February 26, 2009

Landrieu Gets Angry Over FEMA Report

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 9:47 pm

This just gets better and better. Allow me to pat myself on the back for this observation from the previous blog post:

“[T]hese Congresspeople really didn’t listen to their constituents or care that much about their problems. But when the media does its job, it sure can be a pain in the rear for them, can’t it?”

In the wake of the explosive CBS report on management incompetence and possible corruption in the FEMA office in New Orleans, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) has shown her fire. This is a stunning change over the course of exactly seven days, which is when it became public that the stimulus didn’t do anything for Katrina-ravaged areas and several members of Congress were quoted rather nonchalantly saying that the money was tied up. Now that CBS has revealed the origin of at least part of this tie-up, it looks like things may—be still my heart—actually be done about it. Thank you, Katie Couric and Armen Keteyian.

As that story link shows, Landrieu has made it no secret that her fiery reaction today is owing specifically to the CBS report. She has called for the resignation of the manager named most prominently in that report, who has been accused by employees several dozen times of varied ethical violations, including racial discrimination, cronyism, intimidation, and sexual harassment. I think that, despite how bad it looks (and probably is), the guy is entitled to an impartial investigation. But Landrieu covers that ground too, calling for exactly what I have been calling for on this blog:

Landrieu said she expected Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano do complete a comprehensive review of FEMA leadership, and fire incompetent employees.

See, this is how it needs to be done. FEMA can’t be trusted to investigate itself in an honest manner. No government agency can, because there is the obvious conflict of interest. But the department it is a part of can do that. The Secretary has a personal interest in doing it correctly, in fact; it reflects badly on her for there to be ongoing corruption and malfeasance in such a prominent agency of her department.

I must admit that I am astounded that this kind of storm has erupted so quickly. It is rapid intensification to rival that which actually occurred in the hurricane itself, and it’s stunning to those of us who live in the Gulf region relatively close to the damaged areas and have witnessed little but delays and slow motion for three and a half years. CBS may have been looking into this FEMA office long before the news broke a week ago that there was no Katrina money in the stimulus, but not necessarily; the type of research that is spoken of could have been done relatively quickly. Interviewing employees and looking into complaint records wouldn’t take that long. Even if it was a long-standing project for CBS, the timeline of all this is amazing.

A few more stories like this, and I might even drop of some my Katrina-related cynicism.

February 25, 2009

CBS Investigates Katrina Money Bog-Down

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 6:55 pm

CBS has a long history of tackling controversial news stories. They seem to regard themselves as an investigative outlet, something that cable news sources (which seem to specialize in stenography, propaganda, and vacuous entertainment) don’t quite get. Evidently the recent news that the stimulus bill does not include money specifically earmarked for Katrina recovery got their attention, as did the (in my opinion) ridiculous and unacceptable explanation that this money was tied up in bureaucracy. Props to them for that. Tonight they ran a story about the particulars of that bureaucratic tie-up. It’s about as ugly as anyone could imagine, including me—and that should say something.

A major part of the problem, as might be predicted, lies in the FEMA office in New Orleans. It has apparently been going on ever since the hurricane, and (again, as might be expected), the George W. Bush administration never saw fit to do anything about it, nor did the Democratic Congress see fit to call for investigations into it. If CBS’s discoveries are to be believed, what is going on is a form of disaster profiteering—in this case, an upper-level manager with a six-figure salary who wants to keep that cushy job for as long as possible and who is taking actions to lock up the recovery process to accomplish that. Almost $4 billion of the New Orleans money that this man was in charge of is still tied up, and in the meantime, the infrastructure decays and turns into a skeleton. His employees allege that he is stonewalling on purpose because he wants to keep looting the federal government for his plush salary, and apparently he has assumed (correctly, so far) that he can get away with it because no one really cares about New Orleans except for New Orleanians and a few others.

This man, Doug Whitmer, was a Bush-era choice. They had a real knack for picking people who existed in their jobs to warm seats and cover for each other when something actually happened, but Whitmer is likely even worse than a mere self-centered lump. You usually don’t get dozens of staff complaints against you over the course of two months unless you are either a very draconian manager but nonetheless very effective at your job, or you actually are the creep that the complaints allege you to be. Considering the outrageous, reprehensible three-plus-year bog-down of the Katrina money, I’d say that the former is probably ruled out. Whitmer has been accused of threatening, bullying, intimidation, racism on the job, and sexual harassment by FEMA-New Orleans employees who work for him. I guess he has “better” ways to spend his time than actually, you know, doing his job.

Naturally, his Washington boss defends him, says that “[he] has lived in New Orleans” (as if that has anything to do with it—plenty of people have lived in New Orleans and not all of them are interested in the well-being of the area), and curtly informs the CBS reporter that if there are problems in the New Orleans office, actions will be taken. Yeah, that sure convinces me. FEMA officials are well-known for the sterling quality of their promises. If positive actions were on FEMA’s agenda, you’d think something might have been done already. The hurricane was three and a half years ago.

But it is not just high-level federal bureaucrats who are to blame for this. The very Congresspeople who, last week, proclaimed to the news media that the reason the Gulf Coast got nothing for recovery was that the existing funds were just “tied up in planning,” must have received some notice of the true situation. I used to work for a U.S. Senator, and the offices constantly get mail from constituents. This little fiasco is more evidence to support my earlier suspicion, which was that most of these Congresspeople really didn’t listen to their constituents or care that much about their problems. But when the media does its job, it sure can be a pain in the rear for them, can’t it?

Since this office is designated “FEMA,” it should be under federal jurisdiction, specifically that of the Department of Homeland Security. This monstrous Big Brother bureaucracy has been widely criticized since its creation, and rightly so. Former Secretary Chertoff should’ve been “asked to resign” (read: fired) in the wake of Katrina, because although former FEMA chief Michael Brown was certainly incompetent, part of the problem was that Chertoff had not authorized FEMA to do all that it needed to do. Now that a new administration is in place, I hope that they will overhaul the chain of command for this bloatfest of a division. I also hope that Secretary Napolitano launches a departmental investigation into these allegations coming out of New Orleans, because if she has the authority to do so and fails to do it, the blood of 2005 (and, unfortunately, some year in the future) is on her hands as well as those of her predecessor. Her boss, the President, seems interested in the Gulf Coast, in contrast to just about everyone else in Washington. Any reforms of the Katrina recovery process will almost certainly need to come directly from the White House.

Update 2:20 A.M.: The Scurrying for Cover Begins!
Looks like some folks got wind of what would be on the news today. This adds an extra layer of meaning to my comment earlier that when the media does its job, Congress tends to act—but that it often takes such things to get lawmakers off their duffs. Some members of Congress are going after FEMA-New Orleans for that office’s incompetence and possible corruption. There’s also talk about an internal investigation in FEMA of this particular office, which is (I suppose) a start, but not a good one—and one that I do not think should be conducted, because it will be a waste of taxpayer money. I still think this will require an independent investigation of FEMA, because agencies in general are notorious for being unable to investigate themselves honestly. Joe Lieberman, chair of the Homeland Security Committee, has said in the last session of Congress that he wouldn’t do such a thing. Again, most likely this will have to be spearheaded by the executive branch, either Obama or Napolitano. But it needs to be done and it needs to be done right. That means independently.

Now if only they would turn their eyes to the Mississippi coast’s “recovery” as well, and consider that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to let insurance companies deny claims to homeowners who had paid in and lost everything they owned in the hurricane. These (ex-)residents were, if they didn’t have money saved elsewhere, then forced to sell their land to Big Industry in order to walk away with something, anything, with which they could start over.

Guess you have to start somewhere, though. We’ll see.

