Friday, August 29, 2008

Found in the Boston Globe, of all places.


Campaigning after Katrina

ON AUG. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near the Louisiana-Mississippi border, and it soon became clear what happens when the federal government is impotent or indifferent in time of need. The third anniversary of that storm today - not to mention the advance of Tropical Storm Gustav across the Caribbean Sea this week - offers an apt occasion to consider how the response might have been different under Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain.

In the early days of the Katrina crisis, the Bush administration simply blew it. After Katrina's storm surge broke through the city's levees, most of New Orleans flooded with water - endangering those who couldn't or wouldn't evacuate and overwhelming the capacity of state and local agencies to provide help. It was well known that a major hurricane could cause cataclysmic damage, and yet the Bush administration had failed to mobilize federal emergency workers en masse until after Katrina hit.

The consequences, of course, were horrifying. As bedraggled storm victims trudged aimlessly along elevated expressways, as thousands stood outside the Louisiana Superdome in searing heat, as senior citizens died in their homes for lack of food, water, or medical attention, the White House moved quickly to pin the blame on frantic local Democratic officials - and moved slowly in every other way.

When thousands of evacuees found makeshift shelter at the New Orleans convention center, Michael Brown, the clueless Bush appointee who led the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gave a TV interview in which he appeared to know little, and care less, about their plight.

Chastened by this poor performance and the deluge of criticism it provoked, Bush promised to do whatever was necessary to help bring the disaster area back. But federal aid paled against the vast scale of the disaster - and a disproportionate share of it went to Republican-controlled Mississippi. And the administration was slow to recognize one of the key obstacles to wise redevelopment of flooded-out areas in greater New Orleans: the financial calamity facing tens of thousands of property owners who faced financial ruin because they held mortgages on worthless homes.

Mastery of the details

Both Obama and McCain have promised that, under their leadership, the federal government would have taken a much more active role in preparing for Katrina and dealing with its consequences.

In his homeland security plan, McCain promises to install an experienced disaster-management team; to bring better technology to FEMA (which, unlike companies such as Wal-Mart, couldn't even track of its own assets); and to make sure relief money goes to disaster victims. His plan notes, accurately, that "Congress responded to the tragedy of Katrina with billions of dollars in new spending that had, in many cases, nothing whatever to do with the victims of Katrina."

Significantly, McCain also recognizes that the nation's infrastructure needs to stand up to disasters. He commits to rebuilding the New Orleans levee system to withstand the strongest of hurricanes.

Obama does too. And while the Democratic candidate's position paper on Katrina recovery dwells less on the mechanics of improving federal disaster-relief efforts, it reveals a much more detailed understanding of the Gulf Coast's current needs.

A disaster doesn't end when television cameras leave. Beyond its physical damage, Katrina also disrupted the economic and social stability of the communities in its path. Crime has spiked in New Orleans, promised federal aid has only dribbled out to disaster-stricken areas, transportation systems still need repairing, and the hardest-hit areas are still struggling to bring old businesses back. To address these problems, Obama proposes a cornucopia of initiatives, from a new community-policing program to special tax incentives.

Ideological differences

Despite some overlap, the two candidates' plans reflect significant differences in philosophy and style. Obama's policy team shows a particular concern for low-income disaster victims and an impressive grasp of detail. Recognizing that, for many homeowners, endless tangling with insurers has become one of the bleak realities of post-Katrina life, Obama also proposes an intriguing reserve fund to shore up the market for disaster insurance coverage.

McCain's plan, meanwhile, plays to some Republican fetishes - by promising, for instance, liability protection for companies that take part in disaster-relief efforts. And while Obama dwells on Bush's "broken promises" after Katrina, McCain stresses better emergency-management and treats the Katrina disaster as a failure of basic competence on the part of government.

Bush, the first president with an MBA degree, made noises early on about improving the performance of federal agencies. But key positions, like the FEMA job, have gone to antigovernment hacks - people whose ideological convictions are validated every time the federal government bungles a job. Over the years, McCain has shown a more nuanced view, but he is toeing the line more closely of late, as he seeks to consolidate support on his right.

Ideology has no place here, for most Americans are vulnerable to one kind of disaster or another. And the nation's ability to respond may be tested again soon enough. For days, Gustav has been moving northwest toward the Gulf of Mexico - and is on a path toward the Louisiana coast.

© Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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