," he says. Compass concedes that rumor had overtaken, and often crippled, authorities' response to reported lawlessness, sending badly needed resources to situations that turned out not to exist. Military, law-enforcement and medical workers agree that the flood of evacuees -- about 30,000 at the Dome and an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 at the Convention Center -- overwhelmed their security personnel. The 400 to 500 soldiers in the Dome could have been easily overrun by increasingly agitated crowds in the Dome, but that never happened, says Colonel James Knotts, a midlevel commander there. While the Convention Center saw plenty of mischief, including massive looting and isolated gunfire, and many inside cowered in fear, the hordes of evacuees for the most part did not resort to violence. "Everything was embellished, everything was exaggerated," says Deputy Police Superintendent Warren Riley. "If one guy said he saw six bodies, then another guy the same six, and another guy saw them -- then that became 18."
- Inside the Superdome, where National Guardsmen performed rigorous security checks before allowing anyone inside, only one shooting has been verified -- and even that shooting, injuring a Louisiana Guardsman, has been widely misreported, says Major David Baldwin, who led the team of soldiers who arrested the alleged assailant. While the Guardsman was attacked inside one of the Dome's locker rooms, his assailant hit him with a metal rod, a piece from a cot. The Guardsman accidentally shot himself in the leg during the commotion. The attacker is in jail. Inside the Convention Center, Jimmie Fore, vice president of the state authority that runs the center, stayed in the building with a core group of 35 employees until Thursday. He says evacuees hot-wired 75 forklifts and electric carts and looted food and booze, but he said he never saw any violent crimes committed, nor did any of his employees. Some, however, did report seeing armed men roaming the building, and Fore said he heard gunshots in the distance on about six occasions. Rumors of rampant violence at the Convention Center prompted Louisiana National Guard Colonel Jacques Thibodeaux to put together a 1,000-man force of soldiers and police in full battle gear to secure the center around noon on Friday. It took only 20 minutes to take control, and soldiers met no resistance, Thibodeaux says. They found no evidence, witnesses or victims of any murders, rapes or beatings.
- One widely circulated story, told to the Times-Picayune by a number of evacuees and two Arkansas National Guardsman, held that "30 or 40 bodies" were stored in a Convention Center freezer. A formal Arkansas Guard review of the matter later found that no soldier had actually seen the corpses, and that the information came from rumors in the food line for military, police and rescue workers in front of Harrah's Casino. Reports of dozens of rapes at both facilities -- many allegedly involving small children -- may forever remain a question mark. Rape is a notoriously underreported crime under ideal circumstances, and tracking down evidence at this point, with evacuees spread all over the country, will be nearly impossible. The same goes for reports of armed robberies at both sites. While numerous people told the Times-Picayune that they had witnessed rapes, in particular the rape of two young girls in the Superdome ladies' room and the killing of one of them, police and military officials say they know nothing of such an incident.
- Predictably, Fox News was at the head of the baying pack of media jackals eager to report lurid stories. A day before the major evacuation of the Superdome began, Fox issued an "alert" as talk show host Alan Colmes reiterated reports of "robberies, rapes, carjackings, riots and murder. Violent gangs are roaming the streets at night, hidden by the cover of darkness." The Los Angeles Times piled on the next day, reporting as its top headline that National Guard troops "took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance." The New York Times repeated some of the reports of violence and unrest, but the newspaper usually was more careful to note that the information could not be verified. The tabloid Ottawa Sun reported unverified accounts of "a man seeking help gunned down by a National Guard soldier" and "a young man run down and then shot by a New Orleans police officer." London's Evening Standard invoked the post-apocalyptic film Mad Max to describe the scene and threw in a Lord of the Flies allusion for good measure. The stories were often accompanied by photographs of devastated buildings and flooded streets, but not with photos detailing the incidents themselves.
