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MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
(415)868-1600 - (415)868-0502(fax) - P.O. Box 31, Bolinas, CA, 94924

October, 2005


Bush, Homeland Security and FEMA Bring Chaos To The Big Easy
By Carol Sterritt

"The President has done the obvious, only after it was clear that he couldn't get away with the inexcusable." -John Kerry, Sept. 20th, 2005 re: Bush's Apology to The Nation

During the last week of August and the first week in September, Americans witnessed a vision of apocalyptic weather and a government gone mad. On August 29th at 6:10 AM EDT, Hurricane Katrina rampaged across southern Louisiana and Mississippi. In her aftermath, one day later, the levee protecting New Orleans failed. Those who had survived the 159 mile per hour winds of the hurricane now struggled to stay alive in neighborhoods where most houses were flooded up to their rooflines.
But the largest catastrophe was not the result of the storm's winds or the rising floodwaters. Instead the largest catastrophe was that because most of those needing rescue were the wrong skin color, their help would come only at a snail's pace. The water, food and medicine vital for the survivors simply failed to show up. These supplies, that should have and could have been immediately dispatched by aircraft and dropped to the storm's victims, came far too late for far too many...
Thus, for two weeks Americans watched up to a million people spread along the Gulf Coast, awaiting aid that never came. So many died needlessly after the waiting proved too much. You can last three days to a week without food. But water, especially in the 98 to 110 degree weather of New Orleans, is needed on a constant basis. Meanwhile our nation's rescue and relief response teams were apparently ordered to "stand down."
As those rescue efforts failed to come, the survivors of Hurricane Katrina experienced horror at not being able to prevent the deaths of their children and elderly relatives from the heat and the lack of water. People with illnesses who needed daily drugs also were vulnerable, as no medicine was to be had. Trapped in their attics, other citizens died when no one came for them in time. Those in hospitals and nursing homes also lost their lives due to a lack of food and water, despite the heroic efforts of their caregivers.
Many of those who survived did so by using food and water obtained through their own abilities to "loot" stores and procure the needed items or else by consuming items "looted" by others. A local San Francisco TV station interviewed four affluent city residents who were tourists during Katrina and her aftermath. All admitted that they had survived because they took food and drinks that they didn't pay for. Yet the national media had a field day with the notion that the survivors in New Orleans were all moral misfits.
Meanwhile, vacationing in various spots across the land, George W. Bush had his cake and ate it too. The Federal Budget had ballooned to hideous proportions supposedly to support a war in Iraq. The Budget had also been increased to plan for logistics needed in the times of emergency. Apparently despite the massive funding, this had not been money well spent. So much for the expenditure of billions of dollars to the likes of FEMA and Home- land Security. After Katrina, Bush asked the nation's citizens to dig into their own pockets to provide help for the hurricane victims.
For nowhere during the period of Aug. 8th through Sept. 7th did the agencies most economically empowered to save people accomplish anything at all. Governor Kathleen Blanco, the top state official for Louisiana, had declared various spots inside the state to be disaster areas. By 2005/08/27, a full two days before the hurricane hit, Blanco requested federal assistance from President Bush. (Note: Although this document is dated Aug. 28, it was actually published on Lexis Nexis and delivered to Bush on Sat. Aug. 27. ) Bush then went ahead and declared a state of emergency. However, Bush's disaster declaration mysteriously omitted the Parishes most at risk, including Orleans, Jefferson, and Plaquemines.
These omissions are particularly odd. Gov. Blanco's Disaster Relief Request, to which President Bush was responding, carefully detailed specific requests for those Parishes expected to receive major damage. They included Ascension, Assumption, Jefferson, Lafourche, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. Tammany, Tagipahoa, Terrebone and Washington-all of which are in the southeast corner of the state. A largely African American population inhabits this area.
This is one thing we know for sure, had it been the citizens of Kennebunkport, Maine sprawled out across the rooftops of their homes, or stranded inside their local sports stadium, help would have shown up within twenty-four hours. Although the news media tried to show the impossibility of getting assistance to New Orleans residents by flashing again and again to the scene of US Army trucks slowly dragging along through windshield-deep waters, that picture was misleading. You don't use truck convoys to save people in flooded areas. Our nation knew that on Dec. 28th 2004. Within two days of the tsunami, we began to blanket the afflicted Asian area with air dropped supplies. Certainly the officials in positions of power knew what was needed and how to accomplish their mission of rescue and relief. If the powerful and important had wanted it done, rescue efforts could have been effective and timely as they had been under our previous president, Bill Clinton.
