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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Katrina Moment Endures

Today marks the second anniversary of Hurricaine Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast, and in New Orleans, retrospectives quickly turn into assessments of how much damage–material and human–remains unaddressed.
George W. Bush is in New Orleans today, and as usual, he is combining an event highlighting conservative policy prescriptions for New Orleans–in this case, school “choice”–with numbing recitations of the amount of money Washington has provided for Katrina relief and recovery.
But the locals aren’t buying it. Today’s New Orleans Times-Picayune features an editorial entitled: “Treat Us Fairly, Mr. President,” which notes the administration’s favoritism towards Republican-governed Mississippi in Katrina recovery funding:

Louisiana had three times more damaged homes and seven times more severely damaged homes than Mississippi. Universities in this state had three times as many students displaced and had four times the losses of Mississippi’s campuses. Louisiana fisheries suffered almost 75 percent of the damage done by Katrina, and our hospitals lost 97 percent of the hospital beds closed by the storm.
Yet in every case, Mississippi ended up with a disproportionate share of aid. Housing grants, for instance: Mississippi got $5.5 billion in Community Development Block Grant money for its 61,000 damaged homes. Louisiana, with 204,000 damaged homes, got $10.4 billion. If the aid were given out proportionately, this state would have gotten twice that much….
All Louisiana wants is to be treated fairly. But that hasn’t happened.

But that’s a mild assessment compared to many others. In last Sunday’s Washington Post, historian Douglas Brinkley, whose book The Great Deluge stands as the most comprehensive account of Katrina, penned an op-ed reporting his discussions with New Orleans volunteers stunned by the devastation of neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth War:

The stalled recovery can’t be blamed on bureaucratic inertia or red tape alone. Many volunteers come to understand what I’ve concluded is the heartless reality: The Bush administration actually wants these neighborhoods below sea level to die on the vine….
Still unfinished is the overhaul of what some call the “Lego levees,” the notoriously flawed 350-mile “flood protection system” that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers starting building in 1965.
The Corps has been busy fixing the three principal holes that opened in August 2005. Its hard work has, in fact, paid a partial dividend. A decent defensive floodwall is now on the east side of the Industrial Canal, attempting to protect the Lower Ninth Ward.
Unfortunately, that is where the upbeat news nosedives. The federal government has refused to shut the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet canal that helped cause the Katrina “funnel effect” flooding two years ago. In addition, entire neglected neighborhoods still have no adequate flood control.

In other words, despite all the promises and all the tardy presidential visits, the Bush administration continues to treat New Orleans as a low priority, and also continues to blame state and local officials for the slow recovery, even as it implicitly endorses a policy of abandonment for neighborhoods in low-lying areas.
Several Democratic presidentials candidates (and even one Republican, Mike Huckabee) have been in New Orleans over the last few days, deploring the administration’s inaction and offering their own plans. There’s a lot of overlap, with some distinctions. Hillary Clinton’s plan forcuses on Cat-5-proof levees. Edwards is proposing a so-called “Brownie’s Law” to require that political appointees in agencies like FEMA demonstrate they are qualified for their jobs. Obama has promised to shut down the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal.
More generally, memories of Katrina’s aftermath and how it was handled by the current administration will continue to operate as a backdrop to the presidential campaign, serving as a reminder of the positive role of domestic government and of the consequences of decades of conservative anti-government rhetoric. It’s a bit of a cliche by now, but still arguably true, that in 2005, events in two cities–New Orleans and Baghdad–permanently damaged George W. Bush’s credibility and paved the way to the Democratic midterm victory of 2006. And it will be a long time before either city’s scars can be hidden or removed.

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