- "I don't think you can overstate how big of a disaster New Orleans is," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a Florida school for professional journalists. "But you can imprecisely state the nature of the disaster. ...Then you draw attention away from the real story, the magnitude of the destruction, and you kind of undermine the media's credibility." Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss cites telephone breakdowns as a primary cause of reporting errors, but says the fact that most evacuees were poor African Americans also played a part. "If the dome and Convention Center had harbored large numbers of middle class white people," Amoss says, "it would not have been a fertile ground for this kind of rumor-mongering." One of the most graphic and memorable images seen by the world was that of an elderly woman dead in her wheelchair in front of the convention center; although initial reports claimed that she had been beaten to death, both her husband and a National Guardsman who wheeled her body outside state that she died of natural causes.
- Sept 27: Testifying before the Congressional panel investigating the federal response to Katrina, former FEMA director Michael Brown refuses to take any of the blame upon himself, and instead blames state and local officials for all of the problems with the response. "My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional," two days before the storm hit, Brown tells the panel. Brown's defense draws a scathing response from Louisiana representative William Jefferson, one of the few Democrats on the panel: "I find it absolutely stunning that this hearing would start out with you, Mr. Brown, laying the blame for FEMA's failings at the feet of the governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans." Brown rejects all accusations that he was too inexperienced for the job: "I've overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters. I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it." In his opening statement, Brown says he had made several "specific mistakes" in dealing with the storm, and lists two. One, he says, was not having more media briefings. As to the other, he says: "I very strongly personally regret that I was unable to persuade Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences, and work together. I just couldn't pull that off." Both Blanco and Nagin are Democrats. "The people of FEMA are being tired of being beat up, and they don't deserve it," Brown says. Referring to Brown's description of his "mistakes," Jefferson says: "I think that's a very weak explanation of what happened, and very incomplete explanation of what happened. I don't think that's going to cut it, really."
- Brown says the lack of a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans before the storm was "the tipping point for all the other things that went wrong." Brown says he personally pushed Blanco to order such an evacuation. He did not have the authority to order the city evacuated on his own, Brown asserts. When asked whether the lack of an ordered evacuation was "the proximate cause of most people's misery," Brown responds, "Yes."
Jefferson says, "so I'm really troubled by the response when one asks, What would you have done differently, and did you make mistakes? And you crystallize it to these two matters of not having the appropriate media briefings and not being able to get Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down and coordinate a response. I think that's a very weak explanation of what happened and a very incomplete explanation of what happened." Democrat Gene Taylor notes acidly, "What part of the FEMA plan envisioned that the first responders in Hancock County and much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast would have to loot the local grocery store and loot the local Wal-Mart in order to feed themselves, would have to loot the local Wal-Mart in order to have a change of clothes?"
- Many Republicans are equally disgusted with Brown's responses. "I'm happy you left," says Republican congressman Christopher Shays. "That kind of look in the lights like a deer tells me you weren't capable of doing that job." "so I guess you want me to be the superhero, to step in there and take everyone out of New Orleans," Brown retorts, to which Shays says simply, "What I wanted you to do is do your job and coordinate. ...I think it's pretty astonishing that you said you didn't have the resources necessary to do your job and then to describe coordination in such a feeble way." Republican representative Kay Granger tells Brown: "I don't know how you can sleep at night. You lost the battle." Another congressional Democrat, Gene Taylor, adds, "The disconnect was, people thought there was some federal expertise out there. There wasn't. Not from you." Democrat Sue Myrick adds, "The main concern is -- and I've had experience in working with FEMA over a long period of time in private disaster recovery efforts, and there's always breakdowns. And it's been going on for years and years and years and years. And so, like, why don't we fix it?"