July 18, 2006

The Faith-Based Recovery on the Hurricane Coast, Part VI

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 5:31 pm

Part VI: A dire situation

Somehow, emergency management for the Coast—America’s “Hurricane Coast,” incorporating the Atlantic and Gulf—has missed the boat, and badly. As of mid-July 2006, thousands of hurricane victims along the totally devastated Gulf Coast are living in various unsafe forms of housing: damaged homes, FEMA trailers, tents, RVs, etc. If the Katrina and Rita evacuations were a nightmare and, arguably, a failure, one does not really want to consider evacuating thousands of displaced and basically homeless people during a 2006 Gulf of Mexico hurricane—which will almost certainly occur once again. This is much more than ignoring the small businesses and residents of the coastline in favor of big industries, although that has been going on as well. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
Hurricane Katrina formed east of Florida in the Bahamas, entered the Gulf of Mexico, and exploded in both size and intensity. Katrina was a product of the Gulf Stream Current and Gulf of Mexico, which have been—along with the Caribbean Sea—considerably warmer in April and May 2006 than they were in April and May 2005. They were actually below average for April and May in 2005, but in spite of that, heated to temperatures that could support three of the six strongest Category Five hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic. With summer fast approaching, these waters will not cool off anytime soon. Most of the Atlantic Basin is warm enough to support a major hurricane, and wind steering patterns are thought to place the entire Atlantic and Gulf Coast in danger this year.

Hurricane season is upon us, with the strong possibility of a repeat of the past two years. Along the coastline from east Texas to the Atlantic coast of Florida, there are few communities that have not been impacted by one hurricane or another since August 2004. Some areas have been struck repeatedly, such as the central Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Pensacola, Florida (struck by four hurricanes since 2004), and the southern half of the Florida peninsula (struck five times with an additional close shave from Hurricane Rita). That’s a lot of damaged or destroyed homes. That’s a lot of people in unsafe housing, unable to obtain a safe place because their insurance—if they had any in the first place—has denied their claim or stalled paying, and the government is more interested in helping multibillion-dollar industries get “back on their feet.” America’s Hurricane Coast cannot afford a faith-based recovery.

July 12, 2006

The Faith-Based Recovery on the Hurricane Coast, Parts IV and V

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 8:25 pm

Part IV: A Warning Shot in 2003?

Victims of Hurricane Isabel, a large storm that struck the East Coast in September 2003 as a Category Two, had been neglected and given short shrift by the insurance industry, and had not been compensated for damages a full year after that storm made landfall. Fortunately, that part of the coastline has not received a blow of comparable intensity since then. However, had such a thing happened, their damaged houses would have been much less stable in a subsequent storm, especially if they had experienced significant roof damage. Once breached, a roof is significantly less structurally sound against winds—which have a way, once they reach hurricane strength, of finding gaps and entering the house through the spaces. A strong wind to a damaged roof could easily tear it off the walls, and when it came time to assess damages, the insurance would have records to indicate that the roof was already damaged, and could use that as justification for denying claims. Clearly, the housing problem for hurricane victims after the storm is not easily solved by simply putting something over their heads.

Hurricane Isabel was the first hurricane to significantly impact the United States since Hurricane Floyd in 1999. (Hurricane Lili struck a relatively uninhabited part of Louisiana in 2002 as a Category Two, but it did less than $1 billion in damage and was a small storm that was weakening rapidly even as it made landfall.) One could say, then, that Isabel was the Bush Administration’s first significant test for hurricane recovery. Obviously it didn’t do so hot, especially for an administration whose byline and claim to fame was how well it supposedly was able to handle disasters.

