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National NOW Times >> Fall 2006 >> Article

Viewpoint: Make Levees, Not War

By Kim Gandy

"Make Levees, Not War" was one of many Katrina-related t-shirts that were still in abundance when I last visited my beloved New Orleans in mid-August.

Now we are in the midst of hurricane season, and we are still making war—but the levees aren't even close to being ready for another storm the magnitude of Katrina. And the residents who were driven out by the storm, and blocked from returning by government inaction (and outright resistance) are still scattered to the four winds.

Driving past miles and miles of abandoned homes, the scene of devastation looked virtually unchanged since my first post-Katrina trip in November, when we marched across the Gretna bridge that had been notoriously blocked to New Orleanians fleeing Katrina.

What happened to the promises? Where did all the billions go?

Pardon my cynicism, but has it occurred to anyone that Bush's "mismanagement" of the situation in New Orleans, both before and after Katrina, actually accomplished longstanding political goals while benefiting his political allies?

Before you decide that I've lost my mind, or have become too cynical for words, hear me out.

According to a New Orleans' Times-Picayune newspaper report in June 2004, Walter Maestri, the head of emergency management in the New Orleans suburbs explained cuts in the levee completion budget: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case [to the administration] that this is a security issue for us."

The Bush administration's neglect of the levee system (including those drastic cuts in the levee rebuilding budget every year since 2001—but for which there might never have been such a disaster), and their helter-skelter awarding of massive (and massively mismanaged) no-bid contracts to political friends, gave the Bush administration a "three-fer."

It let them:

(1) Use government resources to direct cash to right wing groups like Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing, which was one of the top three groups listed for cash donations on the Federal Emergency Management Agency website in the immediate aftermath—enriching that organization immeasurably, but with guarantee that a penny of the funds went to Katrina survivors, and

(2) give billions upon billions of tax dollars to their conservative corporate allies (and Republican donors) like Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater, without adequate oversight to prevent waste and fraud, and despite assertions of wrongdoing in connection with other government contracts;

(3) use those same billions of dollars of expenditures as an excuse to demand dramatic cuts to the federal budget—proposing to completely cut 175 federal programs and countless human needs (newsflash: they'd been looking to get rid of those programs anyway);

And as a bonus, or lagniappe as we say in New Orleans, it let them give the Republican party the likelihood of another governorship, another U.S. Senate seat, and perhaps another House seat—by making it virtually impossible for most of the African-American residents to return to the area, thereby locking in the demographic shift in the traditionally-Democratic New Orleans population.

I know "eptitude" isn't a word, but you can't really call it ineptitude when it gets you what you want, right?

The war profiteers have also become disaster profiteers, and Gulf Coast residents are preyed upon daily.

Contractors are raking in billions, and pocketing a fortune. The reported difference between the actual price for doing a job and the amount billed to taxpayers was as high as 1700 percent, according to The Washington Post. While in-state businesses in need of work (but without the right political connections) have received a paltry 13% of the lucrative rebuilding contracts.

And guess which contractors are at the top—pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, while the work on the ground is done shoddily or not at all? You got it, the same politically-connected ones who engaged in questionable practices on jobs they were hired to do in Iraq.

After a year of complaints that numerous insurance companies were refusing to pay valid claims, there are news reports of insider allegations that State Farm Insurance hid evidence of covered wind damage in order to decline claims, saying instead that the damage was caused primarily by water, a non-covered risk.

Residents who desperately want to return are prevented by limited housing and spiraling prices. Even the public housing projects, which were essentially undamaged, have been boarded up and the longtime residents prohibited from returning to their apartments, because city leaders want to tear the buildings down. Maybe so they can build that "Trump Tower" they've been touting.

For those of us who promised a year ago that we would not forget New Orleans, and that we would not let others forget—it's time to renew that promise. We cannot let the disaster profiteers and their government sponsors destroy the legacy of a diverse people and a beautiful culture.

Together we can and must demand the rebuilding of ALL of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, until we can again laissez les bons temps rouler.

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