Friday, September 30, 2005

Hurricane Preparations

Odds are, you need to be from Texas, or appreciate that peculiar form of humor known as the "Aggie Joke," to get this.

But I am assured it is an unretouched photo of the bookstore at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, readied for the hurricane last week that wasn't.

And the fact it wasn't, isn't the joke.

UPDATE: I have been advised that this is, in fact, the "off-campus" bookstore at TAMU.

Obviously the proprietors are graduates of the University's fine School College of Architecture.

We don't need to do no steenkin' plannin'!"

This raises a question (well, yes, and some of this) that shouldn't be overlooked:

NEW ORLEANS - Across the hurricane ravaged Gulf Coast, thousands upon thousands of blue tarps are being nailed to wind-damaged roofs, a visible sign of government assistance.

The blue sheeting - a godsend to residents whose homes are threatened by rain - is rapidly becoming the largest roofing project in the nation's history.

It isn't coming cheap.

Knight Ridder has found that a lack of oversight, generous contracting deals and poor planning mean that government agencies are shelling out as much as 10 times what the temporary fix would normally cost.

It is beyond cavil by now (i.e., I won't look up my now archived post on it) that Michael Brown admitted publicly that FEMA considered the flooding of New Orleans the "worst case scenario" for the entire country. So, set aside the fumbling response and the lame excuses and finger-pointing about who is or is not a "first responder", and you get down to this question:
Why hadn't FEMA planned for this?

Why is so much money being wasted on housing and roofing? Why are people scattered like leaves in the wind, from Utah to National Guard camps in Oklahoma to the Radisson Hotel at Kennedy Airport to Charleston (South Carolina? West Virginia? Even FEMA isn't sure)?

Forget "Why didn't FEMA respond in a timely manner?," and all the questions about who is responsible first. The overriding question should be: why was FEMA caught so flat-footed by a disaster it knew would be the worst possible, one it therefore had time to plan for? What has FEMA been doing all this time?

And why didn't Michael Chertoff see to it that such planning was ready to go, that housing was planned, and shelter, and rebuilding? That is his job, isn't it?

Why are we still paying these people to be so wrong?

Karen Hughes Abroad

Via Sidney Blumenthal:

Hughes's simple, sincere and unadorned language reveals the administration's inner mind. Her ideas on terrorism and its solution are straightforward. "Terrorists," she said, "their policies force young people, other people's daughters and sons, to strap on bombs and blow themselves up." That is: somehow, magically, these evil-doers coerce the young to commit suicide. If only they would understand us, the tensions would dissolve.

"Many people around the world do not understand the important role that faith plays in Americans' lives," she said. When an Egyptian opposition leader inquired why Mr Bush mentions God in his speeches, Hughes asked him whether he was aware that "previous American presidents have also cited God, and that our constitution cites 'one nation under God'."

"Well, never mind," he said.
By the way, Ms. Hughes: that's the Pledge of Allegiance, as amended in the 1950's; not the U.S. Constitution, which has no mention of "God" in it, whatsoever.

As you can see, even if you ignore Blumenthal's commentary, the facts are frightening:

This week, Hughes embarked on her first trip as undersecretary. Her initial statement resembled an elementary school presentation: "You might want to know why the countries. Egypt is, of course, the most populous Arab country... Saudi Arabia is our second stop; it's obviously an important place in Islam and the keeper of its two holiest sites ... Turkey is also a country that encompasses people of many different backgrounds and beliefs, and yet is proud of the saying that 'All are Turks'."

Hughes appeared as one of the pilgrims satirised by Mark Twain in his 1869 book Innocents Abroad, on his trip on the Grand Holy Land Pleasure Excursion. "None of us had ever been anywhere before; we all hailed from the interior; travel was a wild novelty... We always took care to make it understood that we were Americans - Americans!"
And, of course, being innocent Americans, we are innocent of the consequences of our actions. Blumenthal cites the work of Robert Pape, a professor at University of Chicago who wrote: Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Says Pape: "'If you set out to help bin Laden you could not have done it better than Hughes."

"Of the key conditions that lead to suicide terrorism in particular, there first must be the presence of foreign combat forces on the territory that the terrorists prize. The second condition is a religious difference between the combat forces and the local community. The religious difference matters in that it enables terrorist leaders to paint foreign forces as being driven by religious goals.

"If you read Osama's speeches, they begin with descriptions of the US occupation of the Arabian peninsula driven by our religious goals and that it is our religious purpose that must be confronted. That argument is incredibly powerful, not only to religious Muslims but also secular Muslims. Everything Hughes says makes their case."
And this is what the women "abroad" are saying to her:

"This war is really, really bringing your positive efforts to the level of zero," said Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal, an activist with the Capital City Women's Forum. She said it was difficult to talk about cooperation between women in the United States and Turkey as long as Iraq was under occupation.

"War makes the rights of women completely erased, and poverty comes after war -- and women pay the price," said Fatma Nevin Vargun, a Kurdish women's rights activist. Vargun denounced the arrest of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq, in front of the White House this week.
Her response?

"You're concerned about war, and no one likes war," Hughes said. But "to preserve the peace, sometimes my country believes war is necessary," she said. She also asserted that women are faring much better in Iraq than they had under the rule of deposed president Saddam Hussein.

"War is not necessary for peace," shot back Feray Salman, a human rights activist. She said countries should not try to impose democracy through war, adding that "we can never, ever export democracy and freedom from one country to another."

Tuksal said she was "feeling myself wounded, feeling myself insulted here" by Hughes's response. "In every photograph that comes from Iraq, there is that look of fear in the eyes of women and children. . . . This needs to be resolved as soon as possible."
Yeah. Winning hearts and minds.

Tolstoy's Question

As David Sirota points out, the GOP is doing its best to make sure "the poor will always be with us."

Will Kansas start to wonder what's the matter with Kansas when it starts to feel the pain of New Orleans? Maybe.

55 percent of Americans say evacuees from Katrina have turned up in their cities or communities, raising concerns about living conditions for the refugees, vanishing jobs for locals and - among 1 in 4 respondents - increased crime.
According to the AP:

A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll shows Katrina prompted a rethinking of some signature issues in American life - changing the way we view race and our safety, how we spend our money, even where we live.

The poll shows that issues swirling around Katrina trump other national concerns.
The issue of re-examining the way we live, however, is separate from the issue of how that re-examination is conducted:

The poll also exposes a divide among Americans in how the government should respond when disasters strike areas particularly prone to catastrophe - landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes. Half say the government should give people in those zones money for recovery, but almost as many say those people should live there at their own risk.

About 4 in 10 say the government should prohibit people from building new homes in those endangered areas in the first place. As McMullen puts it: ``You're asking for another disaster to happen.''
Of course, that leaves out the question of California (mudslides, wildfires, earthquakes), the "mid-western" states (Tornado Alley) and any city situated on a flood plain (anyone else recall the flooding of the Mississippi a decade or so back?).

So, we are again, as a nation, thinking. But what are we thinking? That, as usual, is the critical question. And what voices are guiding that discussion? That's en even more important question. Not that the discussion can be guided into the "right result." Reinhold Niebuhr, despite titanic efforts, died observing the rise of the very "military-industrial complex" he, too, feared, and watching religion slowly take over the public discourse ("One nation, under God," occurred under Eisenhower, to cite just one example).

The current situation, in other words, has a long pedigree, and deep historical roots. The rise of the "Religious Right" did not start with Ronald Reagan or Pat Robertson, and it won't end with the presidency of George W. Bush. And no one person, however brilliant or eloquent, can hope to stop it, or turn the cultural tide.

What, then, can we do? How should we then live?

Hurricane Watch

This is a grim business, but the current death toll estimate from Hurricane Rita is hovering around 100 (107, says the Houston Chronicle) . The worst news of all? At least 60 of those deaths were due to the evacuation, not the storm. No way to know, of course, how many of those 60 would have died in the storm, but the odds are, looking back, that none of them would have. The largest number were on the bus that exploded (which, it turns out, has an even more checkered history than originally supposed), but many died simply because of the panic.

In other hurricane related news, FEMA has contracted for $2 billion in housing, including $236 million to house evacuees on three cruise ships, and yet has put only 107 families in permanent housing.

In part, this indicates just how difficult re-housing 1 million+ people will be.

"There are a lot of problems with trailers," said Susan J. Popkin, a researcher for the Urban Institute in Washington. "You're concentrating people in the middle of nowhere, and once they're there, it's very hard for them to get out."

Especially if displaced families get relocation help and other social services, Ms. Popkin said, they would be better off moving to places with existing schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. "People's basic needs go beyond a roof," she said.
And that is precisely the issue: people's basic needs go beyond a roof.

