February 19, 2009

Waving the Bloody (Muddy) Shirt

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 5:13 pm

I have to say, I am not really that surprised to read this. It confirms a feeling I’ve had for several months now. But lack of surprise does not translate to lack of anger. I wanted to be wrong about this. I wanted this suspicion to be just a product of my own pessimistic nature.

The economic stimulus signed by President Barack Obama will spread billions of dollars across the country to spruce up aging roads and bridges. But there’s not a dime specifically dedicated to fixing leftover damage from Hurricane Katrina.

And there’s no outrage about it.

Democrats who routinely criticized President George W. Bush for not sending more money to the Gulf Coast appear to be giving Obama the benefit of the doubt in his first major spending initiative. Even the Gulf’s fiercest advocates say they’re happy with the stimulus package, and their states have enough money for now to address their needs.

Oh, trust me, MSNBC—there is outrage about it. There may not be any in Congress, but that should come as no surprise whatsoever. It’s all pretty strong evidence that politicians of either party have basically decided that the Gulf Coast is expendable.

I no longer work for a political party or any public officeholder, so I will say exactly what I think now on this matter. It isn’t pretty.

The Muddy Shirt
In 2006, Democrats campaigned on a variety of things. There were the Abramoff and Foley scandals, of course. There was disgust with the do-nothing 109th Congress. There was dissatisfaction with the Iraq war. And there was also the perception that the Bush administration had let down its own citizens in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Some Democrats even explicitly campaigned on the names of hurricane victims. This tactic is called “waving the bloody shirt,” and it dates back to the Reconstruction era. Republicans pulled the same stunt in 2002, except that the metaphorical bloody shirt they were waving came from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The Democrats’ bloody shirt was, more accurately, a muddy one.

But you know, there is nothing particularly wrong with this tactic if it is followed up by kept campaign promises—if the dead are actually given proper honor, the living are taken care of, and measures are taken to try to prevent the same situation from occurring again. For the few months immediately following the installation of the 110th Congress, it looked like some progress might be made. The Small Business Administration was told to get with it and issue loans to qualified Gulf business owners so they could begin to rebuild. But then things ground to a halt. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, declared that he would not authorize an official investigation of FEMA or the Bush administration in its response to the storm. No one saw fit to punish him for this. Indeed, when the new Congress was debating removing him from this post, the “charges” he faced all involved supporting John McCain for president, not lying down on his job. To the Democratic leadership, party disloyalty (even though he was not a party member) was a greater crime than spitting on the Gulf dead. And in the end, of course, nothing whatsoever was even done to him.

In a disgusting parallel to the Lieberman debacle, when Hurricane Gustav was still packing its incredible winds, and New Orleans Mayor Nagin was calling it the “storm of the century,” what was the “dialog” taking place in Democratic insider circles? “Nyuk-nyuk, New Orleans is going to get blasted again and right during the GOP convention. Ain’t it funny?”

No, actually, it’s not funny. Even though that tragedy did not come to pass, it still is not funny. But the mere fact that elites in places like Washington, DC thought it was funny told me a great deal. It foreshadowed Lieberman’s “trial” and “acquittal” before the Senate. Partisanship—the GOP convention—was a bigger deal than a massive tragedy.

So, no, I’m not surprised that Katrina recovery has been excluded from the stimulus bill. As was the case with Republicans who campaigned on the 9/11 dead, these people had no intention of doing anything long-term for the Gulf Coast. They would wave the muddy shirt and then put it back in the drawer. The Mississippi Gulf Coast area swings Republican, and Louisiana is apparently turning redder because of the mass migration from New Orleans to places like Jackson, MS and Houston, TX. So why bother with those people? It’s common knowledge that politicians reward their constituencies when they come to office.

“Bogged Down”
I do not accept the official explanation given in the MSNBC article. Here is what Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, normally a good guy, has to say:

Thompson and others say new funding wasn’t necessary in the stimulus largely because billions of federal dollars remain bogged down in bureaucracy or tied up in planning. As a result, they said, Katrina funding doesn’t fit with the quick-spending purpose of the stimulus bill, which is aimed at kick-starting the economy.

