Denying Disaster

The Bush administration’s mishandling of one of our time’s most crucial issues-global climate change-constitutes a clear and extremely serious case of the abuse of power. Further, their stunning incompetence and criminal recklessness in the face of Hurricane Katrina also constitutes a necessary and sufficient justification for their removal from office.
A human-made disaster: predictable tragedy

There are few totally “natural” disasters. We put a city in the way of a natural, predictable storm, and then call the resulting destruction a natural disaster. But this is a social disaster. Social disasters don’t just come about from the ignorance of putting a city on a fault line, in a floodplain, or in the way of forest fires. Social disasters also come from the state’s actions (poor planning, cronyism, and ideologically-motivated politics) and the needs of capital (continued growth and consumption of resources without concern for the future).

What happened in New Orleans was a preventable social disaster. The hurricane’s strength was due in part to global warming. Destroying wetlands and dredging canals for development prior to the storm exacerbated the flooding. The evacuation, such as it was, was inextricably linked to race and class, and also with the encouraging ability of people to organize themselves.


Decision-based fact-making

The Bush administration has up-ended the normal fact-based decision-making process. They make decisions and then mold the facts to fit the decision. Blind emphasis on pro-business and anti-environmental policies, such as their refusal to negotiate or ratify the Kyoto accord, the promulgation of ineffectual voluntary pollution control measures, broad development policies based on market needs, and privatized solutions to public problems all add together to constitute an abuse of power in the face of scientific consensus on global climate change. Virtually all credible scientific studies now agree that the earth is warming due at least in part to anthropogenic (i.e., human-induced) causes. And yet since his days as Governor of Texas, Bush has championed private solutions to public problems where “voluntary” pollution controls generally amount to no pollution controls at all.

The science demonstrating global climate change is clear, and there is a consensus among the scientific community on the topic. The literature on this topic is truly voluminous; the most important of research outlets, including Science and Nature, have published many reports on the topic, definitively showing the globe’s rising temperatures. While the ten hottest years since record-keeping began in 1861 all happened since 1990, Osborn and Briffa, in their recent article in Science, have also shown that “the continuing warmth of the late 20th century is the most widespread and longest temperature anomaly of any kind” in the last 1200 years. Field et al show that the water off the California coast “has become warmer during the late 20th century than it was at any time during the past 1400 years.” They conclude that these changes are “apparently anthropogenic.” The National Academy of Sciences has published reports on global climate change since the early 1970s. Their 2001 report “Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions” opens with a simple statement of the situation “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.” The voice of the scientific community is clear.

In March of 2001 Bush announced that the U.S. would no longer negotiate the Kyoto Accord. The Protocol went into effect early in 2005, with the agreement of some 150 nations and requiring emissions reductions in advanced economies. The U.S. is the single largest user of fossil fuel energy and producer of greenhouse gases. How could the U.S. be expected to reduce emissions and curtail economic growth? As Bush said most clearly in an interview on British television, “The Kyoto treaty didn’t suit our needs.” It would, in fact, be expensive to the U.S.; there is no doubt on that score. But even prominent members of the corporate world support the Kyoto Protocol, including General Electric and DuPont, who see “greening” their image as good for the bottom line. Business opportunities notwithstanding, refusing to take action on climate change and denying the scientific reality will be far more costly to the U.S. and the world in the future. Back in 1979 the National Academy of Sciences found that “if CO2 levels continue to increase [there] is no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.” They found that “we may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable.” The costs of inaction may be akin to the bumper sticker that I saw the other day: “Maybe if we ignore the environment, it’ll go away.”

Bush and Cheney must be held accountable for denying global climate change and for not taking appropriate actions. This abuse of power connects to the fury of Hurricane Katrina as it destroyed New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. Katrina could not have been stopped-if we put cities in the way of nature, we have to expect devastation. But the power of Katrina was fueled by global warming, and action should have been taken years ago to reduce the probability of such supercharged storms. These conditioning factors are ideologically-driven and reflect a gross incompetence by those in power. And yet even the solutions to Katrina’s devastation are similarly ideological: large private firms have benefited from no-bid contracts (just as with Iraq), pollution controls were “temporarily” put on hold, a gulf opportunity zone has been established similar to export zones in developing nations not subject to normal state controls, and money has been thrown at the problem rather than employing careful thought and analysis.

