Weathering the Storm
Occurring only 18 months after Hurricane Katrina, the devastating tornadoes in Greensburg, KS this month again prompted the question of whether our government can adequately respond to another Katrina-like storm. For residents of New Orleans, that question will be particularly pressing this summer, as the hurricane season officially begins this Friday. Hurricane prediction experts expect a “very active” tropical storm season for 2007, estimating “the probability of a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast at 49 percent, compared to last century’s average of 30 percent.” To prepare for another Katrina, the federal government needs to develop an adequate response system, including the rejuvenation of a shattered emergency response network in New Orleans. Unfortunately, the government has failed to provide this system, leaving the residents of New Orleans again woefully unprepared for the active hurricane season on the horizon.
AILING PUBLIC SERVICES: Nearly two years after Katrina, much of New Orleans’s public infrastructure is under reconstruction and stretched dangerously thin. General infrastructure repairs, “which by law are to be funded by federal sources, continue to be mired in red tape.” As of April, 298 “essential public buildings” remain unusable, as “bureaucratic hurdles impede the dispersal of allocated federal funds.” For example, 70 public schools remain closed, crippling the ability of families to regain their footing. The area is struggling with only 64 percent of health care facilities open and no state-licensed hospitals reopening since Oct. 2006. The effects of a broken health care system permeate the city. With psychiatric hospital closures since Katrina causing overcrowded emergency rooms, Terry Ebbert, director of the New Orleans’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, sees “a crisis in emergency mental health care.” “Of the 200-plus psychiatric beds that existed in the city prior to Katrina, only 20 are in service at the moment.” Police and ambulance drivers now must wait “hours” with these patients to bring them adequate emergency care, “depriving the city of essential crime fighters and first responders.” Subsequently, the murder and violent crime surged in the last year, “clearly outpac[ing] the city’s population growth.”
IRAQ LIMITS EMERGENCY RESPONSE: “To put it bluntly, the members of the Guard cannot protect us here if they are fighting over there,” said Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Lawrence Korb this week. “Countless lives were lost” waiting for help when Katrina struck in 2005, as “the combat brigades of Louisiana and Mississippi and their equipment were in Iraq and Afghanistan.” While most of the state’s National Guard will remain at home for this hurricane season, Iraq has absorbed vehicles and equipment necessary for hurricane response in New Orleans. Come storm season, “the Louisiana National Guard still lacks hundreds of military troop trucks that can forge high water. … [T]he 256th Infantry Brigade’s yearlong combat tour in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 gets the blame for the vehicle shortage.” With a shortage of 200 to 300 vehicles, “We’re below 50 percent for authorized equipment” said Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, Louisiana Guard spokesman. “Do I have enough for a major event? No. For a smaller event, yes.” And the federal government “still lacks a formal structure for coordinating a national response,” said Coast Guard head Adm. Thad Allen yesterday. According to Allen, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is still “reworking its national response plan to incorporate the lessons of Katrina and other incidents.” To train and equip the necessary units, “the president should ask the Congress to increase the budget of the DHS by at least $10 billion, the cost of one month’s operations in Iraq.”
STILL UNREADY TO HANDLE THE STORM: According to a recent investigation from National Geographic, “flaws in New Orleans’ repaired levee system could leave the region vulnerable to another disastrous breach.” Even a less powerful storm than Katrina “could breach the levees if it hit this season.” In rebuilt levees by the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ship channel, which broke in more than 20 places during Katrina and led “to devastating flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish,” engineers found several areas where storms have eroded the newly constructed levees. The engineers also found that, currently, “water appears to be seeping under the stout new floodwall erected along the Industrial Canal to protect the Lower Ninth Ward.” A recent report from the Government Accountability Office revealed that water pumping systems installed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2006 would only be operating — at best — at 82 percent of maximum capacity, with the total capacity still not meeting the “drainage needs to keep the city from flooding during a hurricane.” One engineer who works with the corps said “that in the next big storm the [flood gates and pumps] may be ‘doomed to fail’ as the gates lack any mechanism to remove debris that could keep them from closing in advance of a storm. The corps is currently depending on divers to clear obstructions.”
