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Hurricane Katrina was the archetypical conservative disaster. New Orleans wasn’t just hit by a hurricane. It was hit by two decades of conservative ideology that treated environmental science like witchcraft, public infrastructure like an optional luxury and federal disaster assistance like “an oversized entitlement program.” Now a great city lies in ruins.
In a May 2001, appearance before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s first FEMA director, stated, "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management." As FEMA was shrunk, the ability to help those in need in the event of a national emergency plummeted. Hurricane Katrina shows what happens when people who disdain government are put in charge. Conservatives dismantled the government agency, hired cronies and abdicated responsibility at every level.
The National Guard did not enter New Orleans until September 2, four days after Katrina’s landfall. FEMA had been so dismantled that it was completely unable to assist those in need.
The rebuilding of New Orleans has been crippled by lack of government leadership. The basic infrastructure of life—schools, buses, hospitals—is not being repaired. Without it, people can’t move back and businesses can’t open.
President Bush said nobody “anticipated the breach of the levees." False. Not only had there been repeated warnings, FEMA had even conducted disaster drills to prepare for what locals called “The Big One.” The Hurricane Pam disaster exercise was a five-day drill based on realistic weather and damage forecasts that eerily predicted the real Hurricane Katrina. But the exercise taught nothing and went nowhere because the higher-ups weren’t listening.
Actions on the ground made disaster more likely. Regulations protecting the wetlands that provide natural defenses for the region had been dismantled. Warnings about global climate change and the increasing frequency of storms have gone unheeded. The Army Corps of Engineers’ budget for levee construction in New Orleans had been slashed. The Emergency Management Chief of Jefferson Parish lamented the loss but accepted it stoically. "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."
Individuals alone cannot build and maintain levees. Individuals do not build their own electric grids and dig their own fresh water. Instead, they pay their share—called a tax— into a collective coffer, and the taxes are used to build and maintain public goods like levees and dams. It’s a collective effort for the common good. It’s why people organize themselves into governments.
On February 15, 2001, Joe Allbaugh, President Bush’s campaign manager, became director of FEMA. Allbaugh had no previous experience running a federal agency and no experience in disaster management.
FEMA was downgraded from a cabinet-level agency with independent authority and buried in the Homeland Security monolith. Allbaugh soon left for lucrative contracts in Iraq, making room at the top for his college friend, Michael Brown, who also had no disaster management experience.
The premier disaster relief agency started to decay. Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran, wrote a letter of alarm to Congress. "FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation's emergency management capability is being eroded," he wrote. "Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors."
Since performance is irrelevant, money is the yardstick for success in conservative government. Legislators who raise money rise to the top. Those who can't, fall farther and farther behind.
HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson put the priorities vividly on display after Katrina. At a Texas small business forum he told a story about denying a HUD contract after the company owner expressed doubts about President Bush. “Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president?” Jackson asked. “So they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? That's the way I believe."
Meanwhile, tax breaks meant to build housing for Katrina victims under the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act of 2005 ended up subsidizing developers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama—a city hundreds of miles inland—to build luxury condos next to to the University of Alabama’s football stadium. The condos featured granite countertops, king-size bathtubs, and legendary Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant-styled wall art.
The bleeding dry of FEMA, and the Katrina contracting process shows how conservatives understand the process: government awards contracts, and contractors use the money to pay back the government. The actual work doesn’t even seem to be a consideration. It’s about politics, not performance.
Immediately after the storm, the American Bus Association offered buses to speed the evacuation, but FEMA had a pre-existing contract with a trucking company run by a major Republican fundraiser. It declined the bus offer and stayed loyal to its supporters, costing five days delay, countless lives, and $400 million of public money.
Huge post-Katrina contracts went to Halliburton and Bechtel corporations.
At the time of the award, Halliburton Corporation had given 91 percent of its PAC donations to Republicans.
At the time of the award, Bechtel Corporation had given 72 percent of its PAC donations to Republicans.
Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s former campaign manager, left his position as FEMA director to become a lobbyist for both corporations.
Six months after landfall, only 18 percent of FEMA contract dollars for reconstruction after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were awarded to companies in the hardest hit states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
It’s now evident that the cronyism begun before the storm continued even as residents baked in the Superdome.
Even reconstruction started with a typically conservative gift to friends in big business. One of President Bush's first official actions was to suspend the Davis-Bacon law requiring federal contractors to pay the prevailing wage—freeing major corporations to exploit people displaced from their homes and desperate for work at any wage.
Six months after Katrina and Rita landfall, only 18 percent of FEMA reconstruction dollars were awarded to companies in the hardest-hit states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The majority of contracts went to companies with no connection to the community but major connections to people in power.
President Bush gave the Presidential Rank Award for Distinguished Executive to Herbert Mitchell, the Small Business Administration’s Associate Administrator for Disaster Assistance—despite notorious troubles distributing loans for reconstruction.
“Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.”
President Bush to FEMA Director Michael Brown in his official statement on hurricane relief September 2, 2005.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, many of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region were already living in a world lacking security.
More than 1 million people, nearly one-fifth of the population affected, were living in poverty before the hurricane.
The conservatives talk a good game about honoring the Bible—but seem to ignore the parts about helping the poor. More than one in four New Orleans residents lived in poverty before Katrina. With a widening income disparity across the country, this was an area where the people already suffered.
Conservative thought militates against programs considered “entitlement” programs, while progressives view the same policies as social safety nets necessary to ensure that all American citizens are cared for in times of need. In a May 2001, appearance before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s first FEMA director, stated, "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management."
As FEMA was shrunk its ability to help those in need in the event of a national emergency fell. Hurricane Katrina shows how insecurity rises as people who disdain government are put in charge. Conservatives dismantled the government agency, hired cronies and abdicated responsibility at every level.
With 24-hour news coverage of the New Orleans Superdome disaster, the dead on the side of the interstate, and the floating bodies in the toxic waters, the inability of the federal government to properly respond was clear. The National Guard did not enter New Orleans until September 2, four days after Katrina’s landfall. Gathering together troops to assist American citizens in need was a big stretch for a military already devoted to two foreign wars.
Meanwhile, many victims were provided with trailers that turned out to be contaminated with carcinogenic formaldehyde. The Washington Post reported, "Concerns about formaldehyde contamination have existed for more than a year, but FEMA was slow to react, and when it did, downplayed the risk."
FEMA has been so far dismantled that it is completely unable to assist those in need in an efficient manner. The New Orleans area continues to struggle; for example only 64 percent of its health care facilities are open. No additional state-licensed hospitals have reopened since October 2006. As the region works toward reconstruction, the poor continue to suffer.
How Conservatism Caused This Failure...
FEMA was a model government agency when the conservatives inherited, but it did not serve their ideology. They turned it into a laughing stock. read more » 
What was the conservative Heritage Foundation's first response to Hurricane Katrina? Convene a working group, led by former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese, to figure out how to use the disaster to advance conservatism's abstract ideological goals. read more » 
Miscast Morality 
The conservative response not only betrayed the most basic injunctions of biblical morality. If patriotism is defined as love of country and willingness to sacrifice for it, it was also downright unpatriotic. read more » 
The first instinct among conservative leaders when Hurricane Katrina made landfall was to reach for militaristic solutions: to "lock down" a traumatized city against a supposed epidemic of violent crime that turned out to be more apparent than real. read more » 
"No one anticipated the breach of the levies," President Bush lied during Hurricane Katrina. In fact, because of failed policies by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the suspension of work to shore up the levees because of revenue shortfalls, the breach was predicted early and often. read more » 
HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson admitted it: “Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president? So they can use funds to try to campaign against the president?" read more