Friday, January 16, 2009


Although President George Bush’s demeanor over the past eight years has been less than gracious, and even though his communication has always lacked finesse, his final comments to the press and the public have been alternately conciliatory and defensive. In his farewell press conference he became indignant at suggestions that the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina was too slow. It was the first time he has uttered the word “Katrina” in quite some time, and only to defend the indefensible. In his final address to the nation, two days after the press conference, there was no mention of the mighty triumvirate that will define his legacy: Iraq, 9/11 and Katrina.

Those of us who live on the Gulf Coast, a quadrant of the United States that has been severely disfigured and then dismissed by our government, are unwilling and unable to let Bush off the hook for his administration’s inexcusable inaction since the 2005 hurricanes. Further, it is now up to us to keep hope alive in the Gulf South, since we have become yesterday’s bad news in the nation’s Capital. We who live here see Katrina in present tense, while the rest of the nation has moved on. We always believed that we would be relegated to second-tier status if and when another natural disaster occurred on U.S. soil. What we had no way of predicting was that the next disaster would be economic, rather than natural.

The combination of the worldwide economic crash plus an administration that chose not to do its job has resulted in a slow crawl back to normalcy in our cities. In New Orleans, crime incidents are increasing in both frequency and violence. Joblessness is the rule, rather than the exception. Infrastructure, which was already crumbling pre-Katrina, is now in true crisis. Local government is so fragmented and fatigued that there is talk that the District Attorney’s office may have to declare bankruptcy. No one quite knows what to do with New Orleans now. There are neighborhoods in the lower Ninth Ward that look as though the storm hit yesterday. Cracked, broken roads, abandoned houses and eye level overgrown yards are common. So baffling is our predicament that during last year’s dynamic presidential campaigns, people with names like Clinton, McCain, Palin, Obama and Biden scarcely mentioned New Orleans or Katrina. What should have been a serious campaign issue instead became a subject of deliberate avoidance.

As usual, the numbers tell the true story: There were 9,000 Louisiana families still living in trailers as recently at September 2008, and more than 30,000 residents of Gulf states receiving disaster housing assistance. Five of 23 acute-care hospitals in the New Orleans area remain closed. The city's bus system carries less than a third of its pre-storm passengers. Of 125 pre-Katrina public schools in New Orleans, only 85 remain, and trying to find qualified, dedicated teachers has been an uphill climb. This is my New Orleans. I do not know much about George Bush’s romanticized image of New Orleans. And since many of you respond most acutely to dollars and cents, consider this: The Louisiana Recovery Authority estimates that of the $121 billion in Federal Aid that was approved in the years following Katrina, only $15 billion has been spent on the entire rebuilding effort in Louisiana. The rest was either spent on immediate rescue and recovery, or has not yet “trickled down,” as they say.

Finally, just days before he was to leave the presidency behind, George Bush had this to say in response to a reporter’s question about the federal response to Katrina:
You know, people said, 'Well, the federal response was slow.' Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed."
Response to Bush’s outrageous claim was swift and hot. Watch:

I left New Orleans two days after Katrina. By then, there was really only one way to get out of town, and it included driving down Convention Center Boulevard, which fronts the Morial Convention Center. I had a friend in the car, and we both were shocked to see thousands of people, mostly black, standing and sitting on the massive sidewalks in front of the Convention Center. Since we had no radio, TV or Internet after the storm, we had no idea why these people were gathered at the Convention Center. Now, of course, we all know the story of those citizens, and of the others who were hopelessly trapped at the Louisiana Superdome.

It is demoralizing to hear the President defend the government’s actions in those few days. What he does not tell you is that too many of those who were not rescued from their rooftops were hopefully ensconced in their attics, the highest point they could reach in their homes. Many of their decayed bodies were found months later in house-to-house searches of the most affected areas. What he also does not mention is the number of elderly people who were transported to the steamy-hot Superdome, and who had no food or water or medical supplies, and who sat in the dark, wondering if the cracks they saw in the roof of the dome would mean certain death if the waters rose higher. No mention was made by Bush of the fact that life-saving supplies did not reach one of the nation’s most historic and populated urban areas until fully four days after the storm had passed.

Why, I wonder, did President Bush fail to acknowledge that once the senior citizens were moved from the Superdome, many of them had to spend the night sleeping on luggage carousels in the Armstrong International Airport? Why did the President not leave his Texas ranch until two days after the storm hit? Why did FEMA, under Bush’s watch, not direct the U.S. Department of Transportation to send evacuation buses to New Orleans until 48 hours after the storm hit? Why were essential supplies not pre-positioned for the city of New Orleans when everyone knew of the impending storm for days before it hit?

And what about the stream of broken promises from the Bush administration? On September 15, 2005, George Bush, in powder blue dress shirt, collar open, sleeves rolled up, with St. Louis Cathedral as a backdrop, bathed in lights the same shade of blue as the President’s shirt, delivered his dramatic Katrina speech.

The promises: (1) A Congressional oversight commission, evidently to be something akin to the 9/11 commission. No such body was ever formed. (2) To get citizens out of shelters by October. In the end, thousands lived in shelters through the balance of 2005, and some well into the following year. (3) Bush committed the Department of Homeland Security to examining emergency evacuation plans in every major city in America. If such a nationwide survey was undertaken, the results have never been made public. And there were other promises, including specific citizen relief programs that never saw the light of day.

As long as we’re looking back at the powder blue speech, does anybody remember Bush’s promise of “Worker Recovery Accounts?” This was the deal in which the federal government would provide accounts of up to $5,000, which these evacuees could draw upon for job training and education to help them get a good job, and for child care expenses during their job search. Remember that? No, I didn’t think you would. It was never mentioned again. Ever.

George Bush should be held accountable by the American people for many things, including an unnecessary war, a lack of economic foresight, the exceedingly slow pace of necessary social change during his term, and possible war crimes typified by the treatment and alleged torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. But here in the Gulf South, he will always be remembered as the President of the United States who simply failed to protect hundreds of thousands of tax-paying, law-abiding citizens, and then defended his inexcusable job performance up until the end of his presidency.

While Mr. & Mrs. Bush enjoy the comfort of their palatial new home in Preston Hollow, former New Orleanians are still scattered coast to coast in what were to be their temporary relocations. Many, if not most, will never find their way back to their beloved home town. That is the legacy. That is the truth. No press conferences or nostalgic farewells will erase historical fact.

George Bush failed to honor the oath of his office. He did not preserve, protect and defend the United States Constitution. Amid the fanfare of his departure from the nation’s Capital, let us remember the 4,227 Americans who have died in Iraq, and the 1,464 Americans dead after Katrina. Then let us consider the countless citizens of America and the world who have suffered needlessly because of this president’s incompetence, insensitivity and dedication to a set of wayward principles that have left the United States in disrepair and increasingly powerless.

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