Daily Archives: September 4, 2005

As Ross Douhart observed on his blob The American Scene, Katrina was the anti-9/11.
On Sept. 11, Rudy Giuliani took control. The government response was quick and decisive. The rich and poor suffered alike. Americans had been hit, but felt united and strong. Public confidence in institutions surged.

Last week in New Orleans, by contrast, nobody took control. Authority was diffuse and action was ineffective. The rich escaped while the poor were abandoned. Leaders spun while looters rampaged. Partisans squabbled while the nation was ashamed.

claims Bobo Brooks in his laest op-ed The facts, needless to say are somewhat different. Ross Douthat’s concern was entirely ideological in nature:

“In a sense – and I don’t mean to be flip about this at all – 9/11 was a tragedy well-suited to the neoconservative vision, and Katrina is better suited to a paleoconservative view of the world. The fall of the twin towers was a nightmare, but the lessons of that dreadful day felt bracing – that America was still a great and united country; that we had been too long asleep while threats gathered; that the time had come to put aside irony and drift and experience a new birth of resolve and martial vigor. 9/11 allowed people, and especially writers (myself included), to strike quasi-Churchillian poses, tell “hard truths” and talk tough about what needed to be done to defeat our enemies. It made us feel awful, but it also made us good about ourselves.”

And as Bobo knows, when it comes to Katrina there’s nothing to feel good about.

“The first rule of the social fabric – that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable – was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield. No wonder confidence in civic institutions is plummeting.

And the key fact to understanding why this is such a huge cultural moment is this: Last week’s national humiliation comes at the end of a string of confidence-shaking institutional failures that have cumulatively changed the nation’s psyche.”

He’s got a little list!

Over the past few years, we have seen intelligence failures in the inability to prevent Sept. 11 and find W.M.D.’s in Iraq. We have seen incompetent postwar planning. We have seen the collapse of Enron and corruption scandals on Wall Street. We have seen scandals at our leading magazines and newspapers, steroids in baseball, the horror of Abu Ghraib.
Public confidence has been shaken too by the steady rain of suicide bombings, the grisly horror of Beslan and the world’s inability to do anything about rising oil prices.

Each institutional failure and sign of helplessness is another blow to national morale. The sour mood builds on itself, the outraged and defensive reaction to one event serving as the emotional groundwork for the next.

My stars! Has Paul Krugman bitten Bobo in the neck?

The scrapbook of history accords but a few pages to each decade, and it is already clear that the pages devoted to this one will be grisly. There will be pictures of bodies falling from the twin towers, beheaded kidnapping victims in Iraq and corpses still floating in the waterways of New Orleans five days after the disaster that caused them.

It’s already clear this will be known as the grueling decade, the Hobbesian decade. Americans have had to acknowledge dark realities that it is not in our nature to readily acknowledge: the thin veneer of civilization, the elemental violence in human nature, the lurking ferocity of the environment, the limitations on what we can plan and know, the cumbersome reactions of bureaucracies, the uncertain progress good makes over evil.

As a result, it is beginning to feel a bit like the 1970’s, another decade in which people lost faith in their institutions and lost a sense of confidence about the future.

“Rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown/What a mess! This town’s in tatters/I’ve been shattered,” Mick Jagger sang in 1978.

Actually Bobo, it’s not in your nature to acknowledge that thin veneer. J.G. Ballard has built an entire career on it — and before him, Georges Bataille.

“Midge Decter woke up the morning after the night of looting during the New York blackout of 1977 feeling as if she had “been given a sudden glimpse into the foundations of one’s house and seen, with horror, that it was utterly infested and rotting away.”

Americans in 2005 are not quite in that bad a shape, since the fundamental realities of everyday life are good. The economy and the moral culture are strong. But there is a loss of confidence in institutions. In case after case there has been a failure of administration, of sheer competence. Hence, polls show a widespread feeling the country is headed in the wrong direction.”

The economy and the “moral culture” are strong? Well in your world dear. And it’s clearly one that doesn’t admit the likes of Jefforson parish president Aaron Broussard:

“Sir, they were told like me. Every single day. The cavalry is coming. On the federal level. The cavalry is coming. The cavalry is coming. The cavalry is coming. I have just begun to hear the hooves of the calvary. The cavalry is still not here yet, but I have begun to hear the hooves and were almost a week out.

