Wednesday, September 07, 2005

I never sang for my father

The boy's got a voice
But the voice is his natural disguise
Yes the boy's got a voice
But the words don't connect to his eyes
He says "Ah, but when I sing
I can hear the truth auditioning"
The boy's got a voice
But the voice is his natural -
["Oh, Marion," by Paul Simon]
The first thing to know is that I love to sing. I do. But few people have ever heard me do it, even though people tell me I do it rather well. Even some long-time friends, now drifted away over the years, heard me rarely if at all. I just shy away from singing in public.

It's not stage fright, lordy no. I've been known to rattle a few windows in the course of giving a speech and I was always willing to be the one to appear on some TV segment or another at places where I worked. No, it's not that.

It's more that I'm uncomfortable with displaying emotion publicly. Intellectual passion, yes - which I why the window-rattling I mentioned was not a problem - but emotion, what moves the heart rather than the conscience, no. "But when I sing, I can hear the truth auditioning" - or, as I put it to someone once, singing is the closest this particular atheist gets to praying. When I sing, my heart is on the line and I know that those with eyes to see may see more than I would care to show.

So I'm uncomfortable singing in public. But now I wish I could stand in the street and sing out, sing to any and all passing strangers, sing a song for Katrina. Because I can't find way to express it in words.

I have been trying for over a week to write something about Katrina. But every time I try to write, I'm stymied not only by the magnitude of the event but even more by the fact that every time I start, I come across some new outrage, some new fact or revelation that points out in ever-sharper relief the devastation, the pain - the appallingly unnecessary pain - the loss, the murderous indifference of those who were warned, who were told in so many words that this could happen but who ignored it because, why, because it wasn't politically useful? Because the people at risk were poor and black and so no one cared?

It certainly wasn't because of the cost: The Army Corps of Engineers had requested $27 million for the current fiscal year to pay for hurricane-protection projects around Lake Pontchartrain. The doesn't seem like a large amount for a government that is blasting away at Iraq and Iraqis to the tune of $6 billion a month, especially when
[b]efore 9/11 the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America: a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans. "The New Orleans hurricane scenario," The Houston Chronicle wrote in December 2001, "may be the deadliest of all."
Even so, precisely because of war costs, the corps got only $5.7 million - and that was nearly 50% more than the Shrub team wanted to give them. The result was
the corps delayed seven contracts that included enlarging the levees, according to corps documents.
And that was after a year during which a
New Orleans Times-Picayune article noted: "For the first time in 37 years, federal budget cuts have all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area's east bank hurricane levees." The article quoted the manager of the Army Corps of Engineers' Lake Pontchartrain levee project saying that "people should know that this is a work in progress, and there's more important work yet to do before there is a complete system in place."
They knew, they knew, they knew that the hurricane protection around New Orleans was inadequate. They knew for years. They knew New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen.
[E]ngineers say the levees preventing this below-sea-level city from being turned into a swamp were built to withstand only Category 3 hurricanes. And officials have warned for years that a Category 4 could cause the levees to fail. ...

"We certainly understood the potential impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane" on New Orleans, Lt. General Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Thursday, Cox News Service reported.

Reuters reported that in 2004, more than 40 state, local and volunteer organizations practiced a scenario in which a massive hurricane struck and levees were breached, allowing water to flood New Orleans. Under the simulation, called "Hurricane Pam," the officials "had to deal with an imaginary storm that destroyed more than half a million buildings in New Orleans and forced the evacuation of a million residents," the Reuters report said. ...

[O]n Sunday[, the day before Katrina hit,] Placquemines Parish Sheriff Jeff Hingle referred back to Hurricane Betsy - a Category 2 hurricane that struck in 1965 - and said, "After Betsy these levees were designed for a Category 3."

He added, "These levees will not hold the water back."
And then they, despite knowing, despite have studied the possibility, watched and did nothing as a Category 5 hurricane headed for the city. (Katrina weakened to a Category 4 before making landfall.)

And let me be clear here: The "they" in question are Homeland Security and FEMA. State and local officials could perhaps have done more or done sooner but they knew going in they had no chance, that they were going to be overwhelmed.
City, state and federal emergency officials[, reported the July 24 New Orleans Times Picayune,] are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans' poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you're on your own." ...

