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September 23, 2005

Disastrous politics…

As residents in coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama continue to piece their lives back together, there are two persistent questions about Hurricane Katrina at the forefront of acrimonious political debate this week.

First, there is the lingering question of who is responsible for the lack of planning, preparation and infrastructural improvement in the days, weeks, months and years leading up to the hurricane. This all-important question, however, has spawned a concerted effort to focus on the sluggish federal response as a diversion.

Clearly there were bureaucratic failures by FEMA – but that is the nature of the beast, and no amount of reform, other than decentralization, will change that. The most productive thing President George Bush can do to alleviate the bureaucratic abysses is to eliminate it. As noted in this column last week, “As a first measure, the President should fire every senior executive service lawyer in DHS, FEMA, DoD, et al. The entire federal bureaucracy is hamstrung by legalities.”

As for the question of accountability in New Orleans, by now, everyone on the planet knows that most of New Orleans, with the exception of the original city settlement, has been developed below sea level – surrounded by expanding levees intended to protect it from Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River and the Gulf. Those levees, designed to withstand a category three hurricane, were never upgraded to withstand a category four or five hurricane, though clearly such a storm was inevitable.

On a good day, New Orleans continuously pumps water out of the alluvial bowl created by its levees, though building structures there continue to sink. In the event of a category four or five hurricane, however, 80 percent of the city would be swamped, and every politician from the city’s mayor to the state’s governor knew it. But the Big Easy is a party town – a gambling destination – and the city’s leadership wagered the city against odds of a big hurricane.

In the years prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were numerous factors that precluded the strengthening of New Orleans’ levees. The primary burden for inaction lies with generations of corrupt Louisiana politicians, from the Huey Long dynasty forward. Despite the city’s continued below-sea-level expansion, these crooked and negligent pols paid little regard to levee strength, even in the face of repeated warnings about their inadequacy. There were also successful legal challenges brought by environmental groups who blocked the expansion and hardening of levees in an effort to protect the neighboring wetlands. Indeed, New Orleans’ hurricane-defense system – such as it was – would have been greatly improved by the Army Corps of Engineers had it not been for environmental lobby lawsuits in both 1977 and 1996.

In recent years, Louisiana has received more federal taxpayer-funded Corps of Engineer grants than any other state and has received more levee funding under the Bush administration than it did under the Clinton administration. However, that funding has been limited by massive boondoggle infrastructure projects like the 700-percent cost overrun for Ted Kennedy’s Big Dig – $16 billion American tax payers spent on 7.5 miles of Boston highway that could have been spent on NOLA levees, but we digress.

The funding New Orleans did receive was often diverted by the city’s Levee Board to other projects. For example, the Board spent $2.4 million of levee funding on a Mardi Gras fountain near Lake Pontchartrain, and $15 million more on overpasses to riverboat casinos. All the while, a big storm was on the horizon.

On Monday, 29 August, after a few days of evacuation flip-flops, tens of thousands of New Orleans residents emerged midday to the realization that Katrina’s worst winds had landed to the east. Although Katrina was now tearing into Mississippi and Alabama, New Orleans had – or so it thought – dodged the bullet.

As waters continued to rise against levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain, there was some concern that Katrina’s massive rainfall might yet overtop the levees. However, it appears now that the levees were not overtopped. In fact, there is compelling evidence that the floodwalls failed structurally in two locations – which would not have happened if they had been built to specifications. (Contrary to assertions by Nation of Islam agitator Louis Farrakhan, the levees were not “blown up” in order to divert flood waters from “white” to “black” parts of the city.)

Simply put, somewhere there is a contractor, and a whole cadre of well-grafted inspectors, who are accountable for the structural failure of the levees. Finding that contractor will be one of many serious tasks facing congressional investigators in the coming months.

As you recall, in the immediate aftermath of the levee failure, Democrats were waving accusatory fingers and demanding an “inquisition commission.” They were hoping for colorful headlines blaming the Bush administration and, by extension, anyone on a Republican ticket in the upcoming election year. Then, when Republicans joined in the call for investigations, Democrats quickly backed down and, indeed, refused to take part altogether. Upon reflection, they determined that an inquiry into factual communication, material distribution and evacuation failures after Katrina would instead bury Louisiana Democrats – from buck-passing New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to lachrymose Governor Kathleen Blanco to hysterical Senator Mary Landrieu.

Truth be told, congressional investigators need only do one thing to get to the bottom of the floodwaters in New Orleans – follow the money.

Rep. Tom Davis, chairman of the Select Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, said this week that his investigation will “move ahead” with or without Democrats. Rep. Davis, who also chairs the chamber’s Government Reform Committee, said, “At the end of the day, we must come together for good, hard fact-finding.” But, he noted, Democrats “could tie up the process forever, and losing time is losing information.” (Of course, the Demos will obstruct the investigation, claiming it is a Republican cover-up.)

Perhaps the committee’s first witness should be Bill Nungesser, a former Levee Board chairman who tried to reform the system. Mr. Nungesser says of the levee failure, “Every time I turned over a rock, there was something rotten. I used to tell people, ‘If your children ever die in a hurricane, come shoot us, because we’re responsible.’ We throw away all sorts of money.” (In other words, Louisiana Democrats had looted New Orleans long before Katrina hit.)

Rotten indeed, which leads us to the second pressing question about Hurricane Katrina this week: Who’s going to pay for what – and how?

President Bush has proposed a massive reconstruction effort that will ultimately cost perhaps $200 billion both in hard-dollar reconstruction costs and soft-dollar tax incentives, enterprise zones and the like. The President also called for modest cuts in other government programs to offset the reconstruction costs, anticipating that congressional Republicans would follow suit with more aggressive proposals for cutting other department budgets.

On that note, House Republican Study Committee chairman Rep. Mike Pence announced “Operation Offset” Wednesday, a proposal to cut $500 billion over the next decade. “We must begin now, as the American people expect particularly Republican majorities in Washington to do, to make the hard choices,” said Pence, who anteed up $16 million earmarked in the just-passed highway bill for his district’s roads and infrastructure. Pence was quick to add that cutting all the pork out of the massive $284-billion highway bill (about $120 billion) would offset only about half the Gulf Coast reconstruction costs, and that there would have to be substantial cuts across the board in other bloated programs.

In a remarkable move, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was quick to comply, announcing that she would return $70 million of the $129 million in highway-bill earmarks that she’d grabbed for her district.

Speaker Dennis Hastert warned, “We all know that we have a fiscal responsibility throughout this process. We want to make sure that taxpayer dollars are being used for their intended purposes and not being misspent.”

Rep. Tom Tancredo added his concern about how reconstruction funds will be used: “The head of the FBI in New Orleans just this past year described the state’s public corruption as ‘epidemic, endemic, and entrenched. No branch of government is exempt.’ The question is not whether Congress should provide for those in need, but whether state and local officials who have been derelict in their duty should be trusted with that money.”

Undoubtedly, the potential for fraud is as massive as the reconstruction effort, and some of this “cost offsetting” is tantamount to dumping unconstitutional pork from one plate to another.

Amid all of this rancorous debate about who’s to blame and who will foot the bill, the plight of those on the Gulf Coast who actually lost family members, homes and businesses somehow gets lost. Those at ground level are not worrying about political agendas. They’re busy trying to provide for their families. Or perhaps they’re searching through the rubble, trying to find fragments of family heirlooms and photographs. It is for them that we continue to pray every day.

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