Three quick examples. We had Wal-mart deliver three trucks of water. Trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back, said we didn’t need them. This was a week go. We had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a coast guard vessel docked in my parish. The coast guard said come get the fuel right way. When we got there with our trucks, they got a word, FEMA says don’t give you the fuel. Yesterday, yesterday, FEMA comes in and cuts all our emergency communications lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in. He reconnects the line. He posts armed guards said no one is getting near these lines.

The guy who runs this building I’m in. Emergency management. He’s responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said. Are you coming. Son? Is somebody coming? And he said yeah. Mama. Somebody’s coming to get you.. Somebody’s coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Friday. And she drowned Friday night. And she drowned Friday night. Nobody’s coming to get us. Nobody’s coming to get us. The Sectary has promimsed. Evrybody’s promised. They’ve had press conferences. I’m sick of the press conferences. For god’s sakes, just shut up and send us somebody.

Check out the clip at Crookand Liars

(Back to Bobo):

Katrina means that the political culture, already sour and bloody-minded in many quarters, will shift. There will be a reaction. There will be more impatience for something new. There is going to be some sort of big bang as people respond to the cumulative blows of bad events and try to fundamentally change the way things are.

Reaganite conservatism was the response to the pessimism and feebleness of the 1970’s. Maybe this time there will be a progressive resurgence. Maybe we are entering an age of hardheaded law and order. (Rudy Giuliani, an unlikely G.O.P. nominee a few months ago, could now win in a walk.) Maybe there will be call for McCainist patriotism and nonpartisan independence. All we can be sure of is that the political culture is about to undergo some big change.

We’re not really at a tipping point as much as a bursting point. People are mad as hell, unwilling to take it anymore.

Cue Peter Finch.

And now the news :

“WASHINGTON: For years, Washington had been warned that doom lurked just beyond the levees. And for years, the White House and Congress had dickered over how much money to put into shoring up century-old dikes and carrying out newer flood control projects to protect the city of New Orleans.

As recently as three months ago, the alarms were sounding and being brushed aside.

In late May, the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers formally notified Washington that hurricane storm surges could knock out two of the big pumping stations that must operate night and day even under normal conditions to keep the city dry.

Also, the Corps said, several levees had settled and would soon need to be raised. And it reminded Washington that an ambitious flood-control study proposed four years before remained just that a written proposal never put into action for lack of funding.”

A very familiar ploy: “Benign Neglect” the Reaganistas called it.

“What a powerful hurricane could do to New Orleans and the area’s critical transportation, energy and petrochemical facilities had been well understood. So now, nearly a week into the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, hard questions are being raised about Washington officials who crossed their fingers and counted on luck once too often. The reasons the city’s defenses were not strengthened enough to handle such a storm are deeply rooted in the politics and bureaucracy of Washington.

With the advantage of hindsight, the miscues seem even broader. Construction proposals were often underfunded or not completed. Washington officials could never agree on how much money would be needed to protect New Orleans. And there hung in the air a false sense of security that a storm like Katrina was a long shot anyway.

As a result, when the immediate crisis eases and inquiries into what went wrong begin, there is likely to be responsibility and blame enough for almost every institution in Washington, including the White House, Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers and a host of other federal agencies.”

That none of them is going to take.

For example, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the Corps commander, conceded Friday that the government had known the New Orleans levees could never withstand a hurricane higher than a Category 3. Corps officials shuddered, he said, when they realized that Katrina was barreling down on the Gulf Coast with the vastly greater destructive force of a Category 5 the strongest type of hurricane.

Washington, he said, had rolled the dice.

Rather than come up with the extra millions of dollars needed to make the city safer, officials believed that such a devastating storm was a small probability and that, with the level of protection that had been funded, “99.5% of the time this would work.”
Unfortunately, Strock said, “we did not address the 0.5%.”

After all, what do they matter?

Corps officials said the floodwaters breached at two spots: the 17th Street Canal Levee and the London Avenue Canal Levee. Connie Gillette, a Corps spokeswoman, said Saturday there never had been any plans or funds allocated to shore up those spots another sign the government expected them to hold.

Nevertheless, the Corps hardly was alone in failing to address what it meant to have a major metropolitan area situated mostly below sea level, sitting squarely in the middle of the Gulf Coast’s Hurricane Alley.

