In the last decade, two disasters — one completely man-made, the other a joint production of Mother Nature and avoidable human error — have rattled my native Gulf Coast. I’ve had deep personal involvement — both as an environmental attorney and as an ally to those who’ve crusaded for truth and justice — in the latter one, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and I’ve written frequently about that issue on this blog.
The first one — Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods, which battered my hometown of New Orleans 10 years ago this week — is more complicated, and in some ways even more unsettling, The inability to properly evacuate the city ahead of the storm, and the disparities of race and class that were exposed in the devastation that followed, left scars that have lasted with many people to this day. Meanwhile, the question of why the levee system that was promised to protect New Orleans against much bigger storms failed so miserably has been explored, in impressive depth, by the actor and filmmaker Harry Shearer and others.
But there’s one question about Katrina that has remained most troubling to me, and to others: Why did the federal government — which at the time was spending hundreds of billions of dollars to send men to rugged fighting zones halfway around the world in Iraq and Afghanistan — not able to reach American citizens who were suffering and in too many cases at the brink of death, right here in a major U.S. city? Again, the answer is rank incompetence — but it’s the underlying reasons for that which are so frustrating.
This week, Russ Baker — one of the better investigative journalists around — posted a five-part series to his website, Who What Why. In the articles, he traces the real story of Hurricane Katrina, one of cronyism and corruption. The key players are the FEMA director who presided over the botched response, Michael Brown, as well as the friend, George W. Bush crony and predecessor who positioned Brown in the job, Joe Allbaugh, and the lieutenants who worked for the two men. All had plenty of experience in the sycophantic realm of politics, but none of them had any idea how to the respond to an actual disaster the size of Katrina.
Here’s an excerpt from Baker’s reporting:
In terms of disaster management, there were two eventualities FEMA lifers always worried about: a really big California earthquake, and levee breaks in New Orleans. Worrying and fixing were two different things. Brown, on the advice of aides, asked for more money for levees and catastrophic planning, but neither Congress nor the White House would bite.
If Allbaugh had been disinclined to press Bush for strong remedial action, Brown lacked even the option. He didn’t really have a relationship with the president, and DHS was focused almost exclusively on human-induced violence. “I don’t think any of the budget requests we submitted went through,” said Reid. “Everything went for terrorism.”
With the defections of several senior managers and the firing of others — FEMA’s staff was left paper thin. “At this point, there’s only one person in the building who knows how to do certain things,” said Reid. “If that person gets sick or dies, you’re shit out of luck.”
The series is long, but every word is worth it. It chronicles in great detail how men like Brown and Allbaugh rose up the ranks — not by exhibiting any skill but by sucking up to the rich and politically connected, especially the Bush family and their friends. In particular, it shows how Brown inflated his resume as a low-level aide in a small town, and as an official in an Arabian horse association for the fabulously wealthy, to obtain the job of the nation’s chief responder to natural disasters.
But one of the most disturbing elements in Baker’s reporting is the cronyism and corruption that took place even after the storm and flooding had ravaged the city and its residents. He notes how companies with little useful track record but with GOP insider connections, especially to Allbaugh, won contracts for everything from waste removal to delivering bottled water. Difficult conditions in New Orleans today are to some extent still the result of those horrible decisions that were made in the late summer of 2005.
America’s leaders have betrayed the people’s trust, again and again and again. As a lawyer who takes on large oil companies — and frequently watches government side with big corporations against its citizens — that no longer surprises me. But even I was shocked by society’s failure to respond quickly to Katrina, and the wounds that were exposed. As we mark the 10th anniversary, the only good thing that could truly come from Katrina is to double our resolve to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Read all of Russ Baker’s series on the corruption behind Hurricane Katrina:
Read more about my New Orleans roots and my love for the city in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice
© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved