This article will appear in the April issue of The American Spectator, which also includes articles on the Bush administration by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., Alfred S. Regnery, Angelo M. Codevilla, Robert D. Novak, Stephen Moore, and John H. Fund. Click here to subscribe.
SOME CONSERVATIVES THINK that President George W. Bush approved too much federal money in response to Hurricane Katrina. Many liberals think he hasn’t approved enough. Nearly everybody believes that whatever money has been spent has not been spent wisely.
They’re all correct.
What’s most distressing about the Bush response, and non-response, to Katrina is that all the President’s promises for a creative new approach to major-disaster relief have gone for naught. One of the world’s great cities is dying before our eyes, yet the Bush administration has actively fought against the very recovery proposal that is the most pro-free market, most pro-private enterprise, most taxpayer-friendly, most accountable disaster-relief legislation imaginable. And when under fire for his opposition to that plan, the President instead touted yet another scheme to throw more money down an unaccountable rat-hole — and compounded the error by including legislative language that would preclude the very uses of the money for which the President explicitly dedicated it.
To understand the tragedy inherent in Bush’s opposition to the most promising conservative approach to disaster relief, offered by conservative U.S. Rep. Richard Baker of Louisiana, a little background is in order. The first thing to understand is that the large majority of Louisianans with destroyed property were victims as much of the federal government as of Mother Nature. The second thing to understand is that very little federal money has actually reached Katrina’s victims themselves, and even less of that federal spending has gone for reconstruction as opposed to stop-gap relief. The third essential point is that both private and public reconstruction efforts have been delayed by federal red tape. And the fourth crucial fact is that New Orleanians cannot rebuild their own city if they have nowhere to live while doing it — and that if they cannot return to their properties or pay their mortgages, the ripple effects from bankrupt citizens and distressed lending institutions could damage the national economy and require federal payouts far more expensive than the cost of having the government do the work of re-creating the New Orleans housing market from scratch.
TAKE POINT ONE: Few principles are more important to conservatives than the one that insists on assigning responsibility where it’s due. The claim that the feds, rather than Mother Nature, victimized Louisianans is not merely a criticism of what is generally acknowledged as an utterly inept response to the storm after it hit. Such criticism is of course true, but it is for these purposes only of minor relevance. Instead, the most important and most misplaced assignment of culpability comes from the Bush administration and far too many Beltway conservatives who seem to blame Louisiana Katrina victims for building in a flood plain. (Never mind that the White House itself is in a flood plain without anybody thinking that West Wing employees need flood insurance.) The problem with this blame game is that the residents had been assured that they lived in one of the safest flood plains in the country, because the top civil engineering minds in the country had repeatedly said their levee-and-floodwall system could withstand any storm that hit southeast Louisiana with the force Katrina mustered. It was the federal Army Corps of Engineers that built the floodwalls and was ultimately responsible for maintaining them — and the Corps said the walls would hold.
But, for just one example of the Corps’ engineering errors, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the Vicksburg, Mississippi office of the Corps back in 1990 warned that the designs for New Orleans’ 17th Street Canal floodwall were deficient — that they were only half as thick and about as third as deep as they should have been to remain rooted in the soft, boggy soil of the area. But the chief engineer of the Corps’ New Orleans office dismissed Vicksburg’s concerns as a mere “engineering judgment” with which he disagreed. Unfortunately, Vicksburg was right, and it was those design flaws that helped lead to the floodwall’s collapse.
Robert Bea, a geotechnical engineer at the University of California at Berkeley and a key consultant for the National Science Foundation’s post-Katrina study team, told the Picayune this about the Corps: “In my view, in the case of the 17th Street, London Avenue and even the Industrial Canal floodwalls, fundamentally what we are looking at is a failure focused on the institutional side.”
In many cases, New Orleans’ Katrina victims had no flood insurance specifically because they were advised that they needed none. But he who guarantees against loss — in this case, the federal government through the Corps — should be held culpable when the losses occur after all.
It is at this point that many conservatives’ eyes start to roll. “We’ve spent $85 billion already,” they say, “and asked for $19 billion more. Even if the feds are at fault, the taxpayers have more than done their duty.”
“In actuality, just a tiny fraction of the money has been spent,” said Eric Stewart of the Commerce Department, who runs the Hurricane Contracting Information Center, in a February meeting at the Mobile Register. A few days later, the Times-Picayune confirmed that report: Some of the money was for loans that must be repaid. About $17 billion was paid for flood insurance claims financed less by taxpayers than from pre-paid premiums from homeowners. About $900 million was wasted by FEMA on manufactured homes that are unusable because they don’t meet FEMA’s own guidelines for use in flood zones. The Government Accountability Office determined that FEMA paid out millions and millions of dollars for some 900,000 fraudulent claims.
Another huge portion of the money was wasted on overpriced debris-removal contracts — and to companies from out of the region, so the money didn’t even benefit the affected states. Other money just replenished FEMA’s coffers for the future, and still other funds are stuck, apparently semi-permanently, in some bureaucratic pipeline. FEMA itself admitted that of its first $29.7 billion for 2005 hurricane relief, $7.6 billion — more than a fourth of it — was used for “administration.”
Finally, of the money that has actually reached victims, most of it supplied short-term needs such as temporary shelter and food. That’s not to be sneezed at, but when about three-quarters of one of the world’s most famous cities plus maybe 90 percent of abodes in two neighboring parishes have been made unlivable, the need for rebuilding assistance is unprecedented.
IT IS HERE THAT THE BUSH RECORD, when compared to the opportunities available, is so poor as to go beyond incompetence to sheer negligence. This is where Rep. Baker’s bill comes in, and where conservatives more than anybody have reason to be furious with this bullheaded administration.
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