Monday, August 28, 2006

Bonne Chance!

Frank Rich, in Return to the Scene of the Crime and Paul Krugman, in Broken Promises, have each provided reflections on the anniversary of Katrina.

Rich observes:

PRESIDENT BUSH travels to the Gulf Coast this week, ostensibly to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Everyone knows his real mission: to try to make us forget the first anniversary of the downfall of his presidency.

As they used to say in the French Quarter, bonne chance! The ineptitude bared by the storm — no planning for a widely predicted catastrophe, no attempt to secure a city besieged by looting, no strategy for anything except spin — is indelible. New Orleans was Iraq redux with an all-American cast. The discrepancy between Mr. Bush’s “heckuva job” shtick and the reality on the ground induced a Cronkite-in-Vietnam epiphany for news anchors. At long last they and the country demanded answers to the questions about the administration’s competence that had been soft-pedaled two years earlier when the war first went south.
Ah, yes. After Katrina, Bush was finally called to task. And to what result? As Rich notes:
Douglas Brinkley, the Tulane University historian who wrote the best-selling account of Katrina, “The Great Deluge,” is worried that even now the White House is escaping questioning about what it is up to (and not) in the Gulf. “I don’t think anybody’s getting the Bush strategy,” he said when we talked last week. “The crucial point is that the inaction is deliberate — the inaction is the action.” As he sees it, the administration, tacitly abetted by New Orleans’s opportunistic mayor, Ray Nagin, is encouraging selective inertia, whether in the rebuilding of the levees (“Only Band-Aids have been put on them”), the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward or the restoration of the wetlands. The destination: a smaller city, with a large portion of its former black population permanently dispersed. “Out of the Katrina debacle, Bush is making political gains,” Mr. Brinkley says incredulously. “The last blue state in the Old South is turning into a red state.” (Emphasis added)
Likewise, Krugman addresses the underlying policy of non-responsiveness in his column, stating:
Apologists for the administration will doubtless claim that blame for the lack of progress rests not with Mr. Bush, but with the inherent inefficiency of government bureaucracies. That’s the great thing about being an antigovernment conservative: even when you fail at the task of governing, you can claim vindication for your ideology.

But bureaucracies don’t have to be this inefficient. The failure to get moving on reconstruction reflects lack of leadership at the top.

Mr. Bush could have moved quickly to turn his promises of reconstruction into reality. But he didn’t. As months dragged by with little sign of White House action, all urgency about developing a plan for reconstruction ebbed away.
Reading those words -- and Brinkley's view that the inaction was the action -- I am reminded of my thoughts of the reaction to Katrina by the Bush Administration. Last September in Breach of Contract, I wrote:
Since the disaster of Katrina, the failure to respond has been blamed on negligence, incompetence and bureaucracy. As I watched the horror of the flooding and abandoned people in need, I couldn't help but think that the response (or lack thereof) was much more intentional.

Issues of race, class, poverty and politics were all factors, of course. Politics was part of the reason the Bush Administration responded ably during the election cycle to hurricane disasters in Florida. Race, class and poverty have been addressed in many commentaries assessing the manner in which the response was mishandled. These issues did play a part and cannot be minimized.

I think, however, it goes further. The federal non-response with Katrina was part of an understated, underlying agenda of the Administration, that the role of government does not extend to "helping people." That is the core belief of the "Starve the Beast" mentality, that individuals should not rely on government to help with their needs. This concept is somewhat radical, so the Administration is trying to gradually, quietly advance this theory. Social security reform is a variation on this theme. That is, you need to plan for your own retirement, the government won't be there to help you.

In my view, Katrina was a "testing of the waters" by the Administration, with a slow, wait and see approach to federal intervention. The initial response was consistent with this, with the federal government saying it was deferring to local and state authorities. It was only when public reaction was so horrified, so negative, that the Administration decided that it had to act. Realizing the extent to which it miscalculated the political fallout from this disaster, it could never acknowledge the deliberateness of this reaction. Better to respond (and shift blame) based upon incompetence than reveal the truth. The public's reaction demonstrated that we are not prepared to go it alone and gives me hope that the contract is not truly broken. It is just the Administration that has breached the contract with its people.
And today? I believe even more strongly that the lack of federal assistance is a deliberate effort to remove government from these kind of activies, such as social service programs or disaster relief. The rule of "Starve the Beast" is still in power.

The only thing that's changed in response to the PR backlash is to try to spin the reality of New Orleans in such a way that the public won't realize just how bad things are. That is, the government still isn't doing anything, it's still just talking about all that it is doing (and plans to do). Unfortunately for them, New Orleans is still in the United States, so it's harder to cover up the factual reality. For example, as I posted in Easy No More, one of the "Ladies Who Lunch" (a/k/a one of my officemates), spend a week in New Orleans in April working on the reconstruction efforts. She came back and reported on the substantial work that still needs to be done in the area.

We must continue to focus on what needs to be done to assist in the reconstruction. We can't allow the Bush Administration to break our promises to each other as a society.

Good Luck, George, thinking we'd forget.

Both the NY Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer have Katrina retrospectives:

NY Times - Hurricane Katrina
Inquirer - Katrina One Year Later


This is part of the blogswarm of Katrina remembrance -- see, Shakespeare's Sister.

UPDATE: Here's the blogswarm on Katrina: One Year Later.

UPDATE #2: In One Year Later: The Real State Of New Orleans, Think Progress has some stats on how things are today. Read 'em and weep.

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