Many federal, state and local flood improvement officials kept asking for more dollars for more ambitious protection projects. But the White House kept scaling down those requests. And each time, although congressional leaders were more generous with funding than the White House, the House and Senate never got anywhere near to approving the amounts that experts had said was needed.

What happened this year was typical: Local levee and flood prevention officials, along with Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), asked for $78 million in project funds. President Bush offered them less than half that $30 million. Congress ended up authorizing $36.5 million.

Since Bush took office in 2001, local experts and Landrieu have asked for just short of $500 million. Altogether, Bush in his yearly budgets asked for $166 million, and Congress approved about $250 million.

Thrift, Horatio!

These budget decisions reflect a reality in Washington: to act with an eye toward short-term political rewards instead of making long-term investments to deal with problems.

Vincent Gawronski, an assistant professor at Birmingham Southern College in Alabama who studies the political impact of natural disasters, said the lost chances to shore up the levees were a classic example of government leaders who, although meaning well, clashed over priorities.

Yes, let’s make sure to get ourselves an “expert” to cover the requisite asses!

“Elected politicians are in office for a limited amount of time and with a limited amount of money, and they don’t really have a long-term vision for spending it,” he said.

“I hate the vision thing.”

Who said that?

“So you spend your pot of money where you feel you’re going to get the most political support so you can get reelected. It’s very difficult to think long-term. If you invest in these levees, is that going to show an immediate return or does it take away from anything else?”

Gawronski said flood control projects do not have the appeal of other endeavors, such as cancer research and police protection

and 9/11

At the same time, Congress habitually approves billions of dollars for highways and bridges and other infrastructure that politically benefits individual congressmen.

Gawronski called it inexcusable for the United States to have been “gambling so long” that the old levee system in New Orleans would hold.

“Disasters are often low probability, high consequence events, so there’s a gamble there,” he said. “It’s not going to happen on my watch, there’s the potential it might, but I’ll bet it won’t.”

In the case of New Orleans and flood control, another factor was at work: the reputation of the Corps of Engineers. Over the years, many in Washington had come to regard the Corps as an out-of-control agency that championed huge projects and sometimes exaggerated need and benefits.

But this wasn’t “sometimes,” was it dear.

The Corps began as a tiny regiment during the Revolutionary War era; it now employs about 35,000 people to build dams, deepen harbors, dig ditches and erect seawalls, among other things. But critics say some projects are make-work boondoggles.

In 2000, Corps leaders were found to have manipulated an economic study to justify a Mississippi River project that would have cost billions. The agency also launched a secret growth initiative to boost its budget by 50%. And the Pentagon found in 2000 that the Corps’ cost-benefit analyses were systematically skewed to warrant large-scale construction projects.

As a result, said a senior staffer with the Senate Appropriations Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity,

Naturellement !

requests by the Corps for flood control money were especially vulnerable to budget cutting. “A lot of people just look at it as pork,” said the staffer.

The Bush administration’s former budget director, Mitch Daniels, was known as an aggressive advocate for Corps reform who cast a skeptical eye on its budget requests.

“The Army Corps of Engineers has a very large budget, and it has grown a lot over recent years,” Daniels, now the governor of Indiana, said. “To the extent there’s been any limitation of [the Corps’] budget, it has to do with previous tendencies to build marinas and things that don’t have much to do with preparing us for disaster.”

The Bush White House maintains it never ignored the security needs of the Gulf Coast. “Flood control has been a priority of this administration from Day One,” said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

lying through his teeth as always.

He said hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in the New Orleans area in recent years for flood prevention, and he said the failure of the levees was not a matter of money so much as a problem with drawing the right plans for the dike work and other improvements.

“It’s been more of a design issue with the levees,” he said.

Really now. Maybe Tyler Bruhlee could have helped.

Other administration officials said there were not enough construction companies and equipment to handle all the work that had been proposed.

John Paul Woodley Jr., assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, who has responsibility for the Corps of Engineers, said: “It’s true, we cannot accomplish all of our projects at full funding all the time. I think that’s true of any agency, particularly any public works agency, but we had a lot of work underway in New Orleans, and I was personally supportive of it.

“As a native of Louisiana,” Woodley said, “I understand the problems associated with flooding in New Orleans. I don’t think there’s any lack of support for flood control projects in New Orleans, particularly within the context of other projects around the country.”

