30 August, 2009

Katrina: Revelation and Rebirth

No Sunday Sensational Science today, my darlings. We'll soon have the latest installment of COTEB to occupy us, and while we wait, there are some important pieces on Katrina and its aftermath I hope you'll peruse.

Katrina made landfall four years (and one day) ago. You all know what happened next: a city drowned, thousands were killed or displaced, and the Bush regime made a total hash of everything start to finish. Four years on, Obama's the one promising to rebuild a city that should have already been shining and new.

But there are deeper stories to the horrific incompetence that nearly killed New Orleans:

I don't get to use the word "heroic" very often. Van Heerden is heroic. The Deputy Director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, it was van Heerden who told me, on camera, something so horrible, so frightening, that, if it weren't for his international stature, it would have been hard to believe:

"By midnight on Monday the White House knew. Monday night I was at the state Emergency Operations Center and nobody was aware that the levees had breached. Nobody."

On the night of August 29, 2005, van Heerden was shut in at the state emergency center in Baton Rouge, providing technical advice to the rescue effort. As Hurricane Katrina came ashore, van Heerden and the State Police there were high-fiving it: Katrina missed the city of New Orleans, turning east.

What they did not know was that the levees had cracked. For crucial hours, the White House knew, but withheld the information that the levees of New Orleans had broken and that the city was about to drown. Bush's boys did not notify the State of the flood to come, which would have allowed police to launch an emergency hunt for the thousands who remained stranded.

Van Heerden, of course, lost his job for telling the truth. And that involves a tale of oil corporations furiously greenwashing and astroturfing, and a university more interested in cash than competence.

As for why it's taken so long to rebuild the city, an explanation might be found in right-wing blatherer Neal Boortz's opinion that rebuilding New Orleans will only bring back "the debris that Katrina chased out." No one in the Bush regime would phrase it so crassly, of course but I don't doubt that a heaping helping of scorn topped their general incompetence like rancid whipped cream on a shit sundae.

Apparently, in their world, people who didn't own cars weren't fit to live:

I did not seek out professor van Heerden about Bush's deadly silence. Rather, I'd come to LSU to ask him about a strange little company, "Innovative Emergency Management," a politically well-connected firm that, a year before the hurricane, had finagled a contract to plan the evacuation of New Orleans.

Innovative Emergency Management knew a lot about political contributions, but seemed to have zero experience in hurricane response planning. In fact, their "plan" for New Orleans called for evacuating the city by automobile. When Katrina hit, 127,000 wheel-less New Orleans folk were left to float out.

You know the tragic result.

Four years and a new administration later, New Orleans is finally seeing some progress:
Victor Ukpolo, chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans, said the administration has been able to "move mountains" for his school, virtually wiped out by Katrina and the breached levees. [snip] In half a year, Obama's team says it has cleared at least 75 projects that were in dispute, including libraries, schools and university buildings. The administration has relied on a new, independent arbitration panel, and assigned senior advisers to focus on the rebuilding.

The administration recently reversed a FEMA rule that barred communities from building fire stations and other critical projects in vulnerable areas. Local officials said the rule could have effectively killed off some places.


Jindal and Rainwater said the previous administration often wouldn't recognize new information or acknowledge there were real disputes. Sometimes, Rainwater said, Bush officials seemed blind to the devastation around them and said they had to be good stewards of public money.

"They never recognized the enormity of what we're working through," Rainwater said. "We're not just trying to rebuild buildings here but entire communities."

"That's the difference" under Obama, Rainwater said. "It's the recognition. ... We're all able to sit down around the table."
Hopefully those discussions will include urgent talks and then even more urgent action on flood control. Christie Hardin Smith visited New Orleans recently and brought back pictures showing how much has been accomplished. All of that progress could be wiped out in a virtual instant if the proper precautions aren't taken.

Maybe someone in the Obama administration should have a little chat about New Orleans's safety with Dr. van Heerden. The man has a good eye for a bad levee.

Let's raise a round to him, and to the citizens of New Orleans past, present and future: by your efforts, may the Big Easy make a Big Comeback.

Salud, amigos.

No comments: