Friday, September 02, 2005

Political Priorities

"Yesterday Mr. Bush made an utterly fantastic claim: that nobody expected the breach of the levees. In fact, there had been repeated warnings about exactly that risk."
-- Prof. Paul Krugman
Editorialists, columnists, and even -- one might say, especially -- reporters on the scene in New Orleans, stunned by what they see, are roundly rejecting the White House view that this is 'not a time for politics. '

Vogue editor James Wolcott writes:
No, this is the time for politics, none better... . [A] lot of people in this country are shocked and sobered by New Orleans, but they're also worried and pissed off. They're making the connection between the money, manpower, and resources expended in Iraq and how raggedy-ass the rescue effort has been in the Gulf. If you don't say it now when people's nerves are raw and they're paying full attention, it'll be too late once the waters receded and the media-emoting "healing process" begins.
Princeton Economist Paul Krugman asks and answers three questions in today's New York Times:
  • First question: Why have aid and security taken so long to arrive?

  • Second question: Why wasn't more preventive action taken?

  • Third question: Did the Bush administration destroy FEMA's effectiveness?
To all, Krugman answers:
I don't think this is a simple tale of incompetence. The reason the military wasn't rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn't get adequate armor.

At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.
Reporters Josh White and Peter Woriskey also search for answers in today's Washington Post, in an article titled Planning, Response Are Faulted. They come up with another question, a rhetorical one, posed by Martha Madden:
They can go into Iraq and do this and do that, but they can't drop some food on Canal Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, right now? It's just mind-boggling."
Even conservative columnist David Brooks, an erstwhile loyal Bush loyalist, recognizes that "floods are also civic examinations." After citing historic examples from our nation's past, he explains:
Civic arrangements work or they fail. Leaders are found worthy or wanting. What's happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come."
There has been no friendlier place, anywhere, for George Bush than Northwest Florida. Yet, today, even in this reddest of Red States, the Pensacola News Journal is caustically connecting the dots:
President Bush, seldom quick to understand the urgency of a situation, reacted slowly and perfunctorily to the growing crisis. Editorial pages spanning the spectrum from the ultra-conservative Manchester Union Leader to the liberal New York Times have noted the president's dilatory and uninspiring response. In a crisis Americans look to the president for leadership and a sense of national purpose; Bush responded a day late with a speech that read like a press release about ice and MREs.

* * *
Watching helplessly from afar, many citizens wondered whether rescue operations were hampered because almost one-third of the men and women of the Louisiana National Guard, and an even higher percentage of the Mississippi National Guard, were 7,000 miles away, fighting in Iraq. That's an even bigger loss than the raw numbers suggest because many of these part-time soldiers had to leave behind their full-time jobs in police and fire departments or their jobs as paramedics. Regardless of whether they wear public safety uniforms in civilian life, the guardsmen in Iraq are a crucial resource sorely missed during these early days, when hours have literally meant the difference between evacuation and inundation, between civic order and chaos, between life and death.

* * *
One lasting lesson that has to be drawn from the Gulf Coast's misery is that from now on, the National Guard must be treated as America's most essential homeland security force, not as some kind of military piggy bank for the Pentagon to raid for long-term overseas missions.
As with Brooks, historical examples inform the latest essay by the incomparable Billmon at the Whiskey Bar, who remains one of the web's most elegant writers. He doesn't stop with "reminding people of the lunatic fiscal priorities of the Cheney administration and its supporters in the congressional pork chop caucus." Billmon sees a weightier and more difficult issue emerging out of the New Orleans flood:
[T]he bigger story behind the drowning of New Orleans is what it reveals about the longer-term consequences of America's lunatic environmental priorities. For nearly 160 years, private industry and governments alike have been chopping and channeling the Mississippi and its tributaries -- turning rivers into drainage ditches, riverbanks into Maginot Line-style fortifications, and wetlands into factory farms. This has created the same self-defeating spiral that doomed New Orleans -- the rivers rise, the riverbanks sink, forcing the levees higher and higher, until some of them are now as tall as four-story buildings.

There's no future in this -- and for Southern Lousiana, home to about 40% of the wetlands in the entire continental United States, the future is now. Without the silt and mud that the Mississippi once spread liberally across the entire network of sloughs and bayous that flow to the sea, the Gulf of Mexico is not-so-gradually munching its way north -- even as the federal government spends millions each year to dredge the main shipping channels of sediment... .

* * *
Up to 35 square miles of Louisiana's wetlands sink into the Gulf of Mexico each year. To date, an area the size of Rhode Island has been lost. In some places, the coastline has retreated 30 miles.

This tragedy has a minor personal dimension for me. The rice plantation where my great grandmother was raised -- indeed, a good part of the parish where she lived her life -- is now about 8 feet under water, a kind of Cajun version of Atlantis.

[F]or the people who live in southern Lousiana, the consequences of this environmental fiasco are immediate and staggering. The entire South Lousiana ecosystem is on the verge of collapse, as open water overwhelms salt marshes, and salt marshes intrude into what were once freshwater swamps. Productive fisheries -- the source of a lion's share of the seafood still produced in the United States -- are either vanishing or endangered.

* * *
Now, thanks to Katrina, the hidden costs of all those decades of insane policies are being made visible to the entire world.
That's a perspective many on Pensacola Beach can relate to. We've witnessed it ourselves over the short span of decades that Santa Rosa Island has been commercially developed. Storms strike, we rebuild. The Gulf erodes the beach, we spend millions to renourish it.

Just like New Orleanians, most of us cannot fathom any other place to live, or way to do it except by holding back the sea. But there must be a better, saner way.

Inevitably, that means readjusting our priorities. And that means politics. Just as James Wollcott says, there's no better time for it than now.

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