But they also go well beyond the material. Schools are one thing, but good schools? Housing is another, but good housing? Jobs a third, but good jobs? The poor will eventually return to New Orleans, because hotels and restaurants need bus boys and maids and janitors and dishwashers. It is ironic that "irreligious" Europe seems to handle this better than we do in America. "Religion," of course, is supposed to turn our minds to matters spiritual, yet America is the most brutally materialistic of all the developed nations, willingly treating our own citizens as third-world residents and wage slaves for the comfort and convenience of the minority. We care more about our things than our people, and decide that if the poor at least have access to schools (however poorly funded and maintained they may be) and housing (however decrepit and roach-ridden) and jobs (however demeaning and low the wages), then they have all they need, and shouldn't complain about not having more.

The necessities of life go well beyond the barest minimums we as a nation are willing to pay for. And when we wonder: "Wwill this finally bring apocalpyse? Will this finally spark the revelation that will open the eyes of the blind and make the oppressor fall?", we need to keep these words in mind:

Apocalypse is the cry of the helpless, who are borne passively by events which they cannot influence, much less control. The cry of the helpless is often vindictive, expressing impotent rage at reality. Apocalyptic rage is a flight from reality, a plea to God to fulfill their wishes and prove them right and the other wrong. Apocalyptic believers could hardly think the saying, "Go, make disciples of all nations," was addressed to them. Had apocalyptic believers dominated the church since the first century, there would have been no missions to unbelievers, no schools, no hospitals, no orphanages, no almsgiving. The helpless cannot afford to think of such enterprises; they can only await the act of God, and then complain because that act is so long delayed. The gospels and epistles rather tell the believers that they are the act of God.

John McKenzie, The New Testament without Illusion (Crossroad Publishing Co., 1982)

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Yeah, this is pretty much how Houston feels...

...after 72 hours of uninterrupted hurricane warning/preparedness and fear-mongering on all the local TV stations. At times, searching for something to say before the storm struck, reporters were reduced to statements like: "There are many cars driving by, some with people in them." There was almost a race for which local reporters could lose their baseball caps in the wind that finally came up on Galveston Island. It was a constant drumbeat of impending apocalypse for three days, and then apocalypse went elsewhere. And so, today, I receive this photo with the following e-mail message:

*Subject:* FW: 2005 Hurricane Rita Storm Damage in Houston

With all the news lately about Hurricane Katrina, we shouldn't forget that Houston has had it's share of devastating weather also.

The attached photo illustrates the damage caused to a home when Hurricane Rita passed through the Houston area a couple of days ago. It really makes you cherish what you have, and reminds us not to take life for granted!!!

If we didn't laugh, we'd get mad at somebody.

Speaking of Ronnie Earle...

Since Holden hasn't mentioned this yet, I will. Some choice words from Ronnie Earle:

In response to the cries of Tom DeLay:

"I find they often accuse others of doing what they themselves do," he said. "And what else are they going to say?"
And why he sought the indictment:

"This is about protecting the integrity of our electoral system and I couldn't just ignore it," he said.
And my personal favorite, from the last time DeLay publicly attacked Mr. Earle for investigating him:

"Being called vindictive and partisan by Tom DeLay is like being called ugly by a frog."
Lest we forget why Mr. DeLay has now stepped down as Majority Leader:

When Congressional Republicans sought last year to protect Mr. DeLay by changing the rules requiring an indicted leader to step down, Mr. Earle condemned the action as "open contempt for moral values" in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times. The move was later rescinded.
And one last word about all the cries of "unfair!":

"I would expect that that would be their response," Mr. Earle said. "This is what they believe of themselves."
It's not the character of your opponents that matters; only your character is important.

Crying "Havoc!" and letting slip the dogs of panic....

Interesting conversation going on around me in the aftermath of Rita (yes, I'm blogging my day now!)

The consensus on the disastrous evacuation is: government has to do better. How?

Well, for one thing, abandon this idiotic idea that evacuation is a "private choice." When government leaders call for even a voluntary evacuation, they have taken all but the appearance of choice away. In simplest terms, I have the choice to follow the law, or not. There are consequences if I don't, but only if I'm caught. The analogy to a natural disaster such as a hurricane (or even a tornado, which we never run from) is precise: if I choose to ignore the evacuation "advice" (intersting how many government officials are running from responsibility for the consequences of their actions, isn't it?), I take my chances on the impending disaster. If I choose to run, I take my chances (apparently) on being able to escape.

Houston is a city of 4-5 million people spread over several thousand square miles. You could build enough roadways to evacuate it, if you destroyed every building within the city limits. Then, of course, you would reach what I call the road developers ideal state: no place to go, but we can get there! Short of that pointless utopia, evacuating the city is a hopeless prospect, and the nightmare gridlock that affected Houston for 36+ hours will be repeated again and again.

That, or no one will leave, and lives will be lost.

The solution? A novel one is to make the government that calls for the evacuation responsible for removing the people. I know families where every car and driver in the family tried to evacuate, which, of course, only made the traffic problem worse. If government calls for an evacuation, then government needs to remove the people.

Or, alternatively, offer them safe shelters for the duration of the storm. Many people far outside the danger zone of storm surge fled their houses because they feared winds that would uproot live oaks and topple pine trees. Hard to see one of those coming until it's through your roof. In a storm shelter, you may still return home to a damaged house, but at least you weren't in it at the time.

Will be interesting to see if this rises above the left-over frustrations of the Great Gridlock of '05. Local media comes in for much criticism here, for hyping the storm as the "Storm of the Century" and a "rival to Katrina." All in all, it's becoming clear that what happened here was the result of panic, not reason, and that many people in Houston tried to "get out" who really didn't need to. I don't expect this to fade away quietly, either. The death toll from the storm stands at 109. Many of those were caused by the evacuation.

Law enforcement officers not prone to tears said they often wept openly as they dealt with the repercussions of the flight from Rita.

"It was horrible," said San Jacinto County Sheriff's spokesman J.J. Stitt.
When the results of the evacuation are as hard to bear as the storm itself, you know something is seriously wrong. As State Rep. Garnet Coleman says:

"People are downplaying the fact that people died in the evacuation and that is not right.... Is the chance of dying greater in the movement than in the storm? That's the question we need to consider."

"St. Kevin"

Kept meaning to mention that Thersites has Seamus Heaney's "St. Kevin" up on his blog, which is as good a place as any to find it.

Reading it always reminds me of one more life task I have, which is to read the poetry of Seamus Heaney.

The poem itself could inspire an entire course on Celtic prayer and Celtic spirituality.

You Don't Need a Weatherman know which way the wind blows."--Bob Dylan

A note to the journalists regarding the indictment of Tom DeLay: anyone remember there's a grand jury involved here?

The grand jury's foreman, William Gibson, told The Associated Press that Earle didn't pressure jurors to indict DeLay: "Ronnie Earle didn't indict him. The grand jury indicted him."

Gibson, 76, a retired sheriff's deputy, said of DeLay: "He's probably doing a good job. I don't have anything against him. Just something happened."
Let's see: the foreman of the grand jury is a 76 year old retired sheriff's deputy. Grand juries, not prosecutors, hand down indictments (yes, I know about the ham sandwich, but I also know about grand juries that indict people the prosecution didn't want indicted).

And DeLay claims it's a "witch hunt." Frankly, I don't need David Corn and a D.C. media consultant to figure this one out. Politicans boldly proclaiming their innocence as they are marched off to trial (or even jail) is as American as apple pie. As Ronnie Earle said: "I don't know what else they would say."

Just remember: as the guards say, most of the prisoners willl tell you they are innocent, too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Fish Rots from the Head--Part 2

Lest we forget, Michael Brown had a boss; and his boss was responsible, per a Presidential Directive signed by George W. Bush, for the federal response to national disasters.

The federal official with the power to mobilize a massive federal response to Hurricane Katrina was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, not the former FEMA chief who was relieved of his duties and resigned earlier this week, federal documents reviewed by Knight Ridder show.

"The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling!"

Josh Marshall is interested in "Brownie's" lies on Capitol Hill yesterday, but I suspect most of them will end up being of the "he said/she said" variety, or petty disagreements over timeline issues. I have to admit, I'm more interested in Brown's mendacity.

Pay attention to what he says, not whether or not the facts can be verified, and you see a man in charge of FEMA who apparently saw his job as being Chicken Little: the sky was falling, but he couldn't get anyone to listen:

Michael D. Brown, who stepped down as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the government's much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, told a Congressional committee on Tuesday that he had warned the White House of impending disaster several days before the storm struck.

Asked when the White House became aware that a "disaster was looming" in the Gulf Coast region, Mr. Brown said he had warned Andrew H. Card Jr., President Bush's chief of staff, at least three days before the hurricane hit New Orleans on Aug. 28.

"They were aware of that by Thursday or Friday because Andy Card and I were communicating at that point," Mr. Brown told a special House committee investigating the government's response. "In fact, I remember saying to Andy at one point that this is going to be a bad one. They were focused about it. They knew it."

What is Mr. Brown's explanation for the disatrous response to the disaster?

