How to Turn a Natural Disaster into a Man-Made Catastrophe

by JASON LEOPOLD

Republicans like to brag that, as a political party, they are more fiscally responsible than their Democratic counterparts. Well, thanks to President Bush’s four years in office that theory can now take up residence in the urban legend department.

If anything, Bush’s tenure as president proves that the Republican tax cuts (which everyone knows truly benefits the wealthiest one percent), drastically slashing funds in the federal budget for much needed improvements to the country’s aging infrastructure (a perfect example being the outdated power grid), and trying to get away with launching wars on the cheap, have cost taxpayers and their unborn grandchildren more money than anyone could have ever imagined.

Simply put, since he became president, Bush has not invested the funds to fix the cracks in the country’s façade, despite repeated warnings from experts and intense lobbying efforts by state officials that ignoring the problem will make it worse in the long run. Instead, the president pumped tens of billions of dollars into an unnecessary war that, when it became evident that attaining victory was tougher than the war planners imagined, required tens of billions of dollars more just to continue the fighting.

Only when devastation and catastrophe struck the nation did the federal government cough up the funds, but by then there wasn’t much of choice and as such a $1 billion restoration project before a devastating hurricane touched down in the Gulf Coast has turned into a $200 billion reconstruction effort and has now saddled taxpayers with economic woes that no tax cut can relieve.

You don’t have to look too far than New Orleans, a city wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, as evidence of the Bush administration’s and Congress’ fiscal irresponsibility. It’s a direct result of Washington’s financial incompetence that the cost for rebuilding The Big Easy is estimated to top $200 billion.

Flooding is the most destructive and costly natural disaster in the United States, accounting for approximately 75 percent of all disasters declared by the President annually. Approximately 160 million acres, or 7 percent of the United States are estimated to be floodplains and urban expansion into floodplains continues at an increasing rate, according to the Public Entity Risk Institute, a nonprofit think tank that that aims to educate the public and government on disaster management.

Sadly, no one was becoming any smarter. Instead of funding flood control projects, the Bush administration cut the Army Corps of Engineers budget, forcing the city of New Orleans to loan the agency $1 million back in December of 2003 to keep one crucial flood control project from shutting down entirely.

"It’s not every day that New Orleans has to bail out the federal government," said the Times-Picayune in a January 2, 2004 story. "But that’s exactly what happened last month, when the Orleans Levee Board voted to advance the Army Corps of Engineers $1 million to prevent a vital flood control project from shutting down."

Al Naomi, a senior project manager for the corps told the Picayune that federal funding has all but dried up threatening to put hurricane protection plans that were already underway on hold indefinitely.

Naomi said the corps has been strained for money, as the federal government’s priorities have shifted to other concerns, such as homeland security, which prior to Hurricane Katrina meant protection from terrorist threats, and the war in Iraq.

Before Bush delivered his better-late-than-never speech to the nation earlier this month in front of Andrew Jackson’s statue in New Orleans, he personally shot down repeated requests for federal assistance made by Louisiana officials over the past four years to help repair New Orleans’ eroding coastline, the most recent of which was turned down by the president in June. Even prior hurricanes, such as Ivan, which just missed New Orleans last September still wreaked havoc on the city similar to that of Katrina, forcing local officials to evacuate the city and calling on the federal government for help, was not enough to sway President Bush to focus on domestic threats instead of pouring all of his energy into terrorism and the war in Iraq.

So, to hear the president in a televised speech promise to spend whatever it takes to rebuild one of the nation’s great cities is not a sign of progress, rather it’s a symbol of the total breakdown of his administration and an attempt to conceal what could arguably have been a man-made disaster because of Bush’s policies.

The final blow, however, came in June. Louisiana state officials had been hoping that a provision included in the Senate energy bill that called for $500 million in offshore energy revenue from the federal government would finally provide Louisiana and four other coastal states with the funds it desperately needed to repair its damaged wetlands to protect itself, among other things, against possible future weather-related disasters.

But the White House adamantly refused to part ways with the $5 billion it gets from drilling in the Gulf Coast, its second biggest source of revenue (after income the Internal Revenue Service brings in) choosing to use most of those funds to finance the Iraq war.

To ensure that the message came across crystal clear, Bush personally ordered White House aides to take the unusual step of sending a letter to House and Senate negotiators advising them to kill the revenue-sharing plan in the final version of the energy bill.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget released a policy statement paper in June that said the Bush administration opposes "the significant new funding authorizations and diversion" of Outer Continental Shelf revenue included in a national energy bill being discussed in Congress.

"Currently the federal government does share royalties with coastal states — more than $3 trillion to date, in fact. Changing this amount only increases the budget deficit and diminishes the benefit the rest of the nation receives from these national resources," Scott Milburn, press secretary for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, told The Associated Press in June.

"Disheartening," "frustrating," "upsetting" and "just another nail in my coffin" is how Louisiana senators, community leaders and coastal advocates responded to the news in June that the White House intervened and advised the Senate to defeat the revenue provision, according to June 16 report in the Houma, La., Courier.

Ironically the erosion to the state’s coastline-which became considerably worse over the past five years-is due, in part, to oil and gas drilling in the Gulf, much of which takes place right in New Orleans. Although the state is responsible for repairing its coastline to support its oil and gas infrastructure it barely benefits financially from the drilling that takes place right in its own backyard.

"While inland states enjoy 50 percent of the tax revenue from drilling on their federal lands, Louisiana gets back a mere $35 million of the $5 billion it contributes to the federal treasury each year from offshore drilling, or less than one percent," the Courier said. In a written statement, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., condemned the White House position. Landrieu said the Bush administration simply can’t comprehend why the state of Louisiana needs compensation for producing a bulk of the nation’s energy supply. It’s a fact that coastal oil-and-gas-producing states account for 25 percent of the nation’s natural gas and 30 percent of oil.

"The president’s statement indicates a failure to appreciate the burdens borne by the people of Louisiana and other coastal oil-and-gas-producing states," Landrieu said.

It wasn’t long after the White House issued its statement on the revenue sharing concept that Louisiana lawmakers predicted an apocalyptic end to the city of New Orleans.

Clifford Smith, a Houma, La., civil engineer and coastal advocate who is also a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi River Commission, told The Courier in June that without federal assistance New Orleans could very well drown if it took a direct hit from a hurricane.

"We’re not going to get the kind of recognition and concern we deserve until we have a disaster," he said.

JASON LEOPOLD is the author of the explosive memoir, News Junkie, to be released in the spring of 2006 by Process/Feral House Books. Visit Leopold’s website at http://www.jasonleopold.com/ for updates.

CLARIFICATION

ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH

We published an article entitled "A Saudiless Arabia" by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the "Article"), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the "Website").

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005

 

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