Too little, too late on hurricane response

As death toll mounts, Bush administration under fire for criminal negligence, racism

WASHINGTON — Recovery workers began the grisly search for the dead in the flooded streets of New Orleans as Mayor C. Ray Nagin predicted that the toll from Hurricane Katrina may reach 10,000, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

As many as 1 million evacuees are homeless and unemployed, flooding into shelters across the nation. Congress approved $10.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — pitifully inadequate in the face of $200 billion or more in damages.

The Army Corps of Engineers sealed the breaches in the levees, but it is expected to take a month or longer to pump out the floodwaters and years to repair the city and the rest of the Gulf region.

The White House struggled to quell a firestorm over President George W. Bush’s five days of dithering as the people’s plight grew more desperate. Bush convened a cabinet meeting and, flanked by a scowling Vice President Dick Cheney, admitted that the federal response was “unacceptable.” He vowed to lead an investigation of what went “wrong.”

Curtis Muhammad, organizing director of Community Labor United in New Orleans, called the federal response “plain, ugly, real racism.” Speaking at a downtown New Orleans news conference, Muhammad added, “The moral value of our government is to shoot to kill hungry, thirsty, Black hurricane survivors for trying to live through the aftermath.”

A coalition of 20 organizations was announced demanding community oversight of FEMA, other government agencies and private relief groups, and a voice for the people of New Orleans in reconstruction.

The city’s daily newspaper, The Times Picayune, demanded that Bush fire FEMA Director Michael Brown and every other FEMA official for their incompetence and indifference. Brown at one point told a television interviewer he was unaware that thousands had been trapped for days without help in the New Orleans Convention Center. Yet Bush hailed Brown for doing “a heck of a job.”

Bill Quigley, a civil rights lawyer, said he volunteered at Memorial Hospital during the hurricane. He and his wife, a nurse at the hospital, endured five days of living hell, he said. He spoke to the World by cell phone while driving north to Illinois. “We had no electricity, no running water. We couldn’t flush toilets. There was no food. Essentially, there was no help from outside for the 2,000 patients, staff workers and their families.”

Finally, state police came to their rescue. “The help was too little, too late, too disorganized. A lot of people in New Orleans died because of that and more are going to continue to die.”

The White House drive to pin blame on local officials is “blaming the victim,” Quigley said. “Everything you need to sustain life stopped Tuesday and there were 100,000 people still in New Orleans. As a nation, we don’t put a priority on the needs of the poor, the elderly, the sick. The racial injustice, the economic injustice in this country was put graphically on display.”

He added, “We witnessed so many courageous acts by so many ordinary people and I think that spirit is what it will take to address this crisis not only in New Orleans but around the world. There is no one to bomb. Maybe we can use our people and resources to address this racial and economic injustice and not waste our resources on war.”

Speaking in Baton Rouge, La., the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Bush’s “whole response is unacceptable. … It is a lack of sensitivity and compassion that represents a kind of incompetence … indifference to the pain of poor people and Black people.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced that the labor movement has mobilized cash donations and relief for union members hit by Katrina. “We’ve got to ask the cutting questions: Why did the Bush administration refuse to fund repairs for those levees? Why did it take five days to deliver some hope to New Orleans? Why was a president who says America can afford to give the rich permanent tax cuts unable to give the poor of New Orleans a way out before the corpses started piling up? It was a shameful display of corrupted values.”

Robin Roque, 30, a New Orleans tour guide who evacuated Sunday as the hurricane winds rose, told the World, “If these officials can go on TV and say with a straight face they didn’t know this disaster was waiting to happen, they should resign and we’ll find somebody else who can do the job. The money to strengthen the levees was diverted to Iraq.”

Only the federal government has the resources to rebuild New Orleans, she told the World from her temporary home in San Diego. Bush has already contracted with Halliburton to profiteer on reconstruction. “Bringing in these multibillion dollar corporations is another kick in the butt for the people of the Gulf,” Roque said. “New Orleans is a blue-collar city with every kind of skilled labor. Give them jobs rebuilding New Orleans. The minute they say we can return, I’m going back.”

click here for related article: Grappling with catastrophe