Would someone mind explaining to me how a community that still needs help rebuilding its infrastructure, and which experienced residents losing their homes long before foreclosures became so common, is going to receive any kind of economic kick-start at all? You have to have a basis of support for this type of thing, and disaster profiteers and insurance companies have made it pretty hard for regular people to live there if they suffered major losses in Katrina. New Orleans in particular needs major work done to prevent another similar disaster, and since it has lost so much of its population, it needs a way to try to draw people back. What contractor wants to invest in a city that is dying and is thought to be on borrowed time anyway?

As I have pointed out numerous times in the past, Katrina recovery work can easily overlap with the kinds of projects that this stimulus bill supposedly funds. The entire coastal area needs to be shored up against rising sea levels, and the levees really need to be made to withstand Category 5 surge. Maybe New Orleans shouldn’t have been built there, but there it sits, and people live in it, so the mistakes of centuries ago really are not relevant now. The wetlands of lower Louisiana need to be restored as much as possible. They took a direct hit from the hurricane, of course. These wetlands, in combination with barrier islands, are the cities’ natural defenses against hurricanes. These are all potential public works projects that happen to be related to the Katrina recovery. They would employ people who currently live there and might bring new people in. It would improve the community in multiple ways.

Catch-22
As it stands, these projects will be done with the stimulus money only if there is enough of that money to fund them. I doubt there will be, and even if there is, this kind of work must also be “bogged down” with the original recovery money, because putting it to such use would depend on a resolution of that tied-up process. These projects, in other words, would conflict with (or depend upon) official Katrina recovery projects that are “tied up” right now. And what it boils down to is that the Gulf really can’t use its part of the stimulus for anything, at least anything valuable, until that existing allocation/planning process concludes itself. (Anyone want to take a bet on how soon that will happen?)

The Gulf hasn’t been cut off from all stimulus money, but this treatment of it is absolutely unconscionable and without precedent. Several days ago, tornadoes struck Oklahoma. Yesterday, more tornadoes struck Alabama and Georgia. Those areas will get recovery funding on top of whatever portion of the stimulus that they receive. For any other disaster, the area affected would get money specifically earmarked as disaster recovery funding, and it would not be deducted from its portion of the stimulus. That’s the fair way to do it, and it’s the way that makes sense. But the Gulf Coast, excuse me, gets the screw. Once again. If the coast has not seen these previously allocated funds after three and a half years, then the money might as well not have been sent. And I have very little doubt that if the Gulf Coast does choose to use stimulus funding to rebuild from Katrina, these previous funds will be pulled. The net effect is that the Coast must give one thing or another up: either timely Katrina recovery or stimulus funds used for stimulus. Or, more likely, both, because of the catch-22 with the earmarked Katrina funds.

Alternatives
If there is reason to believe that federal dollars previously allocated to the Gulf Coast are being held up, why not start an investigation into it? Why not learn where this money is being “bogged down” and take action to have something done about it? Or, better yet, why not pull the plug on that particular funding, if it’s failed to produce results after three and a half years, and write up a new set of guidelines for the use of it, including timeliness? This is a no-brainer, and in fact, it’s what Obama promised that he would do. “If something doesn’t work, then we eliminate it,” he said (and I paraphrase). Greensburg, Kansas was hit by an EF5 tornado in May of 2007, and its rebuilding was planned out pretty darn quickly, without these bureaucratic bog-downs. But it seems that investigating something relating to Katrina is one thing that this Congress, as well as its predecessor, absolutely will not do.

I don’t believe that the lack of Democratic criticism of this aspect of the stimulus has a thing to do with the perception of Katrina relief being a long-term project. The stimulus itself is a long-term project, as even Obama himself has admitted numerous times. I think that it is caused by the same factor that motivated all the House Republicans to vote against this package. Yes, you got it—party loyalty once again. There are a few members of Congress who actually care about their constituents, but it’s the truth that most of them really do not.

In this attention deficit nation, Katrina is old, old news. If you’re not immediately there and don’t seek it out yourself, you tend not to know about the latest developments. Politicians in general apparently don’t want to tackle the difficult issues that still remain, and they are more than happy for the media and the ADD nation to forget the Gulf Coast’s past and ignore its present. However, this isn’t quantum mechanics. Ignoring something does not make it go away.

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