- Not surprisingly, Brown also tells a raft of lies to the investigative commission, saying, "And while my heart goes out to people on fixed incomes, it is primarily a state and local responsibility. And in my opinion, it's the responsibility of faith-based organizations, of churches and charities and others to help those people. ...We were prepared but overwhelmed is the best way I can put it. We knew what to do. We knew how to do it. But because we're stretched thin, because we still had these logistical problems, it quickly overwhelmed us." He claims that FEMA doesn't evacuate communities, yet on September 1 he told CNN, "If there is still floodwaters around there, they shouldn't be trying to evacuate those patients by themselves. The Coast Guard, FEMA, all of those continue to do those rescue missions and we continue to do those evacuations and we'll certainly continue to evacuate all of the hospitals." (FEMA's own Strategic Plan makes it clear that FEMA does, indeed, evacuate disaster victims.) Brown also tells the commissioners that his agency was "stretched beyond its capabilities:" "Mr. Chairman, this event stretched FEMA beyond its capabilities. There's no question about that. It did it in several ways. One is FEMA, over the past several years, has lost a lot of manpower. At one point during my tenure, because of assessments by the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA has lost -- at one point, we were short 500 people in an organization of about 2,500. You do the math. That's pretty significant. FEMA has suffered from the inability to grow to meet the demands." Yet on September 26 of 2004, Brown told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, when asked if FEMA was ready to deal with a late-season hurricane from that year, "We absolutely are. We have all the manpower and resources we need. President Bush has been a very great supporter of FEMA." Brown also tells the commission that "I can't discuss with you my conversations with the president's chief of staff and the president." Yet on September 15, Brown went into great detail about his conversations with Bush and presidential chief of staff Andrew Card for an interview with the New York Times.
- Brown even blames an obscure Web site, Horse's As*.org, for his removal as FEMA chief: "While FEMA was trying to respond to probably the largest natural disaster in the history of this country, a catastrophic disaster that the president has described covering an area the size of Great Britain -- I have heard 90,000 square miles -- unless you have been there and seen it, you don.t realize exactly how bad and how big it was -- but in the middle of trying to respond to that, FEMA.s press office became bombarded with requests to respond immediately to false statements about my resume and my background. Ironically, it started with an organization called horsesas*.org, that on some blog published a false, and, frankly, in my opinion, defamatory statement that the media just continued to repeat over and over. Next, one national magazine not only defamed me, but my alma mater, the Oklahoma City University School of Law, in one sentence alone leveling six false charges. ...But I guess it's the media's job. But I don't like it. I think it's false. It came at the wrong time. And I think it led potentially to me being pulled out of Louisiana because it made me somewhat ineffective." For the record, both the Web site (not a blog) and the "national magazine" he references, the New Republic, are used as sources elsewhere in this site. Both sources have been confirmed to be accurate. The Web site "outed" Brown as a former employee of the International Arabian Horse Association before being fired from the position; the New Republic printed an extensive review of Brown's background, including his graduation from the then-unaccredited OCUSL. If one can be defamed by the truth, then we can guess Brown's assertion that he was defamed is accurate.
- Brown also tells an exceptionally large lie when he tries to suggest that Governor Blanco did not ask for Orleans Parish to be included in her emergency declaration of August 27. Under friendly questioning from Republican Steve Buyer, Brown adds that FEMA questioned Blanco's supposed decision. In reality, Blanco's emergency declaration on August 27 was for all "affected areas" in "southeastern parishes including the New Orleans Metropolitan area." An Austin American-Statesman op-ed calls Brown "clueless," characterizes his testimony as "whining," and declares itself happy that Brown has left his post, a sentiment echoed by Taylor, who says, "Maybe the president made a very good move when he asked you to leave your job."
- Tellingly, committee chairman Tom Davis, a Republican, says, "When Michael Brown admitted to reporters that he didn't know thousands of survivors were stranded at the New Orleans convention center without food or water, even though TV journalists had been reporting that fact for hours, his appearance before us today became inevitable."
- The entire transcript of the hearings can be read here.
- Sept 27: Though Michael Brown resigned from FEMA on September 12, he continues to work at, and draw pay from, FEMA. His resignation takes effect in two weeks. Brown is being retained as a "contractor" with FEMA whose job is to review and assess the department's response to Katrina. A memo from a Republican staffer says Brown expressed regrets "that he did not start screaming for DoD (Department of Defense) involvement" sooner. The first substantial numbers of active-duty troops responding to the Gulf Coast were sent on Saturday, Sept. 3, five days after the storm hit. According to the memo, Brown took several shots at Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. He said the two officials "sparred during the crisis and could not work together cooperatively," a charge that has not been substantiated by any other source. Brown also described Blanco as "indecisive" and refusing to cede control of the Louisiana National Guard to federal authorities because "it would have undercut her image politically," according to the memo. Again, Brown's charges cannot be substantiated. Brown's 2004 salary was $145,000. Update: As of October 21, Brown is still on the FEMA payroll. Now he is slated to work through the end of November.
