The Republic of T.

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Katrina: Conservatism’s Catastrophic Success

It’s been a long time since I blogged about Katrina or it’s aftermath. But I was reminded of it by the steady stream of Katrina-related headlines I’ve been reading lately. You know, the steady drumbeat of actual news that barely breaks through the din surrounding stories of missing white women, or pregnant one’s for that matter.

They may get drowned out, or passed over as news readers turn the page or click the next, more interesting link, but if you put them together, stand back and take a good look, you can’t help but get the big picture. It’s not pretty, but I think the picture is one of conservatism’s finest hour, depending on how you look at it.

When Bush described Iraq as a “catastrophic success,” William Saletan defined the term; “If it gets worse, we must be winning.” When you apply the same notion to domestic disasters like Katrina, the definition might be more like, “If things get worse, the policies are working.” The worse it gets, the bigger a success it is for conservative philosophy. It’s just that the rest of us don’t, and can’t, see it that way.

The whole idea occurred to me this morning, when I read that high level FEMA officials actually delayed the release of Katrina aid.

A week after Hurricane Katrina, a FEMA official in charge of streamlining the flow of disaster aid issued a directive that would have cut through the red tape and expedited a staggering 1,029 rebuilding projects and $5.3 billion.

The official issued a memo that said that once local and regional FEMA officials approve a project, Washington must release the money within three days.

But in a decision critics say led to the loss of precious time in New Orleans’ recovery, FEMA higher-ups countermanded the order.

Instead, the rebuilding of schools, roads, hospitals, firehouses and other desperately needed infrastructure was held up for months of interagency reviews that ended at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Gil Jamieson, FEMA’s head of Gulf Coast recovery and one of the officials who countermanded the directive of Nancy Ward, said her order would have given federal agencies too little time to review requests for funding.

“There’s certainly a responsibility that we have, and I have, as a civil service official, to ensure those dollars are going to the purposes they were intended,” he said.

Yeah, but then they turned around and did just the opposite. The article goes on to say that although FEMA added “layers of review,” “not a single rebuilding project was amended, declared ineligible or kicked back for further scrutiny.” Some them should have been, because the result was $2 billion in aid lost to fraudulent claims.

Among the many superlatives associated with Hurricane Katrina can now be added this one: it produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion.

A hotel owner in Sugar Land, Tex., has been charged with submitting $232,000 in bills for phantom victims. And roughly 1,100 prison inmates across the Gulf Coast apparently collected more than $10 million in rental and disaster-relief assistance.

There are the bureaucrats who ordered nearly half a billion dollars worth of mobile homes that are still empty, and renovations for a shelter at a former Alabama Army base that cost about $416,000 per evacuee.

And there is the Illinois woman who tried to collect federal benefits by claiming she watched her two daughters drown in the rising New Orleans waters. In fact, prosecutors say, the children did not exist.

The tally of ignoble acts linked to Hurricane Katrina, pulled together by The New York Times from government audits, criminal prosecutions and Congressional investigations, could rise because the inquiries are under way. Even in Washington, a city accustomed to government bloat, the numbers are generating amazement.

…The estimate of up to $2 billion in fraud and waste represents nearly 11 percent of the $19 billion spent by FEMA on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as of mid-June, or about 6 percent of total money that has been obligated.

And still more money, around $30 million in aid, went to waste too.

Meanwhile, this news is coming to light at a time when many survivors—most of them black and many of them poor&mash;have settled into a post-Katrina diaspora that has not only altered their lives but also changed, perhaps forever, the hue of the city. It comes at a time when many other Katrina survivors face homelessness due to rental shortages, after being evicted by FEMA (no doubt, some from formaldehyde-laden trailers).

Inside trailer No. 27 here at the A. L. Davis Playground, where the government set up a camp last year for displaced residents of Hurricane Katrina, Tracy Bernard’s meager possessions are all packed up, even though she has nowhere to go.

About a month ago, workers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency swept through her trailer park, a bleak tableau of housing of the last resort, taping eviction notices on the flimsy aluminum doors. Thousands of other trailer residents across Louisiana were informed by FEMA last week that they too would be evicted in the next six months.

But few of them will be able to return to the city from which they were flooded out 27 months ago.

More than two years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is suffering from an acute shortage of housing that has nearly doubled the cost of rental units in the city, threatening the recovery of the region and the well-being of many residents who decided to return against the odds. Before the storm, more than half of the city’s population rented housing. Yet official attention to help revive the shattered rental home and apartment market has been scant.

In some core middle- and lower-income areas, blighted dwellings stretch for blocks on end, and the city has been slow to come up with ideas for what to do with those that have been abandoned. Last week, the city housing authority approved the demolition of 4,000 public housing units at five projects damaged by the storm. In their place, the authority plans to build mixed-income projects, large parts of which will not be affordable to previous residents

And so, with many Katrina survivors facing homelessness in a city that apparently no longer has a place for them and no longer intends to, the federal government—with the blessing of the city council—will demolish remaining low-income housing in New Orleans. And most of them will not be replaced.