CELEBRATING DANGER: The federal government is more concerned with fanfare and glitz rather than real preparedness for the vigorous storm season ahead. National Hurricane Center director Bill Proenza said recently that the administration is “spending millions of dollars on a publicity campaign that could be used to plug budget shortfalls hurricane forecasters are struggling with.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is spending up to $4 million to publicize a 200th anniversary celebration while the agency has cut $700,000 from hurricane research, Proenza said. “No question about it, it is not justified. … It is using appropriated funds for self promotion.” “It’s part of our responsibility to tell the American people what we do,” a NOAA spokesman said in defense. “It’s inaccurate and unfair to just characterize this as some sort of self-celebration.”
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS — ZOELLICK TAPPED TO LEAD WORLD BANK IN WAKE OF ETHICS SCANDAL: President Bush will announce today that he has selected Robert Zoellick, “a career diplomat and trade negotiator,” to replace the ousted Paul Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank. Zoellick, who is “widely respected in foreign capitals,” served previously in the Bush administration as the “United States Trade Representative…and then as deputy secretary of state until last July” and “was a top aide to Secretary of State James A. Baker III in helping negotiate terms of reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.” The Washington Post reports that Zoellick is “clearly part of the Bush administration’s inner circle,” but is “not seen as ideologically rigid,” contrasting sharply with the outgoing neo-conservative Wolfowitz. Some non-governmental aide organizations like the Global AIDS alliance have, however, expressed disappointment in Zoellick’s candidacy. Dr. Paul Zeitz, Executive Director of the Alliance said yesterday that Zoellick is a “terrible choice” for Bank president because of his history as a “close friend to the brand-name pharmaceutical industry.” Zeitz added that “the bilateral trade agreements [Zoellick has previously] negotiated effectively block access to generic medication for millions of people.” The Alliance expressed fears that as Bank president, Zoellick may work to limit client countries’ ability to use Bank “aid to purchase generic medications.” The European members of the Bank’s Board of Directors are likely to support the President’s nomination, but “some lingering unease over the way the United States treated the board [as an] afterthought” is expected.
ETHICS — CHENEY’S LAWYER ORDERED SECRET SERVICE TO AVOID KEEPING VISITOR LOGS: In Sept. 2006, Shannen W. Coffin, counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney, wrote a letter to the chief counsel of the United States Secret Service (USSS) ordering that the “USSS shall not retain any copy” of documents and information pertaining to visitors to the Vice President’s residence. The letter was disclosed last Friday as part of “a lawsuit by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), seeking the identities of conservative religious leaders who visited Cheney at his official residence.” The release was “accompanied by an 18-page Secret Service document revealing [that] the agency’s long-standing practice has been to destroy printed daily access lists of visitors to the residence.” In the letter, Coffin claims logs for Cheney’s residence are subject to the Presidential Records Act (PRA), a designation that prevents the public from learning who visited the Vice President. The agreement between the Office of the Vice President and the Secret Service that visitor logs fall under the PRA, and are thus not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, is similar to an “agreement quietly signed between the White House and the Secret Service a year ago when questions were raised about visits to the executive compound by convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff.” The White House has also previously instructed the Secret Service to destroy visitor logs. “The latest filings make clear that the administration has been destroying documents and entering into secret agreements in violation of the law,” said Anne Weisman, CREW’s chief counsel.
IRAQ — BUSH ADMINISTRATION IGNORING ‘MORAL OBLIGATION’ TO HELP IRAQ REFUGEES: A U.N. Refugee Agency report released this week revealed that approximately 822,810 Iraqis are displaced within their own country as a result of escalating sectarian violence, in addition to the more than four million Iraqis who have fled Iraq throughout the war. Hundreds of these refugees once worked for the United States “and have since been targeted by insurgents because of their service.” The New York Times reported yesterday that the situation is particularly dire for female refugees, as “many girls and women in ‘severe need’ turn to prostitution.” As one young Iraqi woman explained, “If they go back to Iraq they’ll be slaughtered, and this is the only work available.” Despite these grim conditions, the Bush administration denied the problem even existed until recently “for political reasons…because of the psychological message it would send, that [Iraq] is a losing cause,” according to Bush’s former assistant secretary of state for refugee affairs. Though the Department of Homeland Security finally announced that it has approved a process to admit as many as 7,000 Iraqis by Sept. 30, last month it admitted only one refugee. This one refugee brought the total for the year to 69, an embarrassingly small amount compared to the approximately 8,000 refugees admitted by Sweden — a nation uninvolved in the invasion of Iraq — in February and March alone. In an effort to expedite and expand the admissions process, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) recently introduced a bill that would “increase by at least 20,000 the number of Iraqi refugees eligible for resettlement in the United States in 2007 and 2008” and “admit 15,000 “special immigrant status” Iraqis and their families for each of the next four years.” Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, hopes the bill will soon gain bipartisan support, as it “addresses the group to which we have a moral obligation.”