In an interview at the opening of this year's hurricane season, New Orleans Emergency Preparedness Director Joseph Matthews acknowledged that the city is overmatched.

"It's important to emphasize that we just don't have the resources to take everybody out," he said in a interview in late May.
An estimated 134,000 people were without transportation to evacuate the city and the officials openly admitted they simply did not have the ability to get them out. And they asked for help. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency on August 26 and made a formal request for federal aid on August 28, the day before the storm hit. The outrageous White House lie that everything bad that happened was because she supposedly was sluggish in asking for federal help is easily derailed: The state government's website has a copy of the letter at this link in .pdf format. (In fact, it was so outrageous that the Washington Post, which reported the assertion from an unnamed "senior White House official," had to issue a correction within a few hours.)

Oh yes, the lies. The lies. The lies while people drowned. The lies while people went without food and water for days. The lies while people sweltered, suffered, begged, waited, while they suffered and begged some more, while they moved the stinking corpses into stairwells at the convention center or left them on the street because there was nowhere to put them, while the smell, the stench, the sickness, the strain, the violence climbed around them. Oh, the lies.

The feds whined that they couldn't get into the city, couldn't get there to get people out or supplies in, even as TV news crews with their trucks got to and from the Superdome and convention center. As late as Thursday, Department of the Security of the Fatherland Secretary Michael Chertoff dismissed as "rumor" the suffering at the convention center while claiming "we are getting food and water to areas where people are staging." As late as Friday, FEMA director Michael Brown was saying that they learned about the desperate conditions at the convention center just the day before - and that though broadcast news reports. And he was still denying reports of uncollected corpses and violence! Even worse, he declared that "We've provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they've gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day."

"Lies," the Times-Picayune replied, "don't get more bald-faced than that."

And security? No problem, Brown claimed with a straight face.
I actually think the security is pretty darn good. There's some really bad people out there that are causing some problems, and it seems to me that every time a bad person wants to scream of cause a problem, there's somebody there with a camera to stick it in their face.
That is, we're just a terrific agency doing a terrific job and everything is terrific and anything you think to the contrary is all the media's fault.

Bush, of course, had to get in on the act; he couldn't let his aides have all the fun of making up crap. So he told "Good Morning America" in an interview Thursday that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." Just like no one anticipated airliners being used as weapons. That was such a whopper that it was being spun by the next day, when Brown was claiming the real thing that nobody anticipated was that the breaks would be so big and cause "such widespread devastation" - this, again, even though an exercise run just a little over a year before ("Hurricane Pam") was about exactly that prospect.

And since Brown appears to get his information from news reports rather than his own agency, maybe he saw this from AP from last May:
Officials have warned that if a major hurricane hits New Orleans, thousands of people could be killed and the city could be flooded for weeks as flood waters breach the levees ringing the city, which has the topography of a saucer that dips several feet below sea level in many places.
Lies. All lies. Or let me be clear: I hope they are lies, I hope they are just efforts at CYA and damage control to cover up their incompetence. Because if they aren't, they reflect stupidity and an indifference to human life to a degree that is truly frightening. I cling to the hope of simple lies. But it's a hope hard to maintain.

Because they knew what was coming. They had to know. Or are we really supposed to believe Chertoff when he claimed that it wasn't until just a day before landfall that they knew it was a Category 4 storm heading for New Orleans when the National Hurricane Center had predicted exactly that as early as the Friday before? What should I hope for? That they were simply that incompetent and now are just too chicken to admit how massively, ruinously, they screwed up? What's the alternative, that they simply didn't care if thousands died and acted only when the political fallout looked unpleasant? What does it say about their performance when you have to hope for incompetence and lies as a preferable explanation?

Did they care? Did they care at all? I mean about the people, not the politics. If you think they did, how could you tell? What sign could you use? Who in the administration showed a flicker of concern? Shrub, sharing a birthday cake with John McCain? Defense Secretary Donald Rumplestiltskin going to a baseball game? Secretary of State Can'tbe Right - who, when asked about accusations that the government responded slowly because many of the victims were black, said "How can that be the case?" - doing her Imelda Marcos imitation? Who?