- Sept 27: Partly in response to Brown's documented incompetence, Democratic representatives Henry Waxman and Nancy Pelosi have introduced a bill barring the president from naming unqualified cronies to critical emergency management positions. "President Bush has handed out some of the country's most difficult and important jobs -- leadership positions in public safety and emergency response -- to politically well-connected individuals with no experience or qualifications," says Waxman. "This common-sense legislation will end this practice and ensure that public safety is back in the hands of those who are trained and experienced in protecting the public." The bill would require any presidential appointee for a public safety position to have proven, relevant credentials for that position. In addition, the legislation bars from appointment to an agency any individual who has been a lobbyist for an industry subject to the agency's authority during the preceding two years. "As Hurricane Katrina tragically demonstrated, serious consequences result when unqualified cronies are appointed to federal public safety positions," Pelosi says. "The Bush Administration's culture of cronyism comes at the expense of public safety. It is unconscionable and must stop immediately -- it is literally a matter of life and death. This legislation is critically needed, and I thank Mr. Waxman for his strong leadership in protecting the American people." Subject to the bill are specific senior-level emergency preparedness offices at the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as any position with the primary function of responding to a direct threat to life or property or hazard to health.
- Sept 27: House Democrats are pushing for full consideration, and a vote, on a bill to name an independent commission to investigate the federal response to Katrina. While polls show that 70% of Americans want such a commission, the Bush administration, and Congressional Republicans, are blocking such a measure.
- Sept 27: Pollster John Zogby, noting that 81% of the public supports a fully independent commission to investigate the federal response to Katrina, can't understand the Bush administration's refusal to support such a commission. "I don't know why they are resisting so hard," he says. "The public is angry and they want answers. The Republicans may have picked a fight they can't win." "It is extremely important that a commission independent of the executive and legislative branches analyzes the Katrina disaster and the events leading up to it," adds Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. The center has started circulating a letter calling for an independent commission to academic and other disaster management practitioners and experts. "We need a panel of qualified experts that is knowledgeable and objective and has all the investigative and subpoena powers necessary," Tierney says. Republican senator Susan Collins, chair of the Senate investigative committee staffed almost exclusively by Republicans, says, "I don't believe the way to get to the bottom of this is to have questions asked by politicians."
- Sept 27: More information about the sweet no-bid deals being awarded to Bush cronies and corporate associates in the Gulf Coast is percolating out. 80% of the the $1.5 billion that's been let out in contracts for recovery efforts down in the Gulf has gone to no-bid contracts. A $60 million contract has gone to a Halliburton subsidiary represented by Bush crony and former FEMA director Joe Allbaugh; a $100 million contract has gone to Bechtel, a company that, like Halliburton, has already been the recipient of billions of dollars of administration largesse in Iraq, and whose executives are cozy with the Bush administration and the Bush family. A Florida group called Ashbritt has landed an extraordinary $568 million contract; Ashbritt is represented by a firm formerly headed by Haley Barbour, the former head of the RNC and current governor of Mississippi. And recently FEMA awarded Carnival Cruise Lines a no-bid, $236 million contract to use three ships of theirs for six months. Republican Tom Coburn and Democrat Barack Obama responded in disgust to the deal: "When the federal government would actually save millions of dollars by forgoing the status quo and actually sending evacuees on a luxurious six-month cruise it is time to rethink how we are conducting oversight. A short-term temporary solution has turned into a long-term, grossly overpriced sweetheart deal for a cruise line."
