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Archive for August, 2010

Celebrity Sighting: Levees Not War Meets FEMA’s Fugate

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Tomorrow we’ll post some comments on President Obama’s remarks at Xavier University on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But first, allow us to babble excitedly about the public-safety-and-disaster geek’s idea of a celebrity sighting:

After all the luminaries at the fab Rising Tide conference this weekend we didn’t think we could be any more dazzled, until yesterday at the New Orleans airport we bumped into FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate and his wife on their way back to Washington following the president’s speech. Sweet serendipity. We talked for a few minutes, told him Levees Not War has hailed his appointment as FEMA administrator—a return to the good old days of experience + competence that FEMA knew during the 1990s—and asked if we can interview him sometime. You see, Mr. Fugate, Levees Not War has interviewed Ivor van Heerden and Mark Schleifstein and other experts on the environment, infrastructure, and public safety, and we’d sincerely love to hear what you have to say after more than a year on the job. Mr. Fugate (pron. FEW-gate) graciously agreed, and we’ll be following up soon. In the meantime, you can see Deborah Solomon’s interview with “The Storm Tracker” in the Aug. 29 New York Times Magazine. He was tickled to hear that we used a photo of him paddling in his kayak (below), his home away from home; this may be why he agreed to an interview. Before parting, we wished each other a boring hurricane season.

A FEMA Administrator Who Tweets

Fugate, a former fireman and paramedic, directed Florida’s Division of Emergency Management from 2001 until his appointment to FEMA in 2009. Until 2009, James Lee Witt, FEMA administrator under President Clinton, was the most well qualified and admired director in the agency’s otherwise troubled history since its founding in the Carter years. Witt had been the emergency director for the state of Arkansas, and praise for his nimble and proactive emergency preparedness and response was bipartisan and pretty well unanimous. Florida native Fugate’s familiarity with hurricanes, however, certainly surpasses that of his celebrated predecessor, and he has won praise for, among other things, his insistence that individuals and families do as much as possible to help themselves by stocking up with emergency supplies and working out a plan for evacuation and communications. See his tweets about preparedness and staying alert about oncoming tropical storms here at In Case of Emergency, Read Blog.

Never anticipating we’d bump into him in an airport, we wrote here in May 2009 after Fugate was confirmed:

Obama’s nomination of Fugate to head FEMA exemplifies a restoration of trust in government and illustrates the difference between Democratic and Republican views of how elected officials should function. It is because Obama has largely chosen very highly qualified individuals for the federal agencies that Americans are consistently reporting to pollsters a renewed confidence in the integrity of government and a sense that the nation is moving in the right direction.

Stay tuned for more Fugate and FEMA reporting. Till then, you can read previous Fugate posts and our interview with Chris Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security, which explains in compelling detail why FEMA and public safety demand a competent, experienced administrator, and what happens when those qualities are lacking. (Cooper and Block were the keynote speakers at the first Rising Tide conference in August 2006.)

Fugate for FEMA: “Semper Gumby”—In an Emergency, “The Calmest Man in the Room”

More Praise for Craig Fugate as FEMA Director-Nominee

Fugate Confirmed for FEMA: Help Is on the Way

Interview with Christopher Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security



Live-Blogging from Rising Tide 5 in New Orleans

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

Winner of the 2010 Ashley Morris Award: Clifton Harris of Cliff’s Crib

New Orleans blogger Clifton Harris, right, receives the Ashley Morris Memorial Award from emcee George “Loki” Williams, center, and Mark “Oyster” Moseley. Photo courtesy of M. Styborski. Cliff Harris’s writing also appears in the new book A Howling in the Wires: An Anthology of Writing from Postdiluvian New Orleans (Gallatin & Toulouse, 2010). The motto of Cliff’s Crib is “Embrace Your Potential and Be Productive. Long Live the Lower Ninth Ward.” Warm congratulations to Clifton Harris. Read his blog and buy the book. We have. [The coveted Ashley Award, named in honor of the legendary, larger-than-life Ashley Morris, is presented each year to a blogger who has made outstanding contributions to writing about post-Katrina New Orleans. Ashley Morris, Ph.D., who died in 2008, was one of the founders of the Rising Tide conference and an inspiration for the Treme character Creighton Bernette, played by John Goodman.]

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Liveblogging follows, with earliest panels at bottom. (“Treme” panel not included, sorry. For good coverage of that, see Machelle Allman’s Watching Treme.)

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Why Can’t We Get Some Dam Safety in New Orleans? | Presentation by Tim Ruppert

Presentation by Tim Ruppert, engineer and N.O. blogger (Tim’s Nameless Blog) Denial of killing potential of failed levees results in low standards of expectations for levee strength. Levees are considered to only protect property, not human life. The 100-year flood model is an inadequate standard of measurement that leaves N.O. and other human settlements exposed to unacceptable risk of flooding and death. ASCE advocates a risk-based assessment of levees—in other words, let’s calculate how many people would die if this levee fails (the same way dams’ failure is measured and risk-assessed). “When levees fail, people die.” We’re going to have to push Congress to act as though failed levees are every bit as threatening to human safety as failed dams are. 3:30 About 43 percent of Americans live in areas protected by levees. What it means to public safety when dams and levees are perceived as being different from each other. Begins with Johnstown Flood of 1889. Is there really any difference between a dam failure and a levee failure? National Dam Inspection Act passed in 1972, and WRDA (Water Resource Development Act) both distinguished between dams and levees. Dams are considered a life safety system—they usually hold higher levels of water than levees do. Levees are not considered life safety systems; it is assumed or expected that all people living within a levee-protected area are able to evacuate, though we know this is not actually true.

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Politics Panel: Peter Athas, Jason Berry, Clancy Dubos, Jeff Crouere, Stephanie Grace, Jacques Morial

3:05 What will Jindal do? He is looking beyond the governor’s mansion. Run against Mary Landrieu? Crouere and Dubos agree that Jindal won’t finish out his term. That is why the next lieutenant governor’s race will in effect be the next governor’s race. Dubos says he will cut the budget to the bone and then go around the country to Iowa or Florida and talk about how he cut the budget. He doesn’t care about the people of Louisiana; he cares about how his actions look on his resume. Jindal refuses to sign any revenue increase, so cuts will get worse. Stephanie Grace says that what happens to the state’s universities in the next couple of years will send a message to the rest of the nation of what Jindal stands for. 3:00 Jason Berry says a progressive media is needed to help build Democratic, progressive party, candidates, through spreading progressive ideas. As it is, we’re breeding Republicans. Even here in the most progressive urban city in the state there’s really only one progressive paper [Gambit].

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Come Surf the Rising Tide : Aug. 28 in New Orleans

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

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We’ll be in New Orleans