In the face of global warming, national security threats, and a state that exacerbated the potential devastation of the Gulf Coast through pro-growth, anti-environmental policies, what did the Bush administration do to respond to the disaster? Too little, too late. The Bush administration response to Hurricane Katrina is emblematic: the denial of the perils of global warming foreshadowed the denial of disaster in New Orleans.
Hurricane Katrina: fiddling while New Orleans floods

The President’s response to Katrina was criminally delayed, indifferent, and inept. As Kanye West’s public comment exhibits, many observers concluded that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” Just after the disaster in New Orleans Bush spoke of “taking aggressive action against deep and persistent poverty with roots in a history of racial discrimination.” In the span of about two weeks, however, the Republicans were busy blaming the victims themselves, saying that the poverty of the evacuees was clear evidence that the last three decades of governmental poverty alleviation programs had clearly not worked. Such comments denigrated the people of New Orleans, suggesting that entitlement programs were at fault for creating dependency amongst the destitute. And yet the most damaging form of entitlement is the gift of a political office based on political connections rather than ability, and this cronyism contributed directly to the devastation.

That New Orleans is extremely vulnerable to tropical storms has been long understood. Indeed, FEMA’s 2001 list of the top three most likely and most devastating disasters were a San Francisco earthquake, a terrorist attack on New York, and a category 4 hurricane hitting New Orleans. As former Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal wrote, “No one can say that they didn’t see it coming.” A five-day hurricane simulation exercise was undertaken in 2004, mimicking a Katrina-like event. This exercise combined the National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the LSU Hurricane Center and other state and federal agencies, and FEMA’s regional director suggested that great progress was made in developing emergency response plans. These plans, however, were not implemented in part due to the federal slashing of funds for protection. Thus, while Bush and Cheney speak virtually daily of the dangers of terrorism, they ignored completely the number one item on their list of likely disasters.

From the Bush administration’s first days, FEMA received little attention, and any notice it got was for potential budget cuts. Bush’s first appointee as head of FEMA was a Texas crony, Joe Allbaugh, who had no prior disaster experience. In late 2001 the Bush administration announced that it wanted to privatize and downsize much of FEMA, with Allbaugh claiming that “many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into an oversized entitlement program.” Allbaugh soon left FEMA to start a consulting business, and was replaced by another crony, Michael Brown. As part of the federal government’s reorganization, the Bush administration brought FEMA into the new Department of Homeland Security and demoted it to a non-cabinet level position.

In the year before Hurricane Katrina hit, the Bush administration continued to cut budgets and deny grants to the Gulf Coast. In June of 2004 the Army Corps of Engineers levee budget for New Orleans was cut, and it was cut again in June of 2005, this time by $71.2 million or 44% of their budget. Adding insult to injury, in 2004 FEMA denied a Louisiana disaster mitigation grant request. As Walter Maestri, the Jefferson Parish emergency management chief told the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.

Bush, in other words, did worse than nothing. The administration slashed budgets for levee restoration, downgraded FEMA from a cabinet position, and considered privatizing the entire agency. Given that their budget was cut nearly in half, the Corps was forced to stop levee improvement projects, discontinue a study of how best to protect New Orleans, and institute a hiring freeze. This in the midst of what would become the longest and strongest hurricane season in recorded history. The budget cuts stand in stark contrast to the infrastructure investment of other nations that face such threats.

Since Watergate, the classic question has become “What did they know, and when did they know it?” The answer, in this situation, is they knew it all, and they knew at least 24 hours in advance. The White House was given multiple warnings that Hurricane Katrina had a high likelihood of causing serious damage to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. At 10 AM on Sunday 28 August 2005, the day before the storm hit, the National Weather Service published an alert under the title “DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED,” the text of which was printed in all capital letters:


The Homeland Security Department also briefed the White House on the scenario, warning of levee breaches and severe flooding. According to the New York Times, “a Homeland Security Department report submitted to the White House at 1:47 a.m. on Aug. 29, hours before the storm hit, said, ‘Any storm rated Category 4 or greater will likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching.'” This document, made public by a Senate investigation, clearly contradicts the statements made by both President Bush and Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff immediately after the storm, that such devastation could not have been predicted. On 1 September 2005 President Bush said “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” But the devastation was predicted, and both Bush and Chertoff were informed, and then they lied about it.

So the weather service told them it was coming, as did the only FEMA agent on the ground and the Department of Homeland Security itself. What was it that administration officials did while New Orleans flooded? Bush, Cheney, and other members of the cabinet were not inconvenienced: the President gave an unrelated speech at a Naval air station in San Diego, comparing himself favorably to FDR, with a media photo-op of him strumming a guitar (not fiddling, as Nero did). The Vice President remained fly-fishing on vacation in Wyoming. Other senior members of the administration vacationed in Maine and the New York Daily News reported that Condoleezza Rice went shopping at Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue and bought several thousand dollars worth of shoes.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Marty Bahamonde, the only FEMA employee posted by Brown in New Orleans, emailed Michael Brown from his mobile device 31 August 2005 regarding the conditions. The email is urgent and detailed:

