I’ve waited until now to say anything about the disaster in New Orleans, trying to keep some perspective on the relief problems there. Finally I have my thoughts in order, I think.
Most of us now know that the Bush administration had consistently been cutting the budgets for the maintenance and improvement of the levees. In spite of this, I’m not willing to say that this negligence was the direct cause of the levee failures, nor am I willing to give all the blame to Bush. Politicians of both parties have to juggle many priorities, and the short attention spans of the politicians, voters and media pretty much guarantee that short-term visible projects will be funded better than long-term invisible ones. The levees were only designed to take storms less intense than Katrina, and it is a failure of all of us that it wasn’t a higher priority to make them more secure. Having said all this, certainly Bush has been preoccupied by terror and Iraq, to the point where domestic issues disappeared from his radar screen.
More damning is the performance of FEMA and Bush’s response once the disaster was apparent. Most damning of all is the way the director was appointed. The FEMA director, Brown, is strictly a political friend. He had no qualifications whatever. He was simply a friend of a Bush campaign manager who needed a job after he got fired from his last one. Apparently Bush thought so little of FEMA’s mission that he simply didn’t care who ran it. Bush has never needed the government to bail him out(he always had his friends); perhaps he thinks everyone has similar powerful friends. Or maybe he’s never had to struggle, never been poor, never had disaster thrust upon him. In any event, whether from ignorance, indifference, or prejudice, preparing for natural disasters was downplayed.
And it isn’t just this one appointment that was so disappointing; time and time again we discover that this administration seems to take far more interest is playing politics so they can stay in power rather than taking the actions needed to advance the public good.
Perhaps there’s a silver lining to this. Until Katrina, it was easy to ignore just how many poor (and in the case of New Orleans, black) people there were, and how limited their resources are. I have doubts that Bush had any concept of just how many people are living hand-to-mouth in the US, and how quickly government actions (or inactions) can lead to corpses in the streets. It’s a valuable lesson for all of us, something we need to be reminded of now and then. Will the lesson sink in for Bush? Will he finally become a “compassionate conservative”? I’m betting no, I don’t think he has the capacity. Still, I can always hope.
September 5, 2005