- But why Carnival? Because Carnival Corp. was the number one sea transport contributor to the Republican Party during the 2004 election cycle, donating $183,903 to the Republican Party. So far for the 2006 election cycle, Carnival Corp has donated 78% of all its money to Republican candidates, amounting to $39,390. Currently the three Carnival ships contracted by FEMA sit half-empty in the Mississippi River and Mobile Bay. Aides to Coburn have figured that if the ships were at capacity, with 7,116 evacuees, for six months, the price per evacuee would total $1,275 a week. A seven-day western Caribbean cruise out of Galveston can be had for $599 a person -- and that would include entertainment and the cost of actually making the ship move. (Carnival insists it will make no money from the contract.) Critics of the deal are now looking into Carnival's finances, and questioning why such a multi-billion dollar corporation paid a paltry $3 million in taxes last year. Carnival is incorporated for tax purposes in Panama, and goes to great lengths to keep from paying US taxes. It is appealing to Treasury Secretary John Snow for a waiver of any tax burden it will incur from this current FEMA contract. Interestingly, so many evacuees have refused to stay on board the ships (many called them "dead ends,") that two ships have become the temporary home for many first responders working in the Gulf.
- Sept 27: While gasoline prices soar and oil company profits skyrocket,Congress is busily doing the White House's bidding by cutting back social program spending to help pay for disaster relief in the Gulf. The Republican Study Committee, made up of 100 members of the House, wants to raise premiums for Medicare, postpone introduction of its drug program, cut Amtrak subsidies, and reduce contributions to the United Nations. While the Senate, in a bipartisan move, sought to win approval for a temporary measure to extend Medicaid coverage to all affected by Katrina, the Bush administration stood by, refusing to commit itself. House conservatives are expected to gut the measure. (More on this elsewhere in the site.) Bush's new tax-free zone along the Mississippi Gulf Coast will extend 50 percent tax write-offs to the already profitable casinos. Instead of extending Section 8 vouchers to hurricane homeless so they can rent apartments, Bush wants them to live in trailer parks and on leased cruise ships.
- Sept 27: Bush, who is taking a much more publicly prominent role in disaster relief for Hurricane Rita, lands in Southeast Texas for photo ops and meetings with local leaders. He promises to cut through bureaucratic red tape to ensure that all needs are met swiftly and efficiently. Meanwhile, the distribution of generators to stricken families and businesses by FEMA is agonizingly slow, and is characterized as "controlled pandemonium."
- Sept 27: The Bush administration has decided that FEMA will reimburse all faith-based charities, including churches and religious organizations, for any expenditures they incur during relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina. This is the first time the government has made any such payments to private religious organizations; civil libertarians and Constitutional scholars say that such payments are unconstitutional and inappropriate. "What really frosts me about all this is, here is an administration that didn't do its job and now is trying to dig itself out by making right-wing groups happy," says the Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. While some churches and organizations are eagerly lining up for their checks, some are refusing: "Volunteer labor is just that: volunteer," says the Reverend Robert Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board. "We would never ask the government to pay for it." "I don't think a lot of people realize that a lot of these organizations are actively working to obtain federal funds. That's a strange definition of charity," says Lynn. Apparently part of this decision was spearheaded by Texas GOP congressman Tom DeLay, who has agitated for hundreds of Houston-area churches to be reimbursed for their charitable outreach programs for Katrina victims. FEMA made the decision in a private memorandum released to officials on September 9, but the document is just now being made public.
Wednesday, September 28
- Sept 28: Senate Finance Committee members are complaining that the Bush administration is blocking a bipartisan $9 billion health care package for hundreds of thousands of evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, along with Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and Alabama governor Bob Riley, testified before the commission earlier in the day, urging quick action on the legislation. Riley and Barbour are Republicans. Republican senator Charles Grassley says four or five senators are blocking action on the bill at the behest of the Bush administration, who has raised objections to provisions that would extend Medicaid coverage to thousands upon thousands of adults who otherwise would be uninsured, including those whose applications have been rejected in Louisiana. "We can work with everybody, including the administration, or against them, and I'm prepared to go either way," says Republican senator Trent Lott of Mississippi. "But I'm going to look after our people first."