"I very strongly personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together," Mr. Brown said. "I just couldn't pull that off."
And why couldn't he pull that off? Again, not his fault. This time, an entire state is at fault:

At one point Mr. Brown testified, "My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional."
This was not, however, the tune Brown was singing at the first of the month. Then, he blamed the people of New Orleans:

The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday those New Orleans residents who chose not to heed warnings to evacuate before Hurricane Katrina bear some responsibility for their fates.

Michael Brown also agreed with other public officials that the death toll in the city could reach into the thousands.

"Unfortunately, that's going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings," Brown told CNN.

"I don't make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans," he said.

"And to find people still there is just heart-wrenching to me because, you know, the mayor did everything he could to get them out of there.

"So, we've got to figure out some way to convince people that whenever warnings go out it's for their own good," Brown said. "Now, I don't want to second guess why they did that. My job now is to get relief to them."
But really, this is just the same song, second verse. In August, Brown told Larry King that a flood of New Orleans was FEMA's worst case scenario for a natural disaster. And his his solution? Ask churches, charities, and private organizations for help. Which is only reasonable: after all, it's what Bush said, later. Apparently the real "first responders" to a crisis are not government employees, but the people themselves.

Which leads us back to the real issue: Brown is a scapegoat, if his testimony is examined for inconistencies and lies. He is, instead, the symbol, the representative, the perfect example, of this Administration. Brown is not responsible? Well, neither is Bush. Brown is incompetent and delusional? So is Bush.

No one in this administration is ever responsible for anything, except for not hewing closely enough to the party line. Michael Brown wants to paint himself now as Chicken Little, whose only responsibility was to tell the King the sky was falling. But Brown was not merely a messenger, or a "coordinator." His agency was the one federal agency charged with responsibility for responding to natural disasters. But this entire administration takes only one responsibility seriously: doling out the cash. Responsibility, except for friends and business cronies, is for chumps.

What Mr. Brown's testimony should do, but won't, is focus us on the real issue: money, and who gets it, and why. As Kyra Phillips said to Rep. Nancy Pelosi:

That's another huge issue that we need to tackle, because all of us of Americans need to pay closer attention to the poor in the United States. No one should have to live the way they're living now.

ADDENDUM: Because I know Haloscan isn't always cooperative, I'll add janeboatler's comment in full,here:

"My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional."

That's his biggest mistake, is it?

Perhaps this link to the Bush Statement on Emergency Assistance for Louisiana on Aug. 27, 2005, could have been a pretty big mistake too.

This statement no longer appears in a search on the White House web site - at least I could not find it - but the web address still works, and you can find the cache on Google. The parishes mentioned are all in the central and northern part of Louisiana; not one coastal parish is included. Check out a map of Louisiana. Does anyone think Gov. Blanco gave this info out, that she doesn't know where the parishes in her state are located? Apparently FEMA or The White House or someone high in government didn't have it quite straight as of Aug. 27. A corrected statement, which included the coastal parishes, was put out a day or so later. Still...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Another stuffed goose of a post, thanks in part to Seaxneat, who found this story first in the Houston Chronicle:

Frustration and anger mounted in Southeast Texas on Monday over the response to Hurricane Rita by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With homes smashed, trees and power lines downed and a looming shortage of food and water, one official even threatened to take federal relief supplies by force, if necessary.

"If you have enough policemen to take it from them, take it," Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith said Monday during a meeting of city and county officials.
This all sounds terribly, terribly familiar:

We are very short on food and water, and the FEMA trucks that were supposed to be here just aren't here," Griffith said.

FEMA officials did not respond to requests for comment on the complaints. But Steve McCraw, Texas director of Homeland Security, said he spoke with Griffith, the official in charge of managing the disaster locally, and understood his anxiety.

"You know, when you ask for something, you want it right away. You want generators. You want food, and you want water right there," McCraw said. "He's going to get frustrated when he doesn't get things immediately, and we understand that."

But, McCraw said, "I have confidence that FEMA will get that to them."

Griffith was angry over an incident in which a FEMA truck was supposed to deliver fuel to a police facility but took the gasoline to a fire station. When the crew learned its error, it left, the county judge said, without providing the fuel to anyone.

If police had been available, Griffith said, they should have just taken the fuel.

Griffith also was outraged over FEMA portable generators that, he said, were sitting in a park and not being distributed.

"We can't help it if politicians come here and just want to be seen by the media," Griffith said.

"We hit the ground running with our own commodities and our own facilities, but we have no support."

Beaumont officials also cited a shortage of water pumps and generators. They complained that federal relief teams had failed to show up and that fuel deliveries had not been made as promised.

In nearby Port Arthur, Mayor Oscar Ortiz also expressed frustration with FEMA's response in his city, which was severely damaged but largely empty after at least 95 percent of its residents evacuated.

Rita left behind upended trees and snapped power lines on nearly every Port Arthur street. Virtually the only movement Monday came from emergency crews, a handful of military personnel and energy trucks repairing lines.

But Ortiz said he had seen only three FEMA officials on the ground as of Monday afternoon. "They are supposedly bringing us some diesel, but I haven't seen it yet," he said. "We are relying on some of the refineries in town to keep us on the road.
How long before they blame local officials? While emergency management may begin at the local level, at what point does FEMA actually take responsibility? According to Michael Brown: never.

In his opening remarks Tuesday, Brown said he expected to be asked by investigators if he did all he could in response to the storm, which devastated the Gulf Coast and is blamed for more than 1,000 deaths.

"The answer to that question is 'yes,' but I do believe there are specific mistakes that I made with Hurricane Katrina. I will mention two.

"First, I did not set up a system of media briefings which I should have done as that would have required less of my time than responding to all the requests for interviews.

"Second, I regret not being able to persuade Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down and coordinate their response."
In other words, the only thing he did wrong, was not get other people to do his job for him their job. That, and he failed at Press Relations 101, the first line of defense for this Administration. His defiance of reality in the face of travesty is breathtaking. His excuses for his failure come perilously close to Otter's: "Hey, you f*cked up! You trusted us!"

"The reason that this primary responsibility, this first response is at the local level is that it is inherently impractical, totally impractical for the federal government to respond to every disaster of whatever size in every community across the country," Brown said
In other words, Katrina was too big for the federal government to handle, so the state and city were on their own. Who else you gonna blame?

That said, I have to agree with Mayor Nagin: "I don't know what he's referring to," Nagin said, adding that "obviously, Mr. Brown is maybe under a lot of pressure. I feel sorry for him." At this point, I do, too.

But the question remains: why are people like this allowed a place in government at all? Why wasn't a Richard Clarke in charge, someone who would publicly apologize to the families for the failures on his watch? Answer: because the fish rots from the head.

Even without "Brownie," this is still apparently the best FEMA can do:

In the hard-hit refinery towns of Port Arthur and Beaumont, crews struggled to cross debris-clogged streets to deliver generators and water to people stranded by Rita. They predicted it could be a month before power is restored, and said water and sewer systems could not function until more generators arrived.

Red tape was also blamed for the delays.

Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz, whose own home was destroyed by fire after the hurricane, said "we've had 101 promises" for aid, "but it's all bureaucracy." He and other officials gathered at a hotel-turned-command center, where a dirty American flag found among hurricane debris was hung on the wall.

John Owens, emergency management coordinator and deputy police chief in the town of 57,000, said pleas for state and federal relief were met with requests for paperwork.

"We have been living like cavemen, sleeping in cars, doing bodily functions outside," he said.
And apparently, $60 billion is only enough for one storm. Maybe Gov. Goodhair wants to advise his former superior in Texas government on how the relationship between the federal and local governments is supposed to work:

Gov. Rick Perry also put pressure on FEMA Monday to reimburse Texas for all costs associated with Hurricane Rita, as the federal agency did with Hurricane Katrina.

But Perry said FEMA, so far, has agreed to pay 100 percent of the cost of Hurricane Rita for only the first 72 hours after the storm. In a letter to President Bush, Perry said the two hurricanes should be considered as one disaster, because part of the state's Rita-related costs involved evacuating people from New Orleans from Texas cities.
My advice to Gov. Goodhair: don't stand by the mailbox waiting for the check. I think FEMA still has a ways to go before Mr. Brown gets his wish, and it is "reborn."

"Where Have You Been? Who Were You With?"

A lot of concern in the "blogosphere" about ANSWER and the anti-war rally (see, e.g., First Draft).

It finally occurred to me that there is a "Christian" perspective on this. Or at least one perspective offered by historical Christianity, and its "founder."

Jesus of Nazareth consorted, openly, with prostitutes, beggars, tax collectors, and the poor. "Low-lifes," in other words. As Judas Iscariot sings in "Jesus Christ Superstar:" "She [Mary Magdalene] doesn't fit in well/with what you teach and say./It doesn't help us if you're inconsistent. They only need a small excuse/to put us all away."