“Why weep or slumber America
Land of brave and true
With castles and clothing and food for all
All belongs to you
Ev’ry man a king, ev’ry man a king
For you can be a millionaire
If there’s something belonging to others
There’s enough for all people to share
When it’s sunny June and December too
Or in the winter time or spring
There’ll be peace without end
Ev’ry neighbor a friend
And ev’ry man a king”

“On Capitol Hill in recent years, several Democrats warned that more money should be marked for the protection of New Orleans. For instance, in September 2004, Landrieu said she was tired of hearing there was no money to do more work on levees.

“We’re told, can’t do it this year. Don’t have enough money. It’s not a high enough priority,” she said in a Senate speech. “Well, I know when it’s going to get to be a high enough priority.”

She then told of a New Orleans emergency worker who had collected several thousand body bags in the event of a major flood. “Let’s hope that never happens,” she said.

But in May 2004, then Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he had visited the levees as a guest of Landrieu and believed them adequate.

He praised the ancient water pumps for keeping the waters from cascading into the city, proclaiming them “these old, old pumps that hadn’t been changed since before the turn of the century, that still keep New Orleans dry.”

“It was as clean as a restaurant,” he added. “These big old pumps work.”

Today, eight of those 22 pumps are underwater and inoperable.”

“There’s a hundred-thousand Frenchmen in New Orleans
In New Orleans there are Frenchmen everywhere
But your house could fall down
Your baby could drown
Wouldn’t none of those Frenchmen care
Everybody gather ’round
Loosen up your suspenders
Hunker down on the ground
I’m a cracker
And you are too
But don’t I take good care of you
Who built the highway to Baton Rouge?
Who put up the hospital and built your schools?
Who looks after shit-kickers like you?
The Kingfish do
Who gave a party at the Roosevelt Hotel?
And invited the whole north half of the state down there for free
The people in the city
Had their eyes bugging out
Cause everyone looked just like me
Here comes the Kingfish, the Kingfish
Everybody sing
Here’s the Kingfish, the Kingfish
Every man a king
Who took on the Standard Oil men
And whipped their ass
Just like he promised he’d do?
Ain’t no Standard Oil men gonna run this state
Gonna be run by little folks like me and you
Here’s the Kingfish, the Kingfish
Friend of the working man
The Kingfish, the Kingfish
The Kingfish gonna save this land”

Over the years, several projects either were short-changed or never got started. The Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project was authorized by Congress after a rainstorm killed six people in May 1995. It was to be finished in 10 years, but funding reductions prevented its completion before Katrina struck.

The Army Corps of Engineers did spend $430 million to renovate pumping stations and shore up the levees. But experts said the project fell behind schedule after funding was reduced in 2003 and 2004.

The Lake Pontchartrain Project was a $750-million Corps operation for new levees and beefed-up pumping stations. Because of funding cuts, it was only 80% complete when the hurricane hit.

The project that never was started was an examination of storm surges from large hurricanes. Congress approved the study but did not allocate the funds for it.

In May, Al Naomi, the Corps’ senior project manager for the New Orleans district, reminded political and business leaders and emergency management officials that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane was always possible. After that meeting, Walter Brooks, the regional planning commission director, came away shaking his head.

“We’ve learned that we’re not as safe as we thought we were,” he told the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune.

“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss her each night and day
I know I’m not wrong because the feeling’s
Getting stronger the longer I stay away

Miss the moss-covered vines, tall sugar pines
Where mockingbirds used to sing
I’d love to see that old lazy mississippi
Running in the spring

Moonlight on the bayous
Creole tunes fill the air
I dream about magnolias in june
And I’m wishin I was there

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
When that’s where you left your heart
And there’s one thing more, I miss the one I care for
More than I miss New Orleans”

Last week, Corps commander Strock defended past work, saying, it was his “personal and professional assessment” that work in New Orleans was never underfunded. What he meant by that, he explained, was that no one expected such a large disaster before all the renovations and other improvements could be completed.

“That was as good as it was going to get,” he said. ” We knew that it would protect from a Category 3 hurricane. In fact, it has been through a number of Category 3 hurricanes.”

But, he said, Katrina’s intensity “simply exceeded the design capacity of the levee.”

Asked whether in hindsight he wished more had been done, Strock said: “I really don’t express surprise in my business. We don’t sit around and say ‘Gee whiz.’ ”

No, that’s Bobo’s job.

Or at least it was until this column.

Say Goodnight, Bobo.