The Bush administration is “nearing completion of a long-delayed executive order that will set new rules for interrogations” by the CIA. The order is expected to “ban the harshest techniques used in the past,” including waterboarding, “but to authorize some methods that go beyond those allowed in the military by the Army Field Manual.”
“More than a month after the Office of Special Counsel announced it will establish a task force to mount a government-wide investigation of alleged violations of the law that limits political activity in federal agencies, the group’s formation remains in the preliminary stages.”
“The Taliban has merged its propaganda and field operations with those of the global al Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden,” enabling the Taliban to “develop from a xenophobic, home-grown Islamist movement into a more outward looking force that is helping to advance al Qaeda’s global interests.”
Activists say President Bush’s Darfur sanctions announced yesterday are “too little, too late.” The sanctions “target three people with suspected links to the violence as well as about 30 companies” in Sudan. “Three people? After four years? And not one of them the real ringleader of the policy to divide and destroy Darfur?” asked John Prendergast of the Enough Project.
The New York Times finds that some conservatives in Congress are “struggl[ing] to appease increasingly restless constituents” over Iraq. “I think this is the most expensive, stupidest thing ever done,” one Republican and former “staunch backer” of President Bush now says.
“Even ‘moderate additional’ greenhouse emissions are likely to push Earth past ‘critical tipping points’ with ‘dangerous consequences for the planet,’ according to research conducted by NASA and the Columbia University Earth Institute.”
President Bush scolded opponents of the immigration reform legislation, saying they “haven’t read the bill” and are offering “empty political rhetoric.” Conservatives bristled at his remarks. “I don’t think name-calling does any good at this point,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “No yelling and screaming by the administration is going to change our minds,” said another conservative.
“The United States is better prepared to deal with a major disaster like Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf region in 2005, but still lacks a formal structure for coordinating a national response, the head of the U.S. Coast Guard said on Tuesday.”
And finally: “You go to the club with the yacht you have…” Now that Donald Rumsfeld is no longer Defense Secretary, he has time for his “other hobbies” — skiing, squash, and yachting. He and his wife have joined the Miles River Yacht Club in St. Michaels, MD, which is “considered one of the more exclusive boating clubs on the Eastern Shore.” But the Examiner notes that Rumsfeld will likely do little yachting because his “membership is mainly for socializing.”
The Department of Justice has “posted the initial workings of its foreign lobbyist database online,” which links “to substantial documents, such as contracts between lobbyists and foreign governments as well as advocates’ reports listing contacts between them and policymakers.”
NEW YORK: At $14,119, “New York again leads all other states in school spending per pupil.”
TEXAS: A couple’s court case over custody of frozen embryos could threaten Roe v. Wade.
FLORIDA: Since March 13, only one person has applied for the job of U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida.
THINK PROGRESS: Photos of the planned $592 million U.S. embassy in Iraq.
A TINY REVOLUTION: New book reveals the CIA ordered analysts to cherry-pick intel for Iraq war.
MEDIA MATTERS: “Left Behind: The skewed representation of religion in major news media.”
LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY: The Supreme Court’s decision yesterday in Ledbetter v. Goodyear protects gender discrimination.
“The CIA sources described a list of six ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ instituted in mid-March 2002 and used, they said, on a dozen top al Qaeda targets incarcerated in isolation at secret locations on military bases in regions from Asia to Eastern Europe.”
— ABC News, 11/18/05
“The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn’t-somehow-torture — ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ — is a term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.”
— The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, 5/29/07