These criticisms were levelled at the historical Jesus. But not, according to the gospels, by his disciples. Those who said he was consorting with the wrong kind of people, or teaching or sending the wrong kind of message, were invariably the Pharisees. Tradition has made them the enemies of Jesus. Clearly there is some truth in that. They certainly weren't his followers.

But who is, today? Jesus, proclaimed by his followers as Messiah, identified with the Creator of the Universe (or at least his law and teachings), associated with the least desirable and least respectable people in Palestinian society.

So, as Christians, who is to matter to us? Who we associate with? Or what we do and say? Jesus usually told them: "Your faith has saved you. Go and sin no more. Go in peace."

What more would we do than our teacher did?

And, lest we forget, his end was on a cross; a mark of shame (the crucified were hung naked); a mark of defeat by the absolute power of death. And yet Paul bragged of that, even above the consorting the beggars and prostitutes. And told Christians to have the same mind as as in Christ Jesus.

What more would we Christians do, than our saviour did?

In the words of St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel to all the world. Use words, if necessary.

And yes: everyone is invited to this table. (Isaiah 55:1-3)

Living Backward

"Getting and spending we lay waste our powers"--William Wordsworth

Funny how a minor catastrophe can turn over the rock of your daily existence. Funny how quickly we all look away, too.

The "minor catastrophe" was the evacuation of Houston and much of the Texas Gulf Coast north of Corpus Christi over to the Louisiana coast west of Lake Charles. All the evacuation routes flowed through Houston, and apparently when that was planned, nobody thought there would be local traffic on those routes, much less Houstonians "not in danger" (the preferred phrase of government leaders, now that the danger has passed) trying to evacuate, as well. The current explanations/excuses for the evacuation debacle seem to be, in descending order:

1) the Mayor and the County Judge (Houston is, for all intents and purposes, Harris County, but we maintain two seperate government entities here nonetheless) called for lane reversal on Wednesday morning. The Governor gave the order on Thursday morning. Most of the lane reversals were effected by sometime Thursday night.

By that time, the roads had been at a standstill since Wednesday afternoon. Had Rita sped up, not weakened, and stayed on course for Galveston, it would have been a disaster of Irwin Allen proportions. As it was, more people died fleeing the hurricane, than in the hurricane; and those people didn't need to flee, after all. Which brings us to excuse No.:

2) people in Houston fled who didn't really need to flee. Despite news reports that the Mayor called for a "voluntary evacuation" of Houston, the real call appears to have been limited to the evacuation zones near the coast and ship channel. However, with pictures of Katrina and New Orleans and Mississippi filling TV screens for three weeks, panic set in.

3) Evacuation is an "individual decision," so the people have only themselves to blame for the fact that it wasn't orderly. This was the reasoning used by a FEMA spokesman on NPR this morning, and of the three, it is the purest balderdash. Complying with laws and government edicts is always an "individual decision." It's on the order of the old Dirty Harry line: "Do ya feel lucky, punk?", but it's always a choice by the person.

But all of this led to the "minor catastrophe" of the evacuation itself; abandoned cars on roadways, death in a fiery bus explosion outside of Dallas, 6 hour trips that took 22; nerves rattled, people shaken, an entire city disrupted.

On Sunday, police in Houston had to stand guard over gas stations that were open, because violence threatened to break out in the long lines of people waiting to get gas, and as the officers said "If we leave, we'll just be back here in 5 minutes." Grocery stores shut down, and many are reportedly out of perishables like milk and fresh vegetables and greens. Banks were still closed on Monday, because the staff had fled and were slowly coming back. Schools, closed since Thursday, won't reopen until tomorrow (Wednesday), to prevent a rush of people back to Houston to rival the rush that left, or tried to leave.

And it's got us all feeling a bit sheepish.

But the most interesting effect, is in trying to return to "normal." "Normal" in New Orleans, or southern Louisiana or Mississippi, was shattered and washed out and blown away. We can understand that, can almost grasp, perhaps, standing in the debris of our homes and wondering what to do next. But "normal" here was ruffled entirely by human action: nature did nothing to us, we did it all to ourselves. We disrupted the 4th largest city in the country, and while we're glad no lives were lost and no serious damage was done, and sure lives would have been lost had the storm come to us, and many in its path stayed put, still, we have to put "normal" back together, and we have to do it by acting like nothing happened, and we weren't really scared.

But the question is: what is "normal"? Or rather, why is it normal?

One realizes quickly, in a metropolitan area, that no one is independent at all; that we all depend on one another. If the trucks don't bring the food, we can't buy it in the store. If the tankers don't deliver the gasoline, we can't run our cars at will and go where we want. If the restaurants don't have the staff, we can't eat at our convenience and ability to pay the bill or offer the credit card. If the people aren't there, we can't do what we normally do: which is to purchase.

One realizes, too quickly, that daily life in the metropolis is based on purchase. Food, clothing, books, records, coffee, meals, gasoline, supplies: what have you. The day is spent in exchange: labor for money, money for goods, time for entertainment. The power goes out, we wait patiently for it to return, aware suddenly how much we depend on it. The cable goes out, again we wait, suddenly aware perhaps that we spend too much time with the television. But when the city goes out....?

Two days off, and you decide to catch up on your errands, one is working in the store, and for you that's inconvenient. Two days off and no obstacles to travel, but it's no time for a vacation, a picnic, a trip out of town, so you want to go shopping, and realize...why shopping? Two days off and you want to restock the refrigerator "just in case," but the items you need most simply aren't there, and the lines are long and everything is slow because all the people....

The people are not people, of course. They are means to delivering services you want, goods you desire; or they are obstacles impeding your flow through the city. And you realize, suddenly, when they aren't there, and it isn't a holiday, and you haven't prepared to be inconvenienced like this because you were expecting disaster and it never came, and now what do you do; you realize you suddenly aren't sure what the city is for, except to provide you with diversions and entertainments and...why else live among all these crowds in such an unpleasant environment?

And you realize the world is too much with us, late and soon; or maybe not enough with us, because we are too busy trying to manufacture our own world.

And maybe that's the original human sin: to think that we are the Creator. And so long as we think that, we can never take pleasure in the Creation. And how would we do that, if we wanted our pleasure in the world to be "normal"?

Monday, September 26, 2005

The really odd part is...

I'd never heard of this:

An extraordinary appeal to Americans from the Bush administration for money to help pay for the reconstruction of Iraq has raised only $600 (£337), The Observer has learnt. Yet since the appeal was launched earlier this month, donations to rebuild New Orleans have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars.

The public's reluctance to contribute much more than the cost of two iPods to the administration's attempt to offer citizens 'a further stake in building a free and prosperous Iraq' has been seized on by critics as evidence of growing ambivalence over that country.

This coincides with concern over the increasing cost of the war. More than $30 billion has been appropriated for the reconstruction. Initially, America's overseas aid agency, USaid, expected it to cost taxpayers no more than $1.7bn, but it is now asking the public if they want to contribute even more.

It is understood to be the first time that a US government has made an appeal to taxpayers for foreign aid money. Contributors have no way of knowing who will receive their donations or even where they may go, after officials said details had be kept secret for security reasons.
This really reaches beyond pathetic, and touches on "completely lost." A direct appeal for aid from the very people whose grandchildren will be paying for this war, or working for China to pay for this war?

What context would Tim Russert like for that appeal?

USaid's Heather Layman denied it was disappointed with the meagre sum raised after a fortnight. 'Every little helps,' she said.
Well, I suppose Ahmed Chalabi can get those two new iPod's he's been wanting, anyway.

Still, I'm left wondering: with this kind of appeal going on (and obviously very much 'under the radar'), why are we concerned with how the "right" perceives who comes to our anti-war rallies?

These people are not just beaten; they have themselves admitted they are completely irrelevant, and matters are totally out of their control. They have abandoned all hope, and turned to truly desperate measures.

St. Patrick's Four

I'd meant to cover this, but never got to it, and then Katrina came along. Still, this is good news:

The jury in the Saint Patrick's Four trial has just returned a verdict: not guilty of the most serious charge of conspiracy, guilty of the lesser misdemeanor counts.

Press Release Issued by St. Patrick's Four, September 26, 2005


Members of the St. Patrick’s Four, their families, friends and legal team were grateful to learn that the jury, after over seven hours of deliberation, had found the peace activists not guilty of the most serious charge, conspiracy to impede an officer of the United States.

“The decision to acquit on the conspiracy charge, a felony, is a huge victory, given the narrow parameters within which the four could present their defense, and given the restrictions on deliberations. This is a major setback in the government’s efforts to criminalize dissent,” said Bill Quigley, acclaimed public interest lawyer and law professor at Loyola University School of Law, who has been acting as legal advisor to the defendants.

The four were convicted on lesser charges, damage to property and trespassing, both misdemeanors which carry possible sentences of one year and six months respectively.
I don't know the legal details of the case, but the legal arguments presented in the rest of the press release don't strike me as particularly sound. The fact that the conspiracy charge was rejected by the jury is, on the other hand, an important statement about dissent.