FEMA, supposed to be the boots on the ground, sat on its collective ass for days even though Bush had issued a declaration of an emergency that gave it the authority to act. Then when it did move, it made things worse.

For one thing, it all but ignored an offer of large-scale relief assistance from the city of Chicago: Mayor Richard Daley offered to send more than 400 police, fire, and medical personnel along with dozens of trucks and two boats - and they would bring their own food, water, and supplies. FEMA accepted one truck. Period.
Daley wasn't the only generous donor to be rebuffed. Throughout last week, various local and state governments, corporations and nonprofit organizations across the nation attempted to help in the relief effort, only to be snubbed by federal officials.... [T]he Department of Homeland Security barred the American Red Cross from entering New Orleans with food. Five hundred Floridian airboaters were ready to rescue people stranded in inundated homes, but FEMA turned them down. Twenty sheriff's deputies from Loudoun County, Va., suffered a similar fate.
And if you haven't seen the video of Jefferson parish president Aaron Broussard's appearance on Meet the Press, follow the link and do it now. If it doesn't break your heart, you don't have one.
We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast. But the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. ... Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now. ...

We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. FEMA, we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. When we got there with our trucks, FEMA says don't give you the fuel. Yesterday - yesterday - FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in, he reconnects the line. He posts armed guards and said no one is getting near these lines.
The only thing FEMA did well, it seems, was PR: Last Thursday, the New York Times carried a puff piece that had to be little more than a re-written FEMA press release on how all the great ways the agency supposedly has been improved "since 2001 to better prepare the nation for a possible terrorist attack was helping in this catastrophe as well," an article that sloshed together a bunch of numbers of this many thises and that many thats as if how many "logistics centers" the outfit has is the proper measure of success instead of how much materiel and personnel it could put on the ground in how short a time.
"This is an exam for everything we have done since 9/11," said James Jay Carafano, an expert on domestic security and a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization.
It was, indeed - and FEMA, Security of the Fatherland, and all of the rest right up to the Shrub-in-Chief himself failed miserably.

Did they know? Did they care? Billmon at The Whiskey Bar took a look at how FEMA responded to Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan last year as they triple-whammied Florida. Then, the agency was oh so organized and really Johnny-on-the-spot, even to the point of having pre-positioned relief supplies.
FEMA officials must have been deeply gratified to see the effect their heroic efforts had in the place where they were most desperately needed - Bush's poll numbers [in Florida as the election approached]. ...

[W]hen the chips are down, and the need is absolutely dire, this administration can still deliver the kind of coordinated emergency response that once made the U.S. government the envy of the world - just as it cooly and capably protected the Iraqi Oil Ministry from the chaos and looting that trashed every other government office in post-invasion Baghdad. As is usually the case in public service, it's just a matter of having the right incentives. ...

[S]ince I'm lucky enough to live in a swing state that is also coveted by GOP political strategists, I probably don't have to worry ... that is, as long as any future disasters around my neck of the woods happen in one of those years divisible by two.
Oh, but there I go again, being political. Intellectualizing. Dealing in anger and conscience rather than gut reaction. Because, once again, the gut reaction stays inside. The tears do not come except to be quickly suppressed. As the sewage- and lead-contaminated floodwaters of New Orleans are pushed and pumped out so achingly slowly, as the next shock looms, a shock of the thousands of rotting, bloated bodies expected to be revealed as the water level drops, as some officials are saying that the city "has completely been destroyed" and some voices have even raised the possibility of not rebuilding the city at all, of just abandoning it entirely, and as the gross, foul, disgusting, inhuman, self-serving lies of those who could have done more, who could have done better, who could have acted, who knew, who knew but who just didn't care, as their lies mount a stink greater than the fetid fumes of death that reek in the streets of New Orleans but who now want to cover their tracks by preventing media from photographing the recovery of the dead, hoping such a blackout of coverage will conceal the blackness in their souls.... As it all goes on, I just - I just wish I could sing.

Footnote:, a project of MoveOn, has a website for people can offer a bed for someone evacuating from New Orleans. As of tonight, they have offers of nearly 208,000 beds. Go here to offer accommodations or if you need, or someone you can refer needs, a place.

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