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The Katrina Blues

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More than six months after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, it's clear that the Bush Administration has, once again, failed America. It's apparent that history will describe this as an epoch tragedy, perhaps borrowing phrases from Memphis Minnie's classic blues song, set in the same region,

If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break,
And all these people have no place to stay.

When Hurricane Katrina headed for the Gulf Coast on August 29, many predicted that it would have devastating consequences. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see that if a category-5 hurricane came close to New Orleans, it would do terrible damage. The surprise was not that there was flooding, but how truly dreadful the response was. After all, we'd been attacked on September 11, 2001, and the Bush Administration, and Congress, had spent a lot of time and money studying how better to respond to another disaster, whatever the cause.

Unfortunately, most of the problems that were evident after 9/11 were repeated in the aftermath of Katrina. Now that there's been a congressional investigation and a GAO analysis of what happened, we can see that there were three stages at which the Bush Administration failed the Gulf Coast and America.

In the 36 hours that transpired before the New Orleans levees broke, the White House decision-making was ineffective. From the video of the discussion that involved Bush, Michael Chertoff, Michael Brown, and others, it's clear that the President was warned that a catastrophe was about to happen. Nonetheless, he took a remarkably passive role in mobilizing resources. Dubya was not a leader.

If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break,
And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay.

As bad as the preparation was, if the Federal government had gotten its act together after August 30, and rushed resources to the Gulf Coast, then the immediate aftermath wouldn't have been so terrible. However, the GAO report indicates, "No one from the federal government was clearly in charge of the response to Hurricane Katrina." "Government entities did not act decisively or quickly enough to determine the catastrophic nature of the incident." The Feds didn't have an effective disaster plan and they didn't have the right leadership to execute the plan they had. Then the Bush Administration panicked and threw money at the problem. They forgot a lesson they should have learned from the early days of the occupation in Iraq: it doesn't make any difference how much money you throw at the problem, if the political appointees who are handing out cash, don't know what to do with it.

Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Thinkin' 'bout my baby and my happy home.

On September 15th, President Bush spoke to the nation from New Orleans. "Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives." Then Dubya lost interest and recovery funding bogged down in Congress. The current status is pretty much what you'd expect from the Bush Administration and its congressional lackeys: the rich have gotten richer, and the poor have gotten poorer. Those with political influence have gotten Federal bucks; those that don't, like the poor, black residents of New Orleans, have been stiffed.

If you study George W. Bush's Presidency, you'll notice a consistent pattern: he makes grandiose promises - leave no child behind, turn Iraq into a model democracy""and then walks away from them. It's not clear whether Dubya means well and just doesn't know how to get his Administration to do what he intends or whether, as many suggest, he's a hypocrite who never means what he says in his speeches. It doesn't really matter whether the President is incompetent or a habitual liar, because the consequences are the same: big problems never get attended to.

It's a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
Gonna leave my baby, and my happy home.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst disasters to ever strike the United States. It killed 1307 people and caused more than $150 billion in damage to an area the size of Great Britain. In the aftermath of such an enormous calamity, helping folks to rebuild their homes and businesses and repairing the damaged infrastructure requires focus. It means that someone, high up in the Bush Administration, needs to take responsibility to make things happen on the Gulf Coast. This is unlikely to happen given that the White House has lost interest, and the GOP-controlled Congress has other priorities. This is a tragedy for New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast, because it's an indication that a lot of people who were forced to leave their homes won't be able to return. And that major repairs to the wetlands and the levees probably won't get done.

If there were not bad enough, the Bush Administration's failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina has a more ominous meaning for America. It demonstrates that President Bush is not a leader. It shows that he has no capacity for dealing with the really big problems that confront our country, such as preparing for the consequences of global warming, and providing real national security. The hard lesson to be learned from Hurricane Katrina is that when the President of the United States is incapable of making the hard decisions required to fix big problems, then every American loses.

Oh cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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