What has happened to "Shame"?

Arianna Huffington mentions Mr. Broussard's appearance on Meet the Press. But read the transcript and ask yourself: why is Tim Russert allowed to appear in public, or in polite company?

The set-up is that Mr. Broussard has changed his story. Mr. Russert wants a "gotcha!" Here's the central exchange:

Mr. Russert: ...that our viewers see that again because MSNBC and other blog organizations have looked into the facts behind your comments and these are the conclusions, and I'll read it for you and our viewers. It says: "An emotional moment and a misunderstanding. Since the broadcast of [Meet the Press] interview...a number of bloggers have questioned the validity of Broussard's story. Subsequent reporting identified the man whom Broussard was referring Thomas Rodrigue, the Jefferson Parish emergency services director. ...Rodrigue acknowledged that his 92-year-old mother and more than 30 other people died in the St. Rita nursing home. They had not been evacuated and the flood waters overtook the residence. ... When told of the sequence of phone calls that Broussard described, Rodrigue said `No, no, that's not true. ...I contacted the nursing home two days before the storm [on Saturday, Aug. 27th] and again on [Sunday] the 28th. ...At the same time I talked to the nursing home I had also talked to the emergency encourage that nursing home to evacuate...' Rodrigue says he never made any calls after Monday, the day he figures his mother died... Officials believe the residents of St. Rita's died on Monday, the 29th, not on Friday, Sept. 2, as Broussard has suggested."

Your comments obviously...

Mr. Broussard: Sir, this...

Mr. Russert: Go ahead.

Mr. Broussard: Sir, this gentleman's mother died on that Friday before I came on the show. My own staff came up to me and said what had happened. I had no idea his mother was in the nursing home. It was related to me by my own staff, who had tears in their eyes, what had happened. That's what they told me. I went to that man, who I love very much and respect very much, and he had collapsed like a deck of cards. And I took him and put him in my hospital room with my prayer books and told him to sit there and cry out and pray away and give honor to his mother with his tears and his prayers.

Now, everything that was told to me about the preface of that was told to me by my own employees. Do you think I would interrogate a man whose mother just died and said, "Tommy, I want to know everything about why your mother just died"? The staff, his own staff, told me those words. Sir, that woman is the epitome of abandonment. She was left in that nursing home. She died in that nursing home. Tommy will tell you that he tried to rescue her and could not get her rescued. Tommy could tell you that he sent messages there through the EOC and through, I think, the sheriff's department, "Tell Mama everything's going to be OK. Tell Mama we're coming to get her."

Listen, sir, somebody wants to nitpick a man's tragic loss of a mother because she was abandoned in a nursing home? Are you kidding? What kind of sick mind, what kind of black-hearted people want to nitpick a man's mother's death? They just buried Eva last week. I was there at the wake. Are you kidding me? That wasn't a box of Cheerios they buried last week. That was a man's mother whose story, if it is entirely broadcast, will be the epitome of abandonment. It will be the saddest tale you ever heard, a man who was responsible for safekeeping of a half a million people, mother's died in the next parish because she was abandoned there and he can't get to her and he tried to get to her through EOC. He tried to get through the sheriff's office. He tries every way he can to get there. Somebody wants to debate those things? My God, what sick-minded person wants to do that?

What kind of agenda is going on here? Mother Nature doesn't have a political party. Mother Nature can vote a person dead and Mother Nature can vote a community out of existence. But Mother Nature is not playing any political games here. Somebody better wake up. You want to come and live in this community and see the tragedy we're living in? Are you sitting there having your coffee, you're in a place where toilets flush and lights go on and everything's a dream and you pick up your paper and you want to battle ideology and political chess games? Man, get out of my face. Whoever wants to do that, get out of my face.

Mr. Russert: Mr. Broussard, the people who are questioning your comments are saying that you accused the federal government and the bureaucracy of murder, specifically calling on the secretary of Homeland Security and using this as an example to denounce the federal government. And what they're saying is, in fact, it was the local government that did not evacuate Eva Rodrigue on Friday or on Saturday. And they're making that, in fact...

Mr. Broussard: Sir...

Mr. Russert: Let me just finish. I'll give you a chance to respond.

Mr. Broussard: Yes.

Mr. Russert: And, in fact, the owners of the nursing home, Salvador and Mable Mangano, have been indicted with 34 counts of negligent homicide by the Louisiana state attorney general. So it was the owners of the nursing home and the local government that are responsible for the lack of evacuation and not the federal government. Is that fair?

Mr. Broussard: Sir, with everything I said on Meet the Press, the last punctuation of my statements were the story that I was going to tell in about maybe two sentences. It just got emotional for me, sir. Talk about the context of everything I said. Were we abandoned by the federal government? Absolutely we were. Were there more people that abandoned us? Make the list. The list can go on for miles. That's for history to document. That's what Congress does best, burn witches. Let Congress do their hearings. Let them find the witches. Let them burn them. The media burns witches better than anybody. Let the media go find the witches and burn them. But as I stood on the ground, sir, for day after day after day after day, nobody came here, sir. Nobody came. The federal government didn't come. The Red Cross didn't come. I'll give you a list of people that didn't come here, sir, and I was here.

So anybody that's saying, "Oh, they were all here," you know, they weren't living on my planet, there weren't living in my parish. They did not come. I can't make it any more clearer than that. Did inefficiencies, did bureaucracy commit murder here? Absolutely, it did. And Congress and the media will flush it out and find it out and those people will be held accountable. You've already given an example. These people in the nursing home in St. Bernard, they're getting indicted. Good. They ought to be indicted. They ought to get good old-fashioned Western justice. They ought to be taken out and administered to like they did in the old West.

Yes, there's a lot of people that they're going to find that are going to be villains in this situation, but they're also going to find for the most part that the Peter Principle was squared. The Peter Principle is you promote somebody to the level of incompetency, but when you promote somebody to the level of incompetency in a life or death department, then those people should be ousted. Those people should be strung up. Those people should be burned at the stake. And I'm sure Congress and the press is going to do that.

Mr. Russert: At the local, state and federal level.

Mr. Broussard: Sir, at every level. Are you kidding? This is a jigsaw puzzle. This is a mosaic. The blame will be shared by everybody. The heroic deeds will be magnified as individual stories of heroics come out from different people and agencies that did eventually come here. Sir, this is chaos. It's organized chaos at best. There are plenty of heroes that have to be uncovered. There are plenty of villains that have to be uncovered. Let the process go on. Let it happen. I don't have time to do it, sir. I didn't even watch my own broadcast that you played to me in my ear. It pained me to hear that again because Tommy Rodrigue is a friend of mine. He works for me. I was at his mother's wake.

When somebody wants to nit-pick these details, I don't know what sick minds creates this black-hearted agenda, but it's sick. I mean, let us recover. Let us rebuild. If somebody wants me to debate them on national TV, hey, buddy, be my guest. Make my day. Put me at a podium when I got a full night's sleep and you will not like matching me against anybody that you want. That person is going to be in trouble. If this station or anybody else or any other station wants to do that, you just give me a full night's sleep, sir. I haven't had one in about 30 days. But you wind me up with a full night's sleep, I'll debate every detail of everything you want, sir.

Mr. Russert: Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, we thank you for coming on and correcting the record and putting it in context. And we wish you well and to all your people in the recovery. And we hope to talk to you again.
I'm left puzzled as to what possible "context" he could have in mind. This story is not about abstractions, symbols, or concepts: it is about human beings, reality, matters concrete and solid. This is about death, the death of an individual, the deaths of thousands of individuals: it doesn't get more concrete than that.

To be so disconnected from reality as Mr. Russert is, is frightening. What it says about the "Beltway Mentality" is even more frightening.

And so far, the only human beings I have seen in this story, the only human beings I have seen in the media about this story, have been the victims of Katrina, and the "local officials" who were trying to help them.

The Federal officials, the Washington press corps, the pundits and poobahs? Mr. Broussard speaks for me, too: they prove that "the Peter Principle was squared", and theirs is a sick, black-hearted agenda.

Thou Shalt Not Endanger the President's Life

Apparently when greed and malfeasance threaten the President's life, it's a serious matter:

``Greed prevailed over the safety of police, soldiers and even the president of the United States,'' Kohn said. ``The officials who personally profited from selling the defective vests to law enforcement must be held accountable to the fullest extend of the criminal code.''
What's the problem? The Zylon fabric used in bulletproof vests made by Second Chance breaks down faster than expected. This is, of course, a serious matter. And it warrants a criminal investigation.

But apparently fraud and waste in Iraq or the reconstruction of New Orleans, well...Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, and we're too busy helping to point fingers right now.

But the guy who sold the President a bum vest? Bury him under the jail.

