|February 21, 2007|
||Celebration Helps To Heal|
||Go Beyond The Headlines|
||Coffee and Donuts Not Included|
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Yesterday, thousands of “hurricane-weary residents joined with rowdy visitors for Fat Tuesday, taking a break from rebuilding New Orleans to put on wild costumes and celebrate the second Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina.” John Ferguson, who is still rebuilding his house almost 18 months after the storm, said of the celebration, “We never needed it more.” The region has been slow in recovering from the hurricanes — Katrina and Rita — which devastated the area in August and September of 2005, leading to nearly 1,900 deaths and $91 billion in damages. But official data from the Mardi Gras festivities shows a city on the rebound. “Last year’s festivities were scaled down — fewer parades and only about 13,000 hotel rooms available. This year, there are 30,000 hotel rooms ready and for the big weekend leading into Mardi Gras, most of them were filled. Merchants, hotel operators, and others felt the crowd would exceed the 700,000 who visited the city during the same time period last year.” But even amidst the celebration, there were symbols of the region’s frustration. Some celebrants wore politically-themed costumes to demonstrate their emotions. Louisiana resident Jeff Friedland, for example, donned a low-budget costume of a house painter’s jumpsuit wrapped in red tape, with a sign on his sleeve that read: “Abysmal. Uncaring. Bordering on immoral.” He said in an interview, “No leadership from government. That’s my biggest complaint.”
THE GOOD — THE CITY’S PSYCHE RECOVERS: “Numbers do not tell the full story of Mardi Gras, locals say. More important is its role in the self-image and psyche of the city.” And on that score, the Mardi Gras celebration has helped New Orleans take a significant step towards full recovery. One Gulf resident said, “Last year, we showed the country that we were alive and well. This year we are showing the world that we are ready to return to being the greatest host city in all of America.” A massive wave of volunteers — half a million, by one estimate — have arrived in the Gulf Coast region over the past 18 months to help residents put their lives back together. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity, ACORN, and the AFL-CIO are building new homes. The city “has 90 percent of the restaurants it had before Hurricane Katrina,” thousands of new hotel rooms, “including ones at a new Harrah’s and a reopened Ritz-Carlton. A new Hilton hotel is set to open soon, and the renovated downtown Hyatt could be back in business” in time for the NBA All-Star game next year. The end of yesterday’s celebration wit’ck home the reality that the struggle of rebuilding continues. In an editorial, the Times-Picayune writes, “The glitter of Mardi Gras has been washed away for another year, and the smudge of ash will be gone tomorrow. But the mark that Katrina has made on our hearts and minds is harder to remove. We will need both joy and the deeper reservoirs of faith and strength to prove that it is not indelible.”
THE BAD — OBSTACLES TO PROGRESS: A year and a half after the storm, residents are still fighting legal battles with insurers to recover funds for their damages. Only about 200,000 people of the pre-storm population of 480,000 have returned as most homeowners are still awaiting government aid to rebuild their homes. At the same time, residents have had to deal with a surge in violent crime. Since the storm, “Jefferson Parish has…logged an all-time record of 66 homicides in 2006.” For the mentally ill, the loss of health care facilities has “made it difficult for chronically mentally ill patients to get care and have put a strain on hospitals.” And for the poorest families, a new study shows that they “still suffer from a significant loss of income, a higher-than-normal rate of chronic diseases like hypertension, and an exponential rise in mental health problems among children.” To address the many problems the region is coping with, more funds and resources will be needed. Yesterday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded with visiting tourists to spend money. “We need the tax revenue bad,” he said. And the Bush administration can help. The New York Times writes, “The recovery along the Gulf Coast and particularly in New Orleans is going too slowly, and there are steps the government can easily take to speed the process. One thing the Bush administration should have done immediately after Hurricane Katrina was to waive the requirement that state and local governments match federal rebuilding funds. The time to correct that mistake is now.”
THE UGLY — FEELING FORGOTTEN: While Gulf Coast residents are frustrated with the red tape and upset over the inattention they have received, some on the right are only making matters worse. CNN’s right-wing pundit Glenn Beck said, “I don’t want to kick a city when it’s down, but…I find it very difficult in some ways to feel bad for New Orleans.” Last month in his State of the Union address, President Bush failed to mention Katrina once, despite pledging one year earlier to “stay at it until they’re back on their feet.” The responsibility is not on the Bush administration alone, but is shared by local and state officials. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “has paid Louisiana roughly $5.1 billion to reimburse local officials for infrastructure projects following Katrina, but only about $2 billion of that money has reached communities 16 months after the storm” due to cumbersome federal audit procedures. As of Jan. 18, FEMA “had agreed to pay for $334 million for infrastructure repairs in New Orleans, but Louisiana state officials had forwarded only $145 million to the city.” Joe Aguda, a Katrina victim who now lives in a FEMA trailer, offered his simple reaction. “We’ve been forgotten,” he said.