Part V: Fiasco in Florida

The Administration continued to fall down with the 2004 season. Although this did not receive very much press, the state of Florida, which got battered repeatedly in 2004, received the “ignore” treatment as well for its recovery. The president and his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, were more than willing to photo-op with victims for campaign purposes, but when it came to doing much to help, they failed badly. As of October 2005, victims of Hurricane Charley—a small hurricane that struck the Florida Gulf Coast on August 13, 2004—were still living in FEMA temporary housing, although that hurricane was very small and did only localized damage (as compared with a large storm such as Katrina). It does not take fourteen months to build a house, but Charley victims were still living in trailers after that long.
One woman was quoted in the news as being concerned that her FEMA trailer would not stand up to Hurricane Wilma, which was threatening the Florida coast at the time. She had good reason to worry: Mobile homes are considered unsafe during thunderstorm winds of 50-60 mph. They have been known to flip and literally fly to pieces during strong thunderstorms, which is why they are so frequently death traps in hurricanes and tornadoes. Weather forecasters actually advise mobile home residents to abandon them and lie in a ditch if they are in the path of a tornado; that is how unsafe they are. Hurricane Wilma ended up making landfall well south of Charley’s impact point, but it struck Florida as a Category Three hurricane with 120 mph winds and exited on the east side of the state as a Category Two with approximately 100 mph winds. The trailers would not have stood up.

Florida’s southern coast is wealthier than the parts of Louisiana and Mississippi that were damaged by Katrina and Rita, which is an obvious advantage. Also, Wilma moved across Florida very rapidly and was primarily a windstorm, rather than Rita and Katrina, which did most of their damage with massive amounts of water. However, even without these complications, reports from after the storm indicated that emergency management was mishandling the cleanup. As an example, storm victims reported being denied access to clean bottled water because the officials “guarding” the water had not been given official permission to dispense it… after 24 hours of sitting there. Although it received much less coverage than the Katrina aftermath, Florida apparently received similar treatment to the central Gulf Coast.

A cursory search of weather-enthusiast Floridians’ personal websites uncovers that many victims of Hurricane Wilma (and some whose homes were damaged in the 2004 Florida hurricanes), like their counterparts in Louisiana and Mississippi, still have not received payment for damages to their homes. They have what they call “blue roofs,” referring to wind-damaged roofs covered with blue plastic tarps. Roofs that, were another strong hurricane to strike, would be much more vulnerable than before to wind, because they had been breached and the holes not patched.

Part VI: A Dire Situation: What might 2006 hold?

July 10, 2006

The Faith-Based Recovery on the Hurricane Coast, Parts II and III

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 6:27 pm

Part II: "Nothing Left" — A Volunteer’s Perspective

During Spring Break 2006, thousands of college students went to the Gulf Coast to help with recovery of communities and small businesses. Church groups and charitable organizations have been sending groups of volunteers since last September. One volunteer, “Jake,” who went to the devastated town of Waveland, Mississippi, says the following:

It’s only church and private groups there [in Waveland] now. No FEMA, no federal government workers to speak of. They’ve left. The entire population of this county [Lauderdale County, MS, which has a population of approximately 100,000] could go down there to work and it’d still take months. These people are living in tents and FEMA trailers. They have nothing and feel abandoned by their government.

Jake’s account is typical of volunteers who see the devastation, and apparently his statement that the hurricane victims feel abandoned is true as well. This is far from the first time that they have expressed that emotion. Along the destroyed coast, there is a feeling of being overwhelmed, of being ignored and left to pick up their lives and communities. No doubt this is an example of the Bush Administration’s “faith-based services” that Bush promoted in his campaign in 2000. Private charity is a great thing, of course, but in a situation like this, leaving a completely devastated community to its own devices only results in a “faith-based recovery,” in a wholly different sense of the term “faith.” A sense that actually means something like “wishful thinking” or “fool’s hope.” That is not good enough. The hurricane relief and recovery problem is tremendous in scale, much bigger than people realize until they see it firsthand, and it will need more than can be provided by the resources of private altruistic groups.

Meanwhile, “big industry” gets the aid packages.