Only the Destitute are Innocent

As a lawyer, I developed what you might call a Niebuhrian notion of fault: that it is complex, of mixed character, and both valuable and destructive. But the law taught me one thing many laypeople prefer to avoid: someone is always responsible. Events, except in rare cases, do not just "happen." We are all more entangled in the web of our own consequences than we like to even imagine.

As an example, spot the contradictions in this statement:

"When you do something like this, you do increase the vulnerability for fraud, plain waste, abuse and mismanagement," said Richard L. Skinner, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, who said 60 members of his staff were examining Hurricane Katrina contracts. "We are very apprehensive about what we are seeing."
That is the point at which the lawyer begins to salivate, or tremble, depending on who he represents. Because that statement, as carefully phrased as it is, is an almost absolute admission of liability. In the immortal words of Otter, from Animal House: "Hey, you fucked up! You trusted us!"

Rules and regulations "got in the way"? Will we tell the same to the families of the 25 people who died needlessly on a highway just outside of Dallas? Rules and regulations would have saved their lives, but panic was the order of the day. Rules and regulations are precisely what is meant to prevent the kind of looting of the public purse that we are seeing, right now, in our own backyard:

Topping the federal government's list of costs related to Hurricane Katrina is the $568 million in contracts for debris removal landed by a Florida company with ties to Mississippi's Republican governor. Near the bottom is an $89.95 bill for a pair of brown steel-toe shoes bought by an Environmental Protection Agency worker in Baton Rouge, La.

The first detailed tally of commitments from federal agencies since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast four weeks ago shows that more than 15 contracts exceed $100 million, including 5 of $500 million or more. Most of those were for clearing away the trees, homes and cars strewn across the region; purchasing trailers and mobile homes; or providing trucks, ships, buses and planes.

More than 80 percent of the $1.5 billion in contracts signed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency alone were awarded without bidding or with limited competition, government records show, provoking concerns among auditors and government officials about the potential for favoritism or abuse.

Already, questions have been raised about the political connections of two major contractors - the Shaw Group and Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton - that have been represented by the lobbyist Joe M. Allbaugh, President Bush's former campaign manager and a former leader of FEMA.

"When you do something like this, you do increase the vulnerability for fraud, plain waste, abuse and mismanagement," said Richard L. Skinner, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, who said 60 members of his staff were examining Hurricane Katrina contracts. "We are very apprehensive about what we are seeing."

Bills have come in for deals that apparently were clinched with a handshake, with no documentation to back them up, said Mr. Skinner, who declined to provide details.
Haste to rebuild? Or haste to cash in?

FEMA has managed, so far, to spend over $26 billion. The number is so big it's hard to grasp, much less imagine what it was spent on. But here's a sampling:

Some industry and government officials questioned the costs of the debris-removal contracts, saying the Army Corps of Engineers had allowed a rate that was too high. And Congressional investigators are looking into the $568 million awarded to AshBritt, a Pompano Beach, Fla., company that was a client of the former lobbying firm of Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi.

The investigators are asking how much money AshBritt will collect and, in turn, what it will pay subcontractors performing the work, said a House investigator who did not want her name used because she was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The contracts also show considerable price disparities: travel trailers costing $15,000 to $23,000, housing inspection services that documents suggest could cost $15 to $81 per home, and ferries and ships being used for temporary housing that cost $13 million to $70 million for six months.
One more reason for the reliance on trailers rather than existing or permanent structures. I think we have an answer as to why that route was chosen, and for whom.

But for the moment, consider this: the government is spending $263 million per day on the recovery effort. New Orleans is flooded. Hurricane season is not over. And most of these contracts are "no-bid."

No one of us stands outside the web of the system we benefit from, except the destitute, who are simply used by it. Only the poor are innocent. For the rest of us, someone is always responsible.

I blame local officials?

What's interesting is, this is a news article, not an opinion piece:

The speed with which the federal government marshaled significant military and other resources to evacuate, rescue and care for victims of Hurricane Rita raises new questions about why Washington was so slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina less than four weeks earlier.

The Bush administration says it's researching whether the federal government needs to have greater authority to respond to disasters - and whether the military should be in charge.

The response to Rita, however, suggests that the government had plenty of authority to respond to Katrina and that what was lacking during Katrina was an understanding of when to use that authority.

"The atmosphere here is very, very different than it was in the days following Katrina," said John Pine, Louisiana State University Disaster Science and Management director. Pine was in Louisiana's emergency operations center in Baton Rouge on Sunday and said that nearly as many federal officials were present as those from state and local agencies.

A day after Katrina, "it was all on the shoulders of state and locals," Pine said. "There was a lot more staging of a lot more operations in place for the second storm. ... I think you see a huge difference."
And remember: Katrina was not about race, either. It was about local officials tying the hands of the Federal government. It's so easy for them to do that, you know.

The Poor will always be with you

I've actually had that line used on my by people seeking to justify poverty, or at least justify the idea that it is "inevitable for some people." th only inevitability is that the poor will always be ignored:

Wearing a donated pink T-shirt with an age-inappropriate slogan ("It's the hidden little Tiki spot where the island boys are hot, hot, hot"), Nyler tells me what she is nervous about. "I think New Orleans might not ever get fixed back." "Why not?" I ask, a little surprised to be discussing reconstruction politics with a preteen in pigtails. "Because the people who know how to fix broken houses are all gone."

I don't have the heart to tell Nyler that I suspect she is on to something; that many of the African-American workers from her neighborhood may never be welcomed back to rebuild their city. An hour earlier I had interviewed New Orleans' top corporate lobbyist, Mark Drennen. As president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., Drennen was in an expansive mood, pumped up by signs from Washington that the corporations he represents--everything from Chevron to Liberty Bank to Coca-Cola--were about to receive a package of tax breaks, subsidies and relaxed regulations so generous it would make the job of a lobbyist virtually obsolete.

Listening to Drennen 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 Nyler or her neighbors who know how to fix houses. "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.

New Orleans is already displaying signs of a demographic shift so dramatic that some evacuees describe it as "ethnic cleansing."
Ms. Klein goes on to make the point quite dramatically:

What Drennen doesn't say is that this kind of urban integration could happen tomorrow, on a massive scale. Roughly 70,000 of New Orleans' poorest homeless evacuees could move back to the city alongside returning white homeowners, without a single new structure being built. Take the Lower Garden District, where Drennen himself lives. It has a surprisingly high vacancy rate--17.4 percent, according to the 2000 Census. At that time 702 housing units stood vacant, and since the market hasn't improved and the district was barely flooded, they are presumably still there and still vacant. It's much the same in the other dry areas: With landlords preferring to board up apartments rather than lower rents, the French Quarter has been half-empty for years, with a vacancy rate of 37 percent.
Which may explain this part of the Bush "recovery" plan:

Two days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced plans to issue emergency vouchers aimed at helping poor storm victims find new housing quickly by covering as much as $10,000 of their rent.

But the department suddenly backed away from the idea after White House aides met with senior HUD officials. Although emergency vouchers had been successfully used after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the administration focused instead on a plan for government-built trailer parks, an approach that even many Republicans say would concentrate poverty in the very fashion the government has long sought to avoid.

A similar struggle has occurred over how to provide healthcare to storm victims. White House officials are quietly working to derail a proposal by leading Republican and Democratic senators to temporarily expand Medicaid. Instead, the administration is pushing a narrower plan that would not commit the government to covering certain groups of evacuees.
In fact, the presentation of the plan is so blunt in this article, it's worth quoting at length:

As President Bush tackles the monumental task of easing the social problems wrought by Katrina, he is proving deeply reluctant to use some of the big-government tools at his disposal, apparently out of fear of permanently enlarging programs that he opposes or has sought to cut.

Instead of depending on long-running programs for such services as housing and healthcare, the president has generally tried to create new, one-shot efforts that the administration apparently hopes will more easily disappear after the crisis passes. That has meant relying on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has run virtually all of the recovery effort.

"FEMA can help fill some immediate needs after a disaster, like giving grants to help people repair their roofs or pay for temporary housing," said John P. Sucich, a former senior FEMA official who oversaw the recovery from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. "But it is not the agency to turn to to ensure the kinds of continuing help that families need to begin putting their lives back together.

"That's what the rest of government is for," Sucich said.

At least in the case of housing, critics say that the president's unwillingness to rely on existing programs could raise costs. Instead of offering $10,000 vouchers, FEMA is paying an average of $16,000 for each trailer in the new parks it is contemplating. Even many Republicans wonder why the government would want to build trailer parks when many evacuees are now living in communities with plenty of vacant, privately owned apartments.

"The idea that — in a community where we could place people in the private housing market to reintegrate them into society — we would put them in [trailer] ghettos with no jobs, no community, no future, strikes me as extraordinarily bad public policy, and violates every conservative principle that I'm aware of," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.

