Barricading the Storm


The reason for the government not turning over documents and making available top officials to testify about the Hurricane Katrina debacle before Congress is not just that the documents and testimony would reveal incompetence in evacuating the stranded, bringing in relief supplies, and cleaning up the mess. No, the paper trail is bound to demonstrate in detail that the federal government knew a good 48 hours before the storm hit what was bound to happen, but did virtually nothing to protect lives and property.

There is no secret about any of this. The Washington Post last week said it had obtained a copy of a 41-page report on the hurricane distributed by the Department of Homeland Security before the storm hit. According to the Post, an e-mail containing this report reached the White House Situation Room at 1:47 a.m. on August 29, hours before the full force of the storm raked the Gulf Coast.

The paper also obtained a FEMA document prepared for discussion at a 9 a.m. meeting on August 27, two days before Katrina. This report compared Katrina to Hurricane Pam, the simulated storm federal officials used a year before as an exercise to aid in planning for disaster. The briefing paper pointed out that Katrina could end up being worse than the simulated Pam. It warned that the storm surge from a Category 4 onslaught could “overtop” levees and other flood protection systems, and predicted “incredible search and rescue needs.” More than one million residents would be displaced, it said.

So while President Bush vacationed in Texas and top government officials talked airily of federal versus state responsibilities, the operations sections of the federal government must have known precisely what was about to happen.

And, of course, it gets worse. The Army Corps of Engineers, which has been building dams and levees all over the southern stretches of the Mississippi River, routing and rerouting it for well over 100 years, somehow just didn’t know that water had been pooling up in yards adjacent to a flood wall for a year before the storm. That pooling should have led to an investigation of whether the levees were leaking. The residents had been complaining to the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, but nobody told the engineers from the corps, which is responsible for the levee system, what was going on. Why they didn’t find out on their own has yet to be explained.

One might have predicted that Donald Rumsfeld, who as secretary of defense oversees the Army Corps of Engineers and is instrumental in ordering both regular troops and federalized National Guard troops into a rescue effort, won’t cooperate. The first question anyone would ask him is how come the army corps didn’t act years before the storm. The second is whether the Iraq war has so depleted the Guard that it can’t fulfill its duties at home.

The one federal agency that seems to have known what was going on was the Coast Guard, which rescued thousands of people during and after the storm. Another was the Weather Bureau, which predicted hour by hour the movement of the storm before, during, and after it made landfall. It is worth noting that right-wing Republicans would love to privatize the Weather Bureau, and during the Reagan years, the right wanted to privatize the perpetually underfunded Coast Guard by handing it over to a big defense contractor like Raytheon. Yet when push came to shove, it was the one federal agency that worked.

Since the rest of the federal government could not, or would not, operate during and after Hurricane Katrina, the job naturally fell to the oft-named list of cronies.

Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney’s old haunt, has contributed $29,822 to Bush’s presidential campaigns, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The political action committee for its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root contributed $120,784 to “various Republican causes” in 2002 and 96 percent of its $168,277 campaign contributions in 2000.

The payoff? Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense has awarded Kellogg, Brown & Root more than $136 million in various Katrina-related contracts, according to the nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Another big contributor, the Fluor Corporation, gave $9,900 to President Bush’s campaigns. In 2004, 83 percent of Fluor’s $356,290 campaign contributions went to Republican candidates, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Fluor has received more than $200 million in Gulf Coast contracts since October 2005.

The long and the short of it is that Katrina, like Iraq, has been a cash cow for Bush’s entrepreneur buddies. Congress has approved $62.3 billion for Katrina relief efforts so far. And that’s only the beginning.

Where there’s smoke

In the midst of a congressional hearing on the Sago Mine disaster last week, David Dye, the acting assistant secretary of labor, who runs the Mine Safety and Health Administration, up and left the room. Senator Specter, chair of a House Appropriations subcommittee, had just told Dye his “presence would be required for another hour.” To which Dye replied, “Senator, we’ve still got a mine fire going. We have a rescue team that’s in the Sago Mine. They have another mine fire—which no one was hurt—burning in Colorado. . . . We’ve got some really pressing matters.”

Having not heard of the fire in Colorado, the Voice phoned the MSHA field offices in Colorado. There, nobody had heard about any current pressing matters. Finally the United Mine Workers Communications Director Phil Smith explained that Dye was referring to “the ongoing fire in Alma [West Virginia], which is being fought very professionally by the people up there, and a fire [at the West Elk mine in Colorado] that has been burning for two months.” That explanation was then confirmed by MSHA staff in Colorado.

When asked why the Colorado fire was such a big deal that it caused Dye to leave the hearing, a Labor Department spokesperson explained, “Certainly, when there’s a mine fire going on, for the acting director of MSHA, it’s a pressing matter for him.” But when asked what was so pressing about the long-smoldering West Elk fire, he responded, “I don’t have any more details.”

In a way, you can’t blame Dye for wanting to hightail it from the senators; he has been stuck in the job of acting assistant secretary for a year. That’s because the Bush administration has failed to fill the head office at MSHA. The Department of Labor website lists vacancies for the assistant secretary, a second deputy assistant secretary, and the chief of staff for MSHA. The current candidate to run MSHA, Richard Stickler, nominated September 15, is only now coming before Congress for confirmation.

Neither the government bureaucracy nor the Congress could care less about coal miners, even though coal is the basic fossil fuel that has powered American industry from the industrial revolution on and almost certainly will end up being at the center of U.S. energy policy. So why such scant attention to the mines? Perhaps there is a clue in the following: Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who has served since 2001, is married to Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky. In the run-up to his 2002 re-election, McConnell received $129,100 from mining firms in campaign donations, topping all other members of Congress benefiting from that industry.

Additional reporting: Colin Gustafson, Michael Roston, Ali Syed