Abandonment Issues

Bush gives hurricane victims that familiar sinking feeling

As he soldiers on in pursuit of the conservative rainbow, George W. Bush is leaving the hurricane victims to their own devices. Of course no one says that. The photo ops all pledge help and hope. But the bottom line here is abandonment. Such a goal helps ingratiate the right-wing Republicans with their key constituencies. The conservative message is to show that the federal government can't work and that all power should be returned to the states, municipalities, and other local governments. FEMA has demonstrated just what a menace a federal agency can be. It is living proof of conservative theory.

The all-important Bush support among the Christian right is probably undisturbed by the storms. To these people hurricanes are natural disasters forewarned by Jesus. The storms are but another event in the unfolding end-times, part of the fundamentalist apocalyptic vision of things to come. While the media chatters on about the unending horrors of the storms, Bush is using Katrina to re-energize conservatives.

As Katrina hit, Bush received and then acted on Governor Kathleen Blanco's cry for federal disaster aid. What slid by unnoticed was that the government avoided labeling Katrina a "catastrophic event." Such a designation would have signaled an all-out major federal response—with or without state and local approval.

Events unfolded as follows: On August 30, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff labeled Katrina "an incident of national significance." In doing so, he set into action the National Response Plan (NRP). Secrecy News, published by the Federation of American Scientists, points out that in a little-noticed maneuver, Chertoff did not designate the hurricane as a "catastrophic event," a special sub-category of emergency situation that entails the expedited deployment of emergency response capabilities. On September 8, Chris Strohm of Government Executive Daily Briefing asked if Chertoff had exercised his catastrophic-incident authority in response to Hurricane Katrina. DHS spokesman Russ Knocke told the reporter that "it was too early to make a determination." FEMA officials continued to dodge the question last week. After repeated phone calls, one FEMA official, who refused to give her name, told the Voice that on August 31 the Department of Homeland Security declared Katrina "an incident of national significance." Asked if the storm ever had been declared a catastrophic event, the woman replied, "Homeland Security did not." In another conversation, Barbara Ellis of FEMA public affairs said, "Katrina rose to the level of 'incident of national significance.' " Asked if it was ever declared a catastrophic event, she repeated that the storm was an "incident of national significance."

In short, the government made sure it would not invoke laws setting into motion an expensive federal response. Instead, the feds blamed Blanco for the slipshod handling of the affair, explaining that they were prohibited by law from acting as a first responder. Rather, the federal government must serve as the coordinator and backup for the states and localities. In his testimony last week before the special House committee set up by Republican leaders to investigate the hurricane, the disgraced Michael Brown said, "My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional." He added, "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. I just couldn't pull that off." When committee chair Tom Davis of Virginia pressed Brown to say what should have been done to evacuate New Orleans, restore order, and re-establish communications, the former FEMA head replied, "Those are not FEMA roles. FEMA doesn't evacuate communities. FEMA does not do law enforcement. FEMA does not do communications."

This is a political PR game of smoke and mirrors. The most effective first responder in New Orleans was the U.S. Coast Guard, currently an adjunct of the dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security. It rescued thousands of people before, during, and after the hurricane, acting quickly, with competence and bravery. Another federal agency acting in the capacity of "first responder" is the Army Corps of Engineers, which is attempting to prepare and repair the dikes and levees it had been building in New Orleans and elsewhere along the lower Mississippi for over 100 years.

After the hurricane, Bush promised swift assistance for its victims. The key ingredient here was health care for the sick. After 9-11 the government temporarily expanded Medicaid to all persons affected by the attacks. The same thing should have been done for that storm's victims. But Bush refused to do so. He at first prevaricated, and last week he came out against the extension of Medicaid. In a scarcely believable performance, the Bush government forthrightly attacked a bipartisan Senate bill aimed at offering temporary Medicaid coverage to victims of the storm. The legislation was sponsored by Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Max Baucus of Montana. It had the support of the National Governors Association, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. It had the support of the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and the Red Cross. Even with this overwhelming, bipartisan show of support for swift action, Grassley and Baucus could not get the bill onto the Senate floor. It became clear that Bush administration lobbyists were working behind the scenes to kill the legislation. Last week Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt sent a letter to congressional leaders opposing it. As anguished health workers in Mississippi and Louisiana described how they had to turn away storm victims because they didn't meet current Medicaid requirements, Bush took the position that the legislation was not necessary.

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