"If they do it," Gingrich said of administration officials, "they will look back on it six months from now as the greatest disaster of this administration."
Bush, of course, is not tackling the "monumental task of easing the social problems wrought by Katrina." I think he's absolutly incapable of it, almost constitutionally unable to do so. And those problems are beyond the ken of even this article. Ms. Klein is much closer to the mark: housing is available now, but it will not be allowed to "those people." When even Newt Gingrich criticizes the plan as disastrous, you know it's bad. But it's still worse than that: it's a cultural matter.

Yesterday evening the priest told a small gathering that Katrina showed us that "there's more of them than us." "Us," of course, being people with money, with credit cards, with cars (often one per family member; the roads in Houston were clogged not just by evacuees, but by families trying to save a car for every eligible driver. Our affluence is killing us, physically as well as spiritually). She pointed out she voted Republican, like most of the people there, and even defended Bush's response to Katrina (she blamed local officials). But still, we cannot ignore the poor forever, she said. Not harsh words at all, but strong enough to make one person "break the fourth wall" and address her point, argue with her. I had that happen to me, once, as a student pastor. It shook her up, but she pressed her point. She told the story of a woman who entered a small church, and was invited to communion that Sunday by the pastor. "Everyone is invited?" she asked. Yes, said the pastor, everyone is invited. "And what does it cost?," she asked. Well, replied the pastor, not less than everything.

The sad truth is, the cost is nothing. It's the way we are living now, that costs us everything. All of our energy is expended in keeping other people away from us, in taking as much from them as we can and keeping it for ourselves, and in fearing and denying that they outnumber us, and could take it all away from us, if they chose. That's what all the false stories of looting in New Orleans were about. Fear; fear not of a "black planet," but of a poor planet. Fear that is is true, and that it is our system that is at fault, the society we have so carefully arranged, the culture we have so assiduously passed on: fear that, in the end, we are indeed responsible for one another.

And fear that a day of reckoning will come. Fear that, knowing the poor will always be with us is an indictment, not an excuse.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Mabye this explains why we have safety laws....


The bus, run by Global Limo of McAllen, Tex., burst into flames and exploded on the side of Interstate 45 early Friday morning. It was carrying 38 frail residents of the Brighton Gardens home in Bellaire, Tex., away from the expected path of Hurricane Rita to another facility in Dallas.

Mark Cross, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said Saturday morning that the bus's registration expired in July and that the vehicle had been taken out of service. But it was allowed back on the road because of a waiver signed last week by Gov. Rick Perry of Texas intended to get as many vehicles as possible involved in the hurricane evacuation and relief effort.

"I direct that all requirements concerning motor carrier registration, single-state registration, and international registration plan, and international fuel tax agreement be suspended for motor carriers traveling within or into Texas to assist with relief efforts," the governor wrote in a letter to Richard F. Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

The waiver - for all commercial vehicles, not just buses - also temporarily suspended limits on the number of hours those vehicles could be operated. The bus that exploded had been on the road for more than 14 hours, traveling from Bellaire, a few miles southwest of downtown Houston, to within 15 miles of its destination when the accident occurred at 6:30 a.m. near Wilmer, Tex.

"I ask all Texas law enforcement and other federal and state officials to honor this letter as a blanket permit," Mr. Perry wrote.

There were no indications of safety problems with the bus, only that its registration had expired, Mr. Cross said.
I am not blaming Gov. Perry, or anyone else. But the idea that "Government is the problem, not the solution," simply couldn't be more wrong. And those "nit-picking" laws about vehicles allowed to be in service; maybe we shouldn't be so quick to waive those, or disregard them.

As is my wont...

I have to return with a comment on yet another article from the NYT:

The absurdity is that a dangerous squall can now be tracked almost from its birth off the coast of Africa, but its victims still cannot get out of its way. Despite our amazing ability to foretell the meteorological future, greed and sloth may have overpowered most sane efforts to plan for it.

Highways have clotted as families flee, and some of those without cars end up with nowhere to go but their rooftops. Evacuation plans for hospitals and nursing homes have been washed away by worst-case scenarios that no one envisioned - buildings marooned by deep water and beset by gunfire.

Encouraged by federal flood insurance, islands whose very existence is ephemeral have been lined with vacation homes. Low-lying urban neighborhoods with their asphalt toes resting in swamps have been built below levees too fragile to hold. Hurricane-resistant houses have been designed, but their squat forms have proven unpopular with customers craving ocean vistas.
Does anyone else remember that Ike sold the national interstate highway system to Congress and the country as a national security measure? The interestates would not only promote commerce (the primary reason, of course), but they were to provide evacuation routes in case of civil (or uncivil; it was the beginning of the Cold War, remember) disaster.

Of course, then you find something like this:

Access only by interchanges with ramps and acceleration / deceleration lanes allow vehicles to enter and leave the highway with minimal effect on the through traffic stream. Interstate highways do not have direct driveway access to adjacent properties, grade level intersections, transit stops, pedestrian facilities or railroad grade crossings, all of which interfere with the rapid and free flow of traffic.
And you wonder what planet these guys are living on. Apparently the same one as the editors of the Washington Post.

If it weren't for the concept of irony, we'd never be able to make any sense of human actions.

Rita Post-Mortem

Power has returned to Chez Rmj, which gladdens the hearts of all. 36 hours after it went out, and still the worst "damage" we have suffered.

Yard is a mess, but no worse than if a strong thunderstorm had gone through. We won't even get the rain we've needed, it now appears. Ah, well, can't look a gift horse in the mouth.

As for the "evacuation," much will be made of this in coming days. Indeed, it has begun:

The chaotic evacuations of New Orleans and Houston have prompted local officials across the country to take another look at plans for emptying their cities in response to a large-scale natural disaster or a terrorist attack. What they have found is not wholly reassuring.

All I can add is: No sh*t, Sherlock. A former FEMA official (from Clinton era, IIRC) was on NPR yesterday, repeating the gov't mantra (the one that makes all Americans HATE government) that "the public must be educated." Even Houston Mayor Bill White (whom I respect enormously after this. The man is the epitome of a governing official, especially in a crisis, or near-crisis, as this was) tried to blame the people for the mess that was the evacuation. Well, he tried a little, let's be fair. The fact is, when a government calls an evacuation, when it says "Run! Run for your lives! Run without thought! Run without meaning!", and NOAA feeds the TV and radio stations dreadful statistics about Cat 5 hurricanes, which they in turn inflate into "END OF THE WORLD" scenarios (where were running 24/7 down here, for days), gov't has no one to blame but itself when everyone, well: runs.

Look, I'll say this one last time: Houston has terrible traffic on the best of days. Anyone using I-10 or I-45 to go through town has to expect massive delays. A family member once left town on Friday night, and took 2+ hours to get out of the SMSA limits on I-45, and that was just because the road has been under construction since we moved here (it varies maddeningly between 2 lanes and 4 lanes, which creates enormous bottlenecks all the time). Those were the evacuation routes, but no plan was made at the state or county level to close those roads and control access to them to facilitate the evacuation. So it wasn't just that too may people in Houston decided to leave, too. The government called this thing, then said: "Okay, you're on your own!" Failure is not an option; it comes as standard equipment.

The plan sucked. Pure and simple. The people don't need the education; the planners do.

And here is the other "good" news, and sad irony:

Hurricane Rita, with an eye 20 miles wide and wind gusts of almost 150 miles per hour, slammed into the Gulf Coast before dawn on Saturday, causing far less damage than officials had feared but raising new concerns as its torrential rain and storm surges caused widespread flooding across much of the region.

By late Saturday, only one death had been attributed to the storm or its remnants; one person was killed in Mississippi when a tornado hit a mobile home, The Associated Press reported. On Friday, 24 residents of a living center for the elderly died when the bus in which they were being evacuated caught fire.

The storm was well down from the Category 5 nightmare everyone expected. Hurricane force winds were supposed to reach Tomball (well north of Houston, though I can't tell you quite how many miles inland), and tropical storm force winds up into Lufkin (a good 2 hours from here). That never happened, as the storm both went further east, and was much smaller and weaker than it was in the hot waters of the Gulf.

But the worst fatalities came from the evacuation. After all the fear and trembling and predictions of certain doom, it was the flight that cost us lives, not the storm. No one to blame here, and no blame attributed by yours truly. But this is what blind panic does, and why it shouldn't be promoted, promulgated, or in any way condoned. But, again, local airwaves were 24/7 with "The Mayor says evacuate!" By Friday, even local news reporters, usually the meekest of the shorn lambs, were grumbling that "evacuation" in Houston used to mean just the "evacuation zones" near the coast and ship channel (including low lying areas in flood plains from bayous that drain to the coast, and so would catch and deliver the storm surge).

We've really got to learn something from this.

On a personal note: thanks for all the good wishes and concerns. I'm glad the storm was no worse than it was, and that in the end, it was nowhere near the house. Frankly, it was a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, staying or fleeing. Had we left, we'd have been caught in the traffic jam that started Wednesday afternoon, but that we didn't learn about until Thursday morning (too busy getting prepared ourselves, Wednesday night). Glad we weren' t in that, but glad we were spared, too.

