Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Fair Game?
Kevin Drum has suggested, and it was brought up in the comments of yesterday's post, that criticizing the Bush Administration over a disaster like Katrina amounts to misplaced politics. I can understand that sentiment. The driving emotions at this point should be empathy and sorrow over the human loss, and a humble awe at the power of nature. But, we liberals believe what we do for human reasons, not political ones. And so when we oppose tax cuts or a needless, winless expansive war, it's not because the President is in the other party. It's because we lament the tolls that we know to be inevitable as a result of his policies. And, beyond that, we recognize the potential tragedies, even if not necessarily inevitable, that are worth guarding against. When those traumas and injuries to our national well-being do indeed come home to roost, it's entirely appropriate to reiterate what we believe about collecting and spending our tax money in a way that protects the most vulnerable among us, and entirely appropriate to hold the President and Congress responsible for their position gamble that such spending was not warranted.

Of course, I don't believe that the President and Republicans are pro-hurricane or pro-suffering. Senator Vitter is working just as hard, and feels just as bad, as Senator Landrieu. And I'm not suggesting that somehow a damaging hurricane would not have afflicted the gulf coast if only Democrats were in control. Far from it. Even if we had implemented climate change measures to get a handle on global warming as soon as we possibly could have, there would still be storms, and sometimes big ones. Climate change may not even be a direct factor in storm strength, even though some scientific speculation suggests it, and there seems little denying that we are entering a historical period of increased hurricanes of increasing intensity, whatever the reason.

So let's grant that Katrina and her strength were unstoppable by any government action, past or present. That seems more than reasonable to me.

But if the Congress and President had been willing to spend resources on the wetlands, as environmentalists and many Democrats have argued, instead of "allow(ing) developers to drain thousands of acres of wetlands under a policy adopted last year," the massive surge would have been mitigated somewhat by acres and acres of marsh to absorb and spread the strength of the blow.
The Mississippi used to deposit vast amounts of sediment that built up the Delta as the water reached the ocean and the current slowed, but now this silt gets carried straight out to sea through a channel. As a result, the coastline has shrunk dramatically since 1839; Louisiana loses 25 square miles of coast a year.
But, for the sake of argument, let's suppose an improved wetlands would not have helped this time. Then the Bush Administration still needs to answer for cutting funding that would have reinforced the levee. By all accounts, the flooding was not caused by water only pouring over the levee from the top, but from, essentially, busting through it in places by eroding the base after trickling over. Perhaps--and it is only that, a perhaps--the 2 major breach spots would have been atop the priority list in 2003 as the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project continued its work, had the federal funding not slowed to a "trickle" to allow for the President's tax cuts and war on Iraq.
When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.

Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.

Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.
Still, there's no reason to believe necessarily that work would have been completed in time to keep this from happening.

Every one of those things could have been done more cheaply to the federal budget than this current disaster will be. But, for the sake of argument, let's grant that we couldn't slow the hurricane season by curbing man-made climate change. Let's grant that a well-conserved wetlands couldn't have slowed Katrina. And let's grant that a fully-funded flood control unit and a fully-funded Office of Technology Assessment wouldn't have successfully fortified the levee to protect against the specific type of failure experienced here. Let's say that nothing the federal government did could have prevented the flooding of New Orleans, and the need for frantic rescue of stranded citizens was inevitable. Don't you think we could have used some more helicopters and national guard troops to help with that task at least? Don't you think, if you asked them, the LA National Guard would prefer to be at home helping their fellow Louisiana residents survive than in Iraq?

Sending them there was the President's decision. And liberals didn't oppose that decision and the stretching-thin of the Guard because we wanted to win political points. We opposed it because we believe, earnestly, that bad things can happen--foreseeable, addressable things--that will leave us unable to care for our own residents. Our point is not local, about this tragedy; it is global, about the priorities and ramifications of national policy. I don't point it out to win elections. If Republicans were to reverse course on their dangerous policies in response to this blast of reality, they would have, and deserve, my praise.

Can someone please explain to me why it is inappropriate to suggest that different policies, policies liberals believe in, may well have been a benefit to society this week? And that recognition is precisely why they are the policies we believe in? Giving the surplus "back to the people" in the form of tax breaks was all well and good, but there was hardly a place for overtaxed millionaires in Tennessee to individually go spend their refunds on some levee improvements in Louisiana. That's the kind of thing we only can do together. Call it what you will. But compared to what we now face, nationally, the C-word I'm thinking of is spelled C-H-E-A-P-E-R.

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