American Enterprise Online | 9.7.05
By Alan W. Dowd

“The American president is closing his eyes to the economic and human costs his land and the world economy are suffering under natural catastrophes like Katrina and because of neglected environmental policies.”

-German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin

“Watching helplessly from afar, many citizens wondered whether rescue operations were hampered because almost one-third of the men and women of the Louisiana National Guard, and an even higher percentage of the Mississippi National Guard, were 7,000 miles away, fighting in Iraq.”

-The New York Times

“A year ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to study how New Orleans could be protected from a catastrophic hurricane, but the Bush administration ordered that the research not be undertaken….federal funding for the flood control project essentially dried up as it was drained into the Iraq war. In 2004, the Bush administration cut funding requested by the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80 percent.”

-Sidney Blumenthal, Spiegel Online

“As in Iraq, the government has chosen to scrimp on the key to effective law enforcement: a big, visible presence on the streets.”

-James Pinkerton, Newsday

In short, President George W. Bush is to blame for the Category Five monster hurricane that swallowed New Orleans and Biloxi and a dozen other American cities last week; he’s to blame for the Biblical flooding that has effectively shrunk the United States and enlarged the Gulf of Mexico; and he’s to blame for the anarchy and looting that followed the storm—a storm some of us stupidly thought was a cruel act of nature.

What else is Bush to blame for? The Tsunami of 2004, which claimed 273,000 lives?

The Iranian earthquake of 1990, which killed 40,000 people? The Influenza Pandemic of 1918, which killed 20 million? The Great Flood, which spared only Noah and his ark?

The purpose here, of course, is not to make light of the enormity that grips our neighbors on the Gulf, but to draw attention to the staggering inanity of what people in responsible positions are thinking and saying. Katrina didn’t just kill people—it killed entire cities. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that we will use the phrase "Old New Orleans" to distinguish between pre- and post-Katrina. Perhaps Mr. Trittin, The Times and the rest don’t grasp this from their far-off perches.

Blumenthal and Trittin all but blame Bush for this catastrophe. But even according to his own words, Blumenthal’s charge doesn’t stand: Does he really believe a study on “how New Orleans could be protected from a catastrophic hurricane” would have prevented this? Does he really think a better flood control plan would have stopped the 25-foot wall of water from pouring into the soup-bowl environs of New Orleans? And even if the Army Corps of Engineers got every dime it wanted to shore up levees that supposedly protected New Orleans’ precarious perimeter, does he really think the project would have been completed in 10 months?

As to Trittin, let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases and fossil fuels (still a dubious and debatable view). Does this official of the German government really believe that Bush’s signature on Kyoto would have stopped Katrina and Ivan and the rest of the killer storms? Does he even know that it was the US Senate—not Bush—who killed this treaty? In 1997, the Senate warned President Clinton not to sign Kyoto and that if he did the treaty was doomed. (Perhaps Mr. Blumenthal could explain how his boss ignored the Senate’s 95-0 warning and initialed the treaty anyway.) Does Trittin know the treaty languished for five years before the EU approved it?

While Trittin and Blumenthal attack Bush’s pre-disaster actions, The Times and Pinkerton attack Bush’s post-disaster response. I wonder what exactly the federal government could have done as Katrina plowed into the Gulf coast. Declare war on it? We know that Bush took the highly unusual step of preemptively declaring a federal disaster area for the region even before the full scope of the damage was known. Some of us recall FEMA officials pleading with New Orleans to evacuate days before the killer storm made landfall.

As the storm churned inland, seemingly dragging the Gulf of Mexico northward in its train, what were FEMA, Homeland Security, DoD and the rest of the feds supposed to do? The critics simply say “more.” But it’s incumbent on the critics to explain what “more” would look like. More trucks to deliver supplies and medicine? More buses to transport victims out of the city? More helicopters to ferry people from the islands New Orleans was reduced to after Katrina? More troops to maintain order?

Until the water receded, there were no roads for trucks. Until the winds subsided, helicopters couldn’t help. And until the water spilled over the levees (more than a day after the storm had roared by), no one thought there was a need for troops. Government could have moved faster, but not much faster.

As to the charge that New Orleans descended into the sea—and then into barbarism— because Bush deployed troops to Iraq, historian Niall Ferguson reminds us of a pesky fact: “More than four-fifths—82 percent—of the Americans on active military duty are based in the United States.” Thousands of them are in and around the disaster zone. And as we have learned in Mogadishu, Pristina, Baghdad, Kandahar and a dozen other lawless places, not even US soldiers can prevent evil people from taking advantage of chaos to do evil things. When society breaks down, someone breaking into a grocery to find food and water for his family is not in the wrong. But some things are always wrong—raping, pillaging, brutalizing the weak. Evil men are responsible for these things.

No matter how hard we try, no matter how powerful we think we are, we cannot control nature and we cannot change the nature of man. But we can control what we say. Just as there is no better way for us to prove we are “The United States of America” than by rallying to the rescue and recovery of the Gulf states, there is no better way to undermine that unity than by playing politics with disasters.