Now, about all those people who weren't.....prayers, at the very least, seem to be in order. And any other help we can offer. Houston was invonvenienced (although scenes of police patrolling gas stations to keep order may be a vision of our near-future. Foloowing the panic, gas is in short supply just now.). Other cities were hit by a hurricane.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


Forget titles. On battery and dial-up with a computer that hates the scripts on these pages (don't ask).

Basic story: hurricane? what hurricane?

On this spot, during Hurricane Rita in 2005, absolutely nothing happened.

It weakened, it went east, it didn't even get the west side of Houston (west of 45) wet.

Bottom line: we've seen worse thunderstorms.

No clue how anyone else is doing, but it's heading for East Texas, which is where we would be, had we fled.


Friday, September 23, 2005

Well, this is just great

Power has gone out. But just for a few of us. Local transformer blew. Across the street, and around the corner, they have power.

We don't.

Working off an archaic laptop on battery, and it's gonna get real hot tonight if the A/C doesn't get switched back on. Which is doubtful.

Happy happy joy joy.

Did I mention it's started raining, and the wind is up?

Everyone's Gone To the Moon

Wind has just come up strongly. Still hot and humid, cloudy as well. Wind presages a strong thunderstorm, nothing more. Or so it seems. Still, the front door faces north, so we sheeted it in plastic, duct tape, and concrete bricks.

We dare water to get in there, now. It will probably take us up on it in the next 24 hours.

Walked the neighborhood earlier, down to the Fire Station a block away. An eerie feeling of being in an "end of the world" movie. Business closed, few cars on what is usually a very busy road; and no one apparently at home in the fire house.

Probably all inside watching the hurricane on TV. The new Houston past-time.

One Nation? Indivisbile?

Whose crazy idea was that?

In any case it won't die: the idea that Alaska, to help Hurricane Katrina victims, should forfeit the dough it got in the federal highway bill for the Knik and Gravina bridges.

The New York Times: "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."

The Wall Street Journal: "That same half a billion dollars (for the two Alaska bridges) could rebuild thousands of homes for suffering New Orleans evacuees."

No doubt to make Alaskans look bad
, city leaders in Bozeman, Mont., are investigating whether they can give Katrina victims the $4 million they got in the federal bill for a downtown parking garage.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., raised the charitable pork idea on the Senate floor last week, although he stopped short of endorsing it.

So, how about it, Mr. Chairman?

"They can kiss my ear!" Young boomed when Sam Bishop, Washington correspondent for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, asked him about the many pleas to redirect the bridge money.
My favorite bit is the highlighted part. The people in Bozeman must have been thinking only of making Alaska look bad; because surely it would have nothing to do with compassion, charity, or even shame.

But lest you think that is just editorial snark. Chairman Young sets the record straight:

"That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard," Young went on, noting that Louisiana did quite well in his highway bill.

And, the congressman said, he helped the seafood industry donate more than $500,000 for hurricane victims. (That was at the "Seafood Invitational," a charity golf tournament Sept. 9 in Roslyn, Wash., Bishop reported Friday.)

"I raised enough money to give back to them voluntarily," he said, "and that's it!"
You see, he's already raised $500,000 for Louisiana. How much more do they need?

People in Louisiana are clearly whiners who don't understand their place in Federal priorities. I bet they got their city flooded just to try to take money away from Alaska. Besides, as the article goes on to note, Young points out he warned that putting FEMA in DHS would lead to problems. People in New Orleans should have thought about that back in 2002. It's not Chairman Young's fault he can't represente Louisiana and Alaska at the same time, what with prophetic vision like that.

Who Knew Reality Wouldn't Follow A Script?

This is interesting. The NBC Nightly News blog, with Brian Williams more or less leading the way.

On top at the moment: a report on a DOD/DHS exercise that was, to say the least, "unrealistic."

Reality, as we have seen in Louisiana, Mississippi, and now Texas, is so predictable as to be, apparently, unpredictable.

Gonna have to go read that "after-action" report. After the "real" action, of course.

Does anyone else feel safer, yet?

Apparently there really is a "Beltway Mentality"

I know Atrios linked to this WaPo editorial already, but waiting for a hurricane is dull work.

FOR THE PAST 48 hours, the evacuation of the Texas coastline in anticipation of Hurricane Rita has run like clockwork. In Galveston -- a city nearly wiped out by a hurricane a century ago -- nursing homes and hospitals have been carefully, systematically evacuated. Buses have been provided for the indigent and immobile. For the first time in history, freeways leading north and west out of Houston were running in only one direction, although traffic was snarled with breakdowns and gasoline shortages. The National Guard, the military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are all prepared. Navy ships are off the coast; the Red Cross is moving in supplies; stores have sold out of batteries and bottled water.
Let's check the Houston Chronicle on that one, shall we?

Sixteen hours to San Antonio and Dallas. Eleven hours to Austin. With over a million people trying to flee vulnerable parts of the Houston area, Hurricane Rita will be a nightmare even if Galveston doesn't take a direct hit. .

Trying to leave Houston on I-10, Ella Corder drove 15 hours to go just 13 miles today. Noticing cars out of gas littering the freeway, she turned off her air-conditioner to save fuel, but the 52-year-old heart patient worried the heat and exhaustion were taking a toll on her.

"All I want to do is go home," she said tearfully by cell phone. "Can't anyone get me out of here? "

Other evacuees' frustration turned into anger as the day wore on.

"This is the worst planning I've ever seen," said Julie Anderson, who covered just 45 miles in 12 hours after setting out from her home in the Houston suburb of LaPorte. "They say we've learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina. Well, you couldn't prove it by me."
Even the New York Times knows better.
Heeding days of dire warnings about Hurricane Rita, as many as 2.5 million people jammed evacuation routes on Thursday, creating colossal 100-mile-long traffic jams that left many people stranded and out of gas as the huge storm bore down on the Texas coast.

Acknowledging that "being on the highway is a deathtrap," Mayor Bill White asked for military help in rushing scarce fuel to stranded drivers. And as for Texas being more ready, or less corrupt, than Louisiana:

Officials also made matters worse for themselves by announcing at one point that they would use inbound lanes on one highway to ease the outbound crush, only to abort the plan later, saying it was impractical.

And, of course, there was that little problem of federal employees who lived in the evacuation zones:

The Houston area's two major air gateways, Hobby Airport and Bush Intercontinental, suffered major delays when more than 150 screeners from the Transportation Security Administration, facing their own evacuation concerns, did not show up for work. The agency later rushed in replacements, a spokeswoman said, but passengers, already burdening the system with extra luggage for their trips to safety, waited for hours to go through security.

Not to mention the fact control of traffic on the freeways is not solely a matter for city government. It was Thursday morning before Gov. Perry decided to allow north and west-bound traffic to travel on south and east-bound lanes, and late in the day before that finally happened. The traffic problems WaPo is blissfully ignorant of started Wednesday, and this is what, Friday?

Starting Wednesday night and throughout Thursday, the major evacuation routes, Interstate 45 north to Dallas, I-10 West to San Antonio, Route 290 to College Station and Austin, and 59 to Lufkin grew into hundred-mile-long parking lots. Drivers heeding the call to evacuate Galveston island and other low-lying areas took 4 and 5 hours to cover the 50 miles to Houston. And there the long crawl north began in earnest.
And, of course, the fact that New Orleans and lower Mississippi were destroyed, is actually a good thing. Every cloud has its silver lining, right? Sayeth the WaPo editorial board:

Part of the explanation for what seems, so far, a textbook example of how to do these things right, is, of course, the example of Hurricane Katrina. Had the residents of Houston and Galveston not so recently seen what hurricanes can do to low-lying cities, they might not be so willing to leave as efficiently. Had FEMA not been attacked for incompetence, it's possible the federal response wouldn't have been rapid, either.
"Textbook," huh? Perhaps they need to talk to Rep. Coleman. Except, of course, he's a Democrat, and so "partisan:"

"The question is how many people will be gravely ill and die sitting on the side of the freeway," said State Representative Garnet Coleman, Democrat of Houston. "Dying not from the storm, but from the evacuation."

Mr. Coleman's family had tried to leave the city Thursday at his urging - he is traveling on the West Coast - but they gave up after 12 hours of stalled traffic, without even passing the city's outer ring highway.

"If you can't move outside the city of Houston in 12 hours, then nobody else is getting out," Mr. Coleman said. "This is it. Because even if you tried to leave now, you would not move fast enough to get out of harm's way in advance of the storm."

The situation raised serious worries about how the city would handle something like a terrorist attack, he said.
Or maybe they just need to read other papers. Because this is the only story on the evacuation I can find in the Post just now: "As Many as 24 Elderly Evacuees Killed in Bus Blaze."

Apparently, unless it bleeds, it not only doesn't lead; it doesn't even penetrate the D.C. bubble.