Part III: The Priority List

It is noteworthy that within days after Katrina struck, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour pushed for, and got, legislation allowing the gambling casinos to move inland, whereas before, they had been required by law to anchor themselves offshore. The casinos bring in billions in tourist revenue, and that tourist revenue was his priority.
At the same time that Barbour was pushing to legalize onshore gambling, the insurance companies (with the exception of one, Farm Bureau of Mississippi, which later filed for bankruptcy when other divisions of the company did not pool money to help out the MS division) decided that they didn’t want to pay off the coastal homeowners and refused to pay anyone who did not have a flood insurance package. These homeowners had been sold something the companies billed as “hurricane insurance” and believed that they were covered. The state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the companies on behalf of the victims, but as of the end of 2005, it was still in court. Initially, Katrina damages were estimated at well over $100 billion, with about half of it insured (a ratio that is typical for hurricanes). However, late last autumn, the insurance industry reported a comparatively paltry $37 billion in insured damage, which would mean $75 billion total for the storm if the insured-to-total-damage ratio held. This disparity was not simply initial overestimation. Total damages certainly must exceed $100 billion, considering how many communities have been completely washed out to sea, but insurance companies seem not to want to pay for more than about a third of that.

Curiously, the media seemed to ignore or remain in the dark about the situation in Mississippi and rural Louisiana, all the while condemning Louisiana state officials for the failures in New Orleans. In October 2005, history professor Robert McElvaine of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, wrote an editorial about the “Mississippi Myth” that the mishaps were strictly Louisiana-based and that it had been handled better in Mississippi. However, since then, there has been very little acknowledgment of the situation on the coastal areas of Mississippi and southern Louisiana that were literally “wiped off the map” by Katrina’s storm surge.

In New Orleans, on the other hand, entire neighborhoods were abandoned during the pre- and post-storm evacuation. These neighborhoods, which are almost exclusively poor or lower middle class, remain unoccupied, the homeowners unable to return, while their houses slowly disintegrate. The evacuees, meanwhile, remain in other parts of the country. Many of them did not have their houses insured, and, of course, many of those that did have insurance have not received any payments. No one at the scene seems to care, which recalls the class and race distinctions in the recovery from the 1928 Florida hurricane.

The abandonment of large parts of New Orleans is utterly shameful and is indicative of a pattern—and a looming problem. The 2006 hurricane season officially began on June 1, and already there has been one storm strike the Gulf Coast that nearly reached hurricane status, but thousands of people remain on the storm-battered coast in thoroughly unsafe and substandard housing—as accounts such as Jake’s would indicate. This is a major part of why the hurricane recovery is such a massive, enormous problem.

Volunteers to the Coast describe the devastated towns between New Orleans and Biloxi, MS as having “Third-World” conditions. A quick search on the Internet for Hurricane Katrina damage photographs proves this description to be quite apt. This strip of coastline, encompassing numerous small towns in Louisiana and Mississippi, is where the worst part of Katrina’s eyewall passed. It is where entire neighborhoods have been obliterated. –And it is the location that the private volunteers reveal has been most shamefully neglected in the recovery.

Given what we know about Governor Barbour’s push for onshore gambling, and given that the surrounding metropolitan areas are on the road to recovery in places, it’s not too much of a stretch to guess that this part of the Coast has been, as the residents say, abandoned by the government because of the comparative lack of wealth and economic (read: tourism) revenue it has brought to the region. Of course, the tourist money can’t be forgotten, and no one would suggest that the revenue-generating large businesses should be abandoned. However, they—by their very nature—have more resources and are better equipped than the private residents and small businesses on the Coast. Simply put, the “regular people” need the shot in the arm more, and instead they are getting the metaphorical back of their government’s hand.

What makes it especially disgraceful is that this is not unique to Hurricane Katrina. Leaving coastal communities to fend for themselves has been a pattern ever since 2003, when this administration first really had to deal with hurricanes.

Part IV: A Warning Shot in 2003? How Hurricane Isabel of 2003 was just the beginning.
Part V: Fiasco in Florida: What about the victims of the other hurricanes?
Part VI: A Dire Situation: What might 2006 hold?

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