- Administration officials contend the Medicaid extensions are not needed because a newly created fund could be tapped whenever health care providers care for uninsured victims of Katrina between Aug. 24th and Jan. 31, 2006. But the administration has refused to reveal how much money will be in the fund, if any, and senators questioned both the funding commitment and whether the administration has the authority to establish such a fund. Across the Capitol, a House panel heard pledges from government auditors that they will closely examine millions of dollars in contracts the Bush administration awarded to politically connected companies for Hurricane Katrina relief. The inspectors general from half a dozen agencies, as well as officials from the Government Accountability Office, addressed a House subcommittee on the Katrina cleanup and announcing several new audits to combat waste and fraud. They have pledged strong oversight that includes a review of no-bid contracts and close scrutiny of federal employees who now enjoy a $250,000 -- rather than the usual $2,500 -- purchase limit for Katrina-related expenses on their government-issued credit cards. "When so much money is available, it draws people of less than perfect character," says H. Walker Feaster, inspector general of the Federal Communications Commission. "It underscores the need for internal controls of the money going out." The joint appearance of government auditors comes amid a flurry of legislation pending in Congress that would create additional layers of oversight to the Katrina contracting and award process. It also comes amid growing charges of favoritism that critics say led to government missteps in the wake of the Katrina disaster. In the weeks after the August 29 storm, more than 80 percent of the $1.5 billion in contracts awarded by FEMA for Katrina work were handed out with little or no competition or had open-ended or vague terms that previous audits have cited as being highly prone to abuse.
- Sept 28: The GOP-led House is determined to roll back environmental regulations in the Gulf Coast region, using the excuse of high oil and gasoline prices. Again, critics accuse the House leadership of attempting to exploit the Katrina tragedy in order to ram through policies they have previously been unsuccessful in implementing. A measure sponsored by the GOP's Joe Barton includes easing air pollution control rules on refineries, setting shorter deadlines for issuing refinery permits, and the creation of a government-funded "risk insurance" program to shield companies against lengthy regulatory delays in refinery construction. It would also give the federal government greater say in siting refineries and pipelines. A companion measure, being put together by the House Resources Committee, calls for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil development and would clear the way for states to allow oil or gas drilling in their coastal waters, including areas under a federal drilling ban. States would get half of the revenue from new lease sales. The measures amount to a wish-list the oil and gas industry has been pursuing without success in Congress for years.
- "They're using this disaster to roll back public health protection," says Paul Billings of the American Lung Association; he argues that many of Barton's proposals would jeopardize government efforts to require cleaner burning diesel and allow more air pollution from refineries and other industrial plants. Not only environmentalists, but organizations representing city and county governments and state officials in charge of implementing clean air requirements were mobilizing to try to block the GOP energy proposals. "Though hailed as a post-Katrina package," the proposals would "dismantle environmental laws that are not barriers to rebuilding the affected Gulf states," says Donald Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities. William Becker, executive director of two organizations that represent state and county air pollution control officials, says Barton's legislation would allow refineries to expand operations without installing new pollution controls. Similar changes have been proposed by the Bush administration, but are hung up in court because of lawsuits from several states.
- Sept 28: An internal audit of FEMA released today shows that Michael Brown was warned weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit that his agency's backlogged computer systems could delay supplies and put personnel at risk during an emergency. The audit recalls the chaos and backlogs during the 2004 hurricane season, and notes that little, if anything, has been done to improve the situation since then. Brown rejected the audit when it hit his desk on August 3 as being "negative."
- Sept 28: Saying they were caught off-guard by the number of people in need, FEMA officials close a Houston relief center after some of the hundreds of hurricane victims in line begin fainting in triple-digit heat. Officials in areas hardest hit by Hurricane Rita are savaging FEMA's response to the hurricane, with one official calling for a state commission to examine the emergency response. FEMA is encouraging refugees who are not in immediate need to go elsewhere for aid, and is encouraging victims to register with the agency either by phone or over the Internet.