Under Bush, help was not on its way. After all, the faces of most of those trapped in New Orleans were not those of Kennebunkport's high society, or of Pacific Rim Asians. Most of those needing help in New Orleans were black, and usually poor. Or elderly. Or disabled. You can scroll through the plaintive message boards on the web, where evacuated residents plead for those still in New Orleans to give them information on loved ones who are missing. Such messages read like this: "Our cousin Mabel, age 42, developmentally disabled, remained for the duration of the storm. She did so as authorities had told her to 'Stay put.' Now the family has no word from her, and wonders if anyone could possibly get to her home at 1432 Wilton Ct. and help her. Much thanks for your kindness."
The same message boards relate what little facts that the surviving family members have learned. "Uncle was able to 'text' us that he and Auntie survived the storm. But flood waters have forced them to their attic. They hear gunshots in the neighborhood, and now men with backhoes are busting down entire walls of buildings in order to get inside and loot. Please help them!"
As the situation grew more dim, the citizens across the land rallied. But people's best efforts to offer aid to the beleaguered city were rebuffed by FEMA.
A Florida boating group gathered together a flotilla of 500 boats and made their way to New Orleans. There they hoped to become part of the rescue effort. Instead, they were turned back by FEMA.
Amtrak offered its services to help evacuate New Orleans. FEMA spurned Amtrak's offer.
Mayor Daley of Chicago offered to send relief workers, medical personnel, and vehicles to help out. But FEMA allowed Chicago to send one and only one truck.
Firefighters from Virgina who volunteered were basically incarcerated by FEMA and forced to undergo several days of trainings in Atlanta Georgia and then given the assignment of handing out slips of paper with the FEMA phone number and web site info. (These slips of paper would do Katrina survivors little good: most had no cell phones, or lap tops, and if they did, the batteries had long since given out.)
Time and again would-be rescue parties were met at the outskirts of the city and forced to sit and wait until "the situation with regards to security has been stabilized."
Some rescue parties sneaked in and helped anyway, but most were blocked from engaging in any type of meaningful work.
Additionally, FEMA turned away offers of generators, refused to utilize a Navy hospital ship that had 600 beds and did little other than help coordinate the President's PR appearances.
Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard broke down in tears on national television as he described FEMA's criminal activities. "We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in US history.
"We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. FEMA-we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. The Coast Guard said, 'Come get the fuel right away.'
"When we got there with our trucks, they got a word. 'FEMA says don't give you the fuel.' Yesterday-yesterday-FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in, he reconnects the line. He posts armed guards on our line and says, 'No one is getting near these lines.'"
Americans across the nation stayed glued to their TVs to gain information about the city's tragedy. Of all of America's cities, New Orleans is the sassiest and boldest, a fabled temptress noted for her Mardi Gras Carnival and year round gourmet food and fabulous music. With suspense heightened-a city with thirty thousand residents awaiting rescue-would the rescue arrive before it was too late?
For the first time since Bush took office, mainstream reporters offered unabashed truth and harsh criticism about a bad situation caused in large part by the Bush administration.
Even Shepard Smith, usually a Fox News unfair and unbalanced spin meister, stood up to Bill O'Reilly. He demanded that the cameras focus on the desperate faces of those stranded in a ruined city and wracked by thirst, physical weakness, fear, despair and grief.
O'Reilly tried to counter Smith's statements that the people he was interviewing were without hope and without help. But Smith snapped. He began to insistently and almost hysterically plead that O'Reilly understand the truth-that there had been no rescue or assistance, that the people had no water, that the little baby he was holding was in severely bad shape.
Reporters stationed in Biloxi Mississippi were listening to the harsh realities of those in New Orleans. They happened to look across the field from the high school where they were staying to see Air Force personnel doing calisthenics. When they asked why these warm bodies were not part of a rescue effort, they were told point blank "The Air Force cannot use its valuable personnel and assets to participate in cleaning up debris and litter along the coast."
If you are a racist, or have ever been forced to evaluate the statements of a racist, these words have a clear double meaning.
The black communities across America got the message. The tragedy of New Orleans was not just bureaucracy run most foully amuck, or a lack of preparation. Nor was it an overly nonchalant philosophy on how to handle an emergency. It was something far, far worse-the "g" word, GENOCIDE.
A stunned Oprah Winfrey devoted two TV shows to the suffering borne by the mostly black people in N' Orleans. Her face was a study in the contrast of controlled rage, sympathy, compassion, grief and Hollywood star glamour. Here in the Bay area, KRON newsroom's phone lines were jammed by black listeners and viewers who wanted to express their rage. You did not have to be black to feel the rage, despair, and shock of viewing the genocide-by-omission-policies that were in effect.
This reporter called Sen. Kennedy of Massachusetts office in DC to ask the staffer on duty if "genocide" was too harsh a word for what was occurring. That young man's response? "Not too harsh a word. The only word that can really be used. You have to call it what it is."

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