At a moment when the shortage of low-income housing in the city is causing significant hardship, the federal government is beginning this week to tear down thousands of apartments in the city’s four biggest public housing projects.

…Though local and federal housing officials say the storm-damaged projects were inhuman places to live and should not be rebuilt, some protesters accused the government of a darker motive behind the demolition plan. They contended that the government’s real aim was to keep the poor, mostly female, almost entirely black residents of public housing from returning to their city, to their homes.

“They don’t want this city to be for the poor, working-class people,” said Sharon Sears Jasper, a former public housing resident who says she is now living in a “slum house.” Government policies favor the wealthy and tourists, she continued after the demonstration. “Everyone else, kick them to the curb.”

…Lawyers for former residents continued to ask the courts to stop the plan, by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, to demolish buildings containing 4,500 units, about 3,000 of which were occupied before Hurricane Katrina.

The government said private developers would replace them with about 3,300 subsidized housing units in developments that will also include homes for people with higher incomes, but others said there would not be that many low-cost units.

So in the end it appears that Republican congressman Richard Baker will get his wish to clean up public housing, as there will less of it in the new New Orleans, and most of the former residents are unable to return.

And this is happening against the backdrop of reports that FEMA first help-up and then awarded billions of dollars in aid money to people who made fraudulent claims, or had the advantage of rigged bids or no-bid contracts.

But FEMA doesn’t want you to know who those people are.

Some Florida newspapers are suing FEMA to see how the agency doled out money after the 2004 hurricanes in Florida. As outrageous as it may sound, FEMA is spending your tax money to keep its records sealed and to avoid being held accountable.

Do you wonder why FEMA doesn’t want anyone reviewing the books? I think I know.

…You can find out who gets farm subsidies and how much in this country. So why not FEMA payments? Quite simply because of an ever-growing effort to keep public matters secret.

Why would competent administrators not want us to know how tax money is being spent? To release the records would violate individual privacy, FEMA says. Convenient but not convincing. The government shouldn’t give out Social Security numbers and perhaps other deeply personal data, but there’s no good reason to withhold who received the money, how much and why.

Well, there were reports of well-heeled people getting reimbursed for generators in 2004. They may not want their names on a list of government handouts.

(By the way, the newspapers won, posted the data, and got FEMA to pay their legal expenses.)

But there is an answer one question. Not why FEMA wanted to keep the records of fraud and mismanagement under wraps, but why the waste happened in the first place.

“There are tools that are available to get money quickly to individuals and to get disaster relief programs running quickly without seeing so much fraud and waste,” said Gregory D. Kutz, managing director of the forensic audits unit at the G.A.O. “But it wasn’t really something that FEMA put a high priority on. So it was easy to commit fraud without being detected.”

And using some of those tools might have ended up getting aid to people like the folks who are facing homelessness or fighting for public housing. Some of those billions might have been used to build more adequate public housing. But that would have required not only using systems that have been proven to work but also wanting those systems to work. And that runs directly counter to philosophy that seems to have as one of its core tenets not that government can not act effectively to improve the lives of its most needy citizens, but that it should not.

You can see it in the responses of conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly and George Will to the plight of those left to face Katrina’s wrath.

For them there is no “cycle of poverty,” and no socio-economic factors that people stay in poverty (except for attempts to help the poor that conservatives will claim end up “weakening” them). The better off are so because they are better people. Thus if the poor were better people they would be better off. Therefore, there are very few good people who are poor, and probably even fewer well-off people who are bad. What we saw in the post-Katrina suffering was simply bad things happening to bad people. Most, if not all, of the good people had the means to get themselves out of the hurricane’s path and did so.

…You don’t need glasses to see the frame. In fact, you see the frame before you get the picture. Again, the people standing on roofs in New Orleans (or floating face down in its flood waters) are right where they deserve to be. In fact, you can infer from his use of quotation marks that leaving them there for a while might just have been be the best thing for them; certainly better than wasting time in “caring professions” and taking money from the better off (better people) to help the less fortunate (less worthy).

Why? Because having the wrong values put them where they are, and removing or alleviating the consequences of those bad values merely reinforces them. Seen through that frame, the government’s failure to evacuate the poor or to send them relief after the hurricane becomes a kind of “tough love.” Maybe that’s the compassion in “compassionate conservatism.”

Got it? Let the poor drown. It’s their fault they’re poor anyway. It’s nobody’s job to save them. Besides, it might be the best thing for them. What happened in New Orleans is exactly what should have happened. That’s the way it ought to be.

And so, the ongoing mishandling of the Katrina aftermath is only a mishandling if you believe that government should be in the business of helping improve the lives of citizens and can do so effectively. If you believe that it can’t and shouldn’t, then you have a vested interest in making sure that it doesn’t.

When it comes to the Katrina, the mission has been accomplished. For conservative ideology, it’s a success. A catastrophic one for some, sure, but a success nonetheless.

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