Friday, September 02, 2005

Politicians Failed Storm Victims
Politicians Failed Storm Victims

AP Political Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- At every turn, political leaders failed Katrina's victims. They didn't strengthen the levees. They ceded the streets to marauding looters. They left dead bodies to rot or bloat. Thousands suffered or died for lack of water, food and hope. Who's at fault?

There's plenty of blame to go around - the White House, Congress, federal agencies, local governments, police and even residents of the Gulf Coast who refused orders to evacuate. But all the finger-pointing misses the point: Politicians and the people they lead too often ignore danger signs until a crisis hits.

It wasn't a secret that levees built to keep New Orleans from flooding could not withstand a major hurricane, but government leaders never found the money to fully shore up the network of earthen, steel and concrete barriers.

Both the Bush and Clinton administrations proposed budgets that low-balled the needs. Local politicians grabbed whatever money they could and declared victory. And the public didn't exactly demand tax increases to pay for flood-control and hurricane-protection projects.

Just last year, the Army Corps of Engineers sought $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans. The White House slashed the request to about $40 million. Congress finally approved $42.2 million, less than half of the agency's request.

Yet the lawmakers and Bush agreed to a $286.4 billion pork-laden highway bill that included more than 6,000 pet projects for lawmakers. Congress spent money on dust control for Arkansas roads, a warehouse on the Erie Canal and a $231 million bridge to a small, uninhabited Alaskan island.

How could Washington spend $231 million on a bridge to nowhere - and not find $42 million for hurricane and flood projects in New Orleans? It's a matter of power and politics.

Alaska is represented by Republican Rep. Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, a senior member of the all-important Senate Appropriations Committee. Louisiana's delegation holds far less sway.

Once the hurricane hit, relief trickled into the Gulf Coast. Even Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown, whose agency is in charge of disaster response, pronounced the initial results unacceptable.

The hurricane was the first major test of FEMA since it became part of the Homeland Security Department, a massive new bureaucracy that many feared would make the well-respected FEMA another sluggish federal agency.

Looting soon broke out as local police stood by. Some police didn't want to stop people from getting badly needed food and water. Others seemed to be overwhelmed. Thousands of National Guard troops were ordered to the Gulf Coast, but their ranks have been drastically thinned by the war in Iraq.

On top of all this, Katrina is one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the United States. The best leaders running the most efficient agencies would have been sharply challenged.

"Look at all they've had to deal with," former President Clinton told CNN. "I'm telling you, nobody every thought it would happen like this."

That's not true. Experts had predicted for years that a major hurricane would eventually hit New Orleans, swamping the levees and filling the bowl-shaped city with polluted water. Yet even Bush insisted that nobody anticipated the breach of the levees in a serious storm.

The politicians are doing what they do in time of crisis - shifting the blame.

"The truth will speak for itself," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said of potential lapses by government. Later, her office blamed the White House for budget cuts.

If it's not the Republicans' fault, perhaps some in Washington would like to blame New Orleans itself. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., questioned whether a city that lies below sea level should be rebuilt. "That doesn't make sense to me," he said.

But for anybody living - or dying - in the devastated region, there are far too many villains to name.

"We're out here like pure animals. We don't have help," the Rev. Issac Clark, 68, said outside the New Orleans Convention Center.

Robin Lovin, ethics professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said it's too convenient to blame one branch of government when they are all, at some level, failing people. From Watergate to Clinton's impeachment, governmental institutions have disappointed the public.

"Bush, Congress, the mayor - each of them are symptoms of a bigger problem, that we don't have accountability for disasters or challenges of this scale," Lovin said. "That's all the public wants in trying times - accountability."

Thus, Americans are doing what people do when government lets them down - they're turning to each other. Donations are pouring into charities. Internet sites are being used to find relatives. Residents of far-off states are opening their homes to victims.

The community spirit is reminiscent of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. So is the second-guessing. It will happen again after the next crisis. You've heard the warnings: a cataclysmic California earthquake, another terrorist strike, a flu pandemic, a nuclear plant meltdown, a tsunami, the failure to address mounting U.S. debt - and on and on.

Will the public and its leaders be better prepared next time?