HOMELAND SECURITY — JUSTICE DEPARTMENT MISREPRESNTED TERROR CASE DATA: “Most of the Justice Department’s major statistics on terrorism cases are highly inaccurate, and federal prosecutors routinely count cases involving drug trafficking, marriage fraud and other unrelated crimes as part of anti-terrorism efforts, according to an audit released yesterday.” The report from the Justice Department’s inspector general “learned that the collection and reporting of terrorism-related statistics within the Department is decentralized and haphazard.” In many cases, DOJ officials “either had not established internal controls to ensure the statistics were accurately gathered, classified, and reported, or did not document the internal controls used.” “The analysis is the latest to find serious faults with the Justice Department’s terrorism statistics, some of which have been featured prominently in statements by President Bush or the attorney general as evidence of the terrorist threat and the department’s successful efforts to combat it.” “All but two of the 26 statistics reviewed from October 2000 through September 2005 were wrong.” The audit cited specific examples of cases that should not have been included in the terrorism stats, including one in which charges were brought against a “marriage-broker for being paid to arrange six fraudulent marriages between Tunisians and U.S. citizens.”
HEALTH CARE — U.S. HEALTH CARE COSTS TO RISE AT UNMANAGEABLE RATE OVER NEXT DECADE: A government report released yesterday revealed that U.S. spending on medical and health services is projected to double to $4.1 trillion by 2016, up from $2.1 trillion in 2006. Over this period, health care costs will rise at an unreasonably fast rate, outpacing the overall economy and causing a spike in out-of-pocket expenses. Simultaneously, the cost of health insurance is projected to increase at a rate of 6.4 percent annually during the next ten years. The United States continues to spend more on health care per person than any other country, including countries that provide health care coverage to its entire citizenry. But our health care system spending is not buying us superior health or resources. Americans on average die at a younger age compared to the average age of death of comparable nations, and the United States has fewer practicing physicians and nurses per 1,000 people than comparable countries. The Center for American Progress has established a Wellness Trust to encourage preventative care and offset burdensome medical costs. “The trust would consolidate existing public and private spending on prevention, carving prevention out of health insurance. It would also set national prevention priorities and establish a new, unconventional delivery system for preventative care,” American Progress president John Podesta said. “Instead of relying on doctors to deliver most preventative services, we need to build a corps of community health workers.” Wal-Mart, AT&T, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Center for American Progress, and other businesses and non-profit organizations have launched a campaign to tackle the health care crisis, with the goal of universal coverage by 2012. The idea of shared responsibility, “emphasizing that individuals, businesses and government all play roles in financing health care and expanding coverage.”
MILITARY — CONGRESS TAKES ACTION AFTER WALTER REED REPORTS: Last weekend, the Washington Post exposed the one-time “crown jewel of military medicine,” Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as a “bureaucratic battlefield” “plagued with mold,” and told stories of the “neglect, and in some cases indifference” that recovering veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan experienced upon their return home. In response to questions about the dilapidated conditions of Walter Reed, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow affirmed that the administration was aware of the conditions “before the articles appeared in the paper,” saying, “the president certainly has been aware of the conditions in the wards where he has visited, and visited regularly.” Later, Snow backtracked, issuing this clarifying statement: “The President first learned of the troubling allegations regarding Walter Reed from the stories this weekend in the Washington Post. He is deeply concerned and wants any problems identified and fixed.” The Army began repairs on the facilities only yesterday — after the media reports intensified public criticism. “They’ve been behind from Day One,” Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) said of failed efforts to improve the outpatient facilities. “Even the stuff they’ve fixed has only been patched.” Davis said that among the public, “there’s vast appreciation for soldiers, but there’s a lack of focus on what happens to them” when they return. “It’s awful.” To ensure these conditions are not tolerated in the future, “Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) will introduce legislation next week to require more frequent inspections of hospitals.” In addition, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Patty Murray (D-WA) “wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates today demanding an inspector general’s investigation into living conditions for the returning soldiers at Walter Reed.”
Asked about Tony Blair’s announcement today that the U.K. will cut troop levels in Iraq by 1,600 — from 7,100 down to 5,500 — Vice President Dick Cheney “said the move was actually good news and a sign of progress in Iraq.” Later in the day, he told a group of U.S. troops, “I want you to know that the American people will not support a policy of retreat.”
Denmark is expected to follow Britain’s lead and announce plans to withdraw its 460 troops from Iraq.
Sectarian tensions have heightened since a Sunni woman announced on Al Jazeera on Monday that she was kidnapped and raped by three officers from the Iraqi National Police has highlighted sectarian tensions. At first Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite, vowed to investigate, “but a few hours later condemned the woman, said she was a criminal, announced the three officers would be honored,” and made her name public.
“Six years into Mr. Bush’s presidency, the corps of loyal Texans who accompanied him to Washington from Austin remains a powerful force inside the administration, a steady source of comfort for an increasingly isolated president. No matter how grim the polls or dire the news in Iraq, they have stood by Mr. Bush — and been rewarded with plum jobs.”
“The rate of fatal terrorist attacks around the world by jihadist groups, and the number of people killed in those attacks, increased dramatically after the invasion of Iraq,” a study by Mother Jones concluded. Even with terrorist acts in Iraq and Afghanistan excluded from the data, “there has been a 35 percent rise in the number of attacks, with a 12 percent rise in fatalities.”
European Union ministers pledged yesterday to cut greenhouse gas emissions “30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, from a current pledge of 20 percent, but only if other heavy polluters” — such as the United States — “joined in.”
And finally: The crocodile tears were flowing at the Libby trial yesterday. After prosecutors “presented a detailed and businesslike summing up of their case” against Scooter Libby, Libby’s chief defense lawyer — Theodore Wells — “countered with an intensely emotional defense ending in a choked sob.” “He’s been under my protection for the last month,” Wells told the jury. “I give him to you. Give him back to me.” “With that, Mr. Wells teared up, sobbed audibly and sat down.”