New Orleans Storm Relief: The Prequel

The disgracefully inadequate federal response to Hurricane Katrina is not the first time New Orleans’ requests for help have received a less-than-adequate response. In addition to the Bush administration’s opposition last month to funding coastline restoration, the administration also dragged its feet responding to the last storm to hit the area.

Tropical Storm Cindy hit the city in early July, causing $5.4 million of damage, but the city did not receive a disaster declaration until August 24. In an August 23 article, the New Orleans Times-Picayune said:

[A]s of Monday, almost one month after [Louisiana Governor Kathleen] Blanco’s request, no declaration has been issued, and no one seems to know why, including Arthur Jones, Blanco’s liaison with FEMA.

“I’ve been in this business for many years, and I’ve never seen a situation quite like this,” said Jones, disaster recovery division chief for the state Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

“We’ve done everything.”

Ditto for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who wrote President Bush on July 29, encouraging him to grant Blanco’s request for a declaration.

Landrieu Communications Director Adam Sharp said FEMA officials in Washington said Monday that the request was still under review, but they offered no timeline for action.

Landrieu’s letter was quoted in a later article:

My concern is that there appears to be a lack of attention being given to this matter compared to the quick responses which you have given to Louisiana’s requests in previous disaster situations.

As far as why the city was so unprepared, it’s worth reading the Times-Picayune’s Pulitzer-winning series on hurricane preparedness, or the lack thereof. The series warns,

Once it’s certain a major storm is about to hit, evacuation offers the best chance for survival. But for those who wait, getting out will become nearly impossible as the few routes out of town grow hopelessly clogged. And 100,000 people without transportation will be especially threatened.

The series also includes an interesting and balanced examination of the Army Corps of Engineers’ role and describes the $14 billion project that might have prevented some of the disaster. That article notes that Louisiana was hoping for results similar to that of Florida, which got $8 billion in 2000 to restore fresh-water flow in the Everglades. But, the article says, “Florida had several key advantages in the political arena, including 12 million more people and 16 more electoral votes in presidential elections than Louisiana.” Not to speak of a governor who’s not only a Republican but the President’s brother.

Ironically, Louisiana officials considered that the state’s role in the energy industry might help their case. “If the nation continues to rely on Louisiana as the place for so much of the nation’s energy requirements, the nation can’t forsake our coastline at the same time,” said then-Congressman Billy Tauzin. In 2001, Congress rejected a plan by Senator Landrieu to divide offshore oil revenue among states directly affected by offshore production for coastal-restoration projects.

More than a year ago, a New Orleans insurance executive and coastline-restoration supporter named Woody Crews wrote a letter to the Times-Picayune. He asked,

What have we done to deserve such persistent indifference from the politicians of our nation? Money has been poured into restoring Chesapeake Bay. Money is being poured into Florida’s Everglades. Now it’s our turn. …

It is common knowledge that our once-magnificent coastline also serves as a storm buffer. As our remaining coast continues to disappear, it is more likely that a storm of even moderate strength will become catastrophic in its impact.

God forbid a slow-moving Category 3 hurricane stall above South Louisiana. Aside from the billions of dollars in damage, a quarter million of those who now clamor for coastal restoration may be silenced. I have little doubt that we will then be heard.

Perhaps not even then.

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