Zip the politics and pass the H2O

Posted: Sep 04, 2005 12:00 AM
Washington delivers man-made disasters every day. Thank goodness nature's destructive handiwork occurs less frequently.

It has been heart-rending to watch our fellow citizens amidst the devastation, the scope of Katrina's destruction making it much more so. In response, Americans have looked to do what we can — giving money, clothes, food for the relief effort, with hundreds of volunteers offering time, hard labor, and expertise. Many of us far away have been touched by the disaster, worried about friends and relatives. This is a human tragedy of vast proportions that has left only the heartless untouched.

Enter the politicians. For far too many obsessed with politics, the hurricane proved just another opportunity to point fingers at old enemies and score cheap political points in the never-ending jostling for power.

The Washington Post ran a 30-column-inch story on Friday in which congressional Democrats condemned the big-spending Mr. Bush as heartless and/or ignorant for not supporting every dollar that the Army Corps of Engineers requested for work on New Orleans's levees.

The Democrats all admit, according to the Post, that even at the highest levels of proposed funding, none of these projects would have been completed in time to have prevented New Orleans from being under water today. Still, the smears of Bush went blithely on. The Post's chosen headline, "Critics Say Bush Undercut New Orleans Flood Control" beat out the more accurate alternative: "No Government Plan Would Have Prevented Flood, Democrats Still Blame Bush."

Jürgen Tritton, Germany's environmental minister, argued in the Frankfurt Rundschau that Katrina was caused by "neglected climate protection" — meaning, of course, that it was brought on by Bush's opposition to international global warming agreements. Tritton wrote, "When reason finally reaches the headquarters of the climate polluters [guess where], the international community will need to be able to extend a hand with an elaborate proposal for the future of international climate protection."

An intriguing statement — and one that signals the real bankruptcy of his position. He has no plan to solve the problem about which he rants. But once we turn our fate over to the "international community," they'll be glad to come up with an "elaborate" one.

Of course, even without consulting a scientist or developing an opinion on global warming, it is a simple fact that there were hurricanes before any global warming, real or imagined, and it seems likely there will be hurricanes in the future. No matter what politicians in Berlin or Washington do or say about it.

Meanwhile, storm-ravaged people are hot, hungry and thirsty in New Orleans. And the fact that the president's critics are full of it doesn't mean his team didn't fumble the ball.

Something even the President admitted. And as the crisis worsened, Republicans began to rap the Administration. Louisiana's new Republican Senator David Vitter argued that FEMA has been "completely dysfunctional and completely overwhelmed. There was no coherent plan for dealing with this scenario."

Where has FEMA been with air drops of food? With some plan for restoring order? Why didn't they call sooner for help from the military and National Guard, parts of the federal government that actually work?

Yet, blaming the Bush Administration misses the bigger problem.

"Everybody is to blame — it transcends administration," said Michael Parker, a former GOP congressman from Mississippi, who was actually forced out of his job as assistant secretary of the Army for civil works by the Bush Administration. "It transcends party."

Parker doesn't really mean "everybody." You're probably not to blame. He means the problem permeates government at all levels. Parker argues that there is resistance throughout the federal government to investing in long-term projects. Like the levee project.

But what about local government? Why didn't New Orleans and Louisiana governments do more to fix the problems? And where were local officials after the storm? New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin cursed and blamed the federal government for their shortcomings, but what about his responsibility? The police?

After encouraging people to go to the Superdome, the city provided no protection. The stadium became not only unsanitary but a place of violence and rape. TV cameras caught one New Orleans policeman shouting to a reporter, "Where is the government?"

Uh-oh. Aren't the police supposed to be the very first line of government?

And yet in other reports, some police were at the front line — the first to loot.

The always objective Michael Moore was quick to blame the war in Iraq. Regardless of one's opinion on the war, our government's poor response to Hurricane Katrina is not the result of any shortage of material or expertise. It is systematic of an unaccountable public sector that lacks the motivation to actually do the critical job with which it is entrusted.

"Mother Nature can be cruel, but even at her worst, she is no match for government," Lew Rockwell points out. "It was the glorified public sector, the one we are always told is protecting us, that is responsible for this. Katrina came and went with far less damage than anyone expected. It was the failure of the public infrastructure and the response to it that brought down civilization."

There will be congressional hearings to supposedly delve into this problem. Such an investigation is, of course, warranted. But it is transport and food and water and shelter and sanitation that are needed now. Not hearings. Political theater could wait until our fellow citizens are out of harm's way.

Still, the congressional dog-and-pony show begins Wednesday. At times, what speed and efficiency can be demonstrated! Sure, the government's relief effort moves as slow as molasses, but political efforts are moving ahead at gale force.