The situation is past criticalHotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets without food or waterEstimates are many will die within hoursWe are without food and running water at the [Super]dome.
Brown’s reply was emblematic of the administration’s entire response to the catastrophe: “Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?” Further emails showed him to be incomprehensibly removed from the reality of victims’ pain and suffering. Brown seemed to be more concerned with his appearances and fashion sense than addressing the crisis in New Orleans. On 29 August 2006 he replied to Marty Bahamonde who made a comment about feeling nauseous: “If you’ll look at my lovely FEMA attire you’ll really vomit. I am a fashion god.” On the same day, again via email, Cindy Taylor told Brown he looked fabulous, to which he replied “I got it at Nordstrom. Email McBride and make sure she knows. Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?”

Gross incompetence is clearly demonstrated by ignoring the warnings and by the actual response once the federal government got under way. Failure to act under these circumstances demonstrates criminal negligence. This was a disaster they knew was coming. And they dare to declare themselves our best hope against terrorism and disasters?

What did people do in response to this lawlessness, this lack of security, this climate of uncertainty, death, and destruction? They organized themselves so as to overcome. What is most brilliant in this disaster is the ability of the people themselves to solve the problems that the authorities cannot solve or will not face. The people of New Orleans did not all act with integrity-that much is clear. But most of them did, most of the time. While race and class clearly constructed the chances of individuals to get out, these same folks responded to such indignities by developing the types of systems that actually solve problems in the face of governmental incompetence.

Denise Moore was evacuated to the Ernest Morial Convention Center. She was there for two days without food or water. Shelter was not conducive to human existence since it was, in her words, nightmarish:

Inside the convention center, the place was one huge bathroom. … Most people stayed outside because the smell was so bad. But outside wasn’t much better: between the heat, the humidity, the lack of water, the old and very young dying from dehydration … and there was no place to lay down, not even room on the sidewalk. Young men went to Canal Street and “looted,” and brought back food and water for the old people and the babies, because nobody had eaten in days.

She saw some men shoot at the police, because after some time “all the people thought the cops were coming to hurt them, to kill them all.” They all believed they were sent there to die, and it was the looters who saved them: “If it wasn’t for them,” she said, “we wouldn’t have had the little water and food they had found. I will never look at thugs and gangsters the same way again.”

In the face of disaster and official incompetence, we see the ability of people to solve their own problems. Without the assistance of those in power, people banded together and established a semblance of order. Young men, who in other times would have been feared as “thugs” or “gangsters,” organized the crowd and kept violence to a minimum. All this as the National Guard, the Army, and what police were left drove by with their guns pointed at the people whom they are sworn to serve and protect, treating them like criminals, not citizens.

The politics of refusal

Global climate change was denied, science was suppressed, budgets were cut, warnings were ignored, the response was bungled, and the people were left to their own devices. What is to be done to fix New Orleans and the Gulf Coast infrastructure? The federal government has promised $3.1 billion to rebuild levees in New Orleans, half of which will go to fixing Katrina-damaged levees. Bush has asked Congress for another $1.5 billion, of which a measly $250 million will be used to restore wetlands. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has raised the estimated cost to $9.5 billion. The levee re-construction is supposed to be completed by 1 June 2006, but a number of experts have stated that this would be physically impossible to accomplish properly. Moreover, back in 2002 the Corps completed a study that determined what needed to be done to protect New Orleans, and they concluded that further study was needed-a study that would take six years to complete. If it takes six years to determine what needs to be done, how do they propose to finish doing it by June 2006? Indeed, they did not.

And who will do this work? Local contractors will be tapped to do some of the work, but many of the billions will go to the same corporations that are “re-building” Iraq (after the Bush administration bombed the infrastructure in the first place): Halliburton, Bechtel and others with strong connections to the administration. More cronyism is not the answer.

With full foreknowledge, the Bush administration ignored the disaster. They denied its existence. Then they denied its severity. They denied their responsibility to protect and rescue people. And they have denied its real cause: global warming. Bush has refused to engage with environmental reality. There has been a real need to address the coming environmental crisis for at least a decade, the refusal to do so, and the criminally negligent response to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina is emblematic of how the Bush administration has denied the environmental consequences of their inaction. This gross incompetence-their startlingly inept (non)reaction to Hurricane Katrina, the denial of global warming, the refusal to ameliorate environmental damages-constitutes a most egregious case of the abuse of power, and stands on its own as enough reason to impeach the President and his administration.

This work is excerpted from a book chapter by Prof. Wehr in Impeach the President: The case against Bush and Cheney edited by Peter Phillips and Dennis Loo from Seven Stories Press.