Remember Last September
Today, President Bush will make a quick visit to the Gulf Coast for yet another post-Hurricane Katrina photo-op. Last September, Bush made this pledge to Katrina's victims: "We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives." Over half a year later, 59 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Bush is handling the recovery and not enough is being done to provide for the storm's victims. "This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina," Bush promised. Yet, the nation remains unprepared for another natural disaster of Katrina's scale. Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich acknowledged recently: "It's going to be really bad by September when we go back and have a one-year review and we realize how much of New Orleans is not fixed as of this coming September."
NATION STILL UNPREPARED: After 22 hearings, 320 interviews, and 830,000 pages of documents, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has completed its 800-page report entitled "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared." Not surprisingly, the bipartisan report found that the "United States was, and is, ill-prepared to respond to a catastrophic event of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina." Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) blasted FEMA, saying it is "in shambles and beyond repair," showed "weak and ineffective leadership" during the storm, and has problems that are "too substantial to mend." In a departure from the House and White House reports on the storm, the Senate report recommends completely abolishing FEMA and replacing it with a National Preparedness and Response Authority. The Bush administration is "faulted for bungling the storm response by neglecting warnings, failing to grasp Katrina's destructiveness," and "doing too little or taking the wrong steps before the Aug. 29 landfall." In a "withering addendum" to the report, Lieberman says Bush did not "provide critical leadership when it was most needed." "Before landfall," Lieberman added, "the President should have returned to Washington, D.C., convened the cabinet, taken stock of the federal government's readiness for Katrina, made sure key White House staff were at their posts before landfall, and directly addressed the people of the Gulf Coast." He also slammed the White House for "not cooperating with Senate investigators."
LEVEES STILL FLAWED: Among its conclusions, the Senate report "found design flaws in New Orleans' levees." The debate over who is at fault for the levee breaches has heated up in recent weeks, as more than 750 New Orleans residents filed suit in U.S. District Court, accusing the Corps of Engineers of "negligence, malfeasance and failure to ensure competent design, construction, inspection, maintenance and operation of a navigable waterway system." Whether or not the court finds it at fault, the Army Corps admits that even when the holes in the levees are fixed, "the entire 350-mile protection system remains flawed," "flood walls are too weak in some places," and "earthen levees are too short in others." Bush previously promised to rebuild the levees "higher and better" than before, but officials said last month there "may not be enough money to fully protect the entire region." The administration's reluctance to fully fund levee repairs has forced some to take drastic maneuvers. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) threated to place holds on all of Bush's executive nominees unless more funding became available. In response, Bush offered $2.2 billion in funding, but said the spending should come out of FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund. (Meanwhile, the Senate's emergency spending bill still contains $700 million for a railroad to nowhere.)
HOUSING STILL SCARCE: The effort to provide housing for displaced Katrina victims has been "a failure with many causes, including institutional neglect, lack of funding, and poor planning, decision making and execution." FEMA has alerted tens of thousands of people that they will no longer receive housing benefits even though "evacuees had been told, without contradiction from FEMA, that they would last a year." The program, which is "helping more people and is far less expensive than other housing solutions like trailers," will end for some as soon as April 30th. In Memphis, FEMA had the gall to ask evacuees to return furniture and kitchen items before "backing down after strenuous objections." For those trying to rebuild their homes, FEMA's constant delays in providing construction guidelines has hampered efforts to restore neighborhoods in New Orleans. And the $6.4 billion trailer program - the "government's costliest initiative" - "has ground to a halt around New Orleans...in part because of widespread racial and class tensions." Tensions were not likely soothed when Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson said this week that "only the best residents" from destroyed public housing should return to their homes, implying to some that "many of the people in public housing are in fact criminals who don’t work." "That simply is not true," said Lucia Blacksher of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center. "It is an unnecessary stereotype and an alarming stereotype to be voiced by the secretary of HUD.”"
SPENDING STILL WASTEFUL: A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report due out next month will find "FEMA is destined to repeat million-dollar mistakes of disaster aid waste and fraud unless it can quickly establish controls for verifying names and addresses." GAO managing director Gregory Kutz was not confident FEMA could deliver aid effectively when another natural disaster strikes. Another GAO found the "government overpaid by 20 percent on a $39.5 million, no-bid Hurricane Katrina contract for portable classrooms because the Army Corps of Engineers passed up chances to negotiate a lower price." Several other studies have found enormous waste and fraud in housing programs, and "the toll of false starts and missed opportunities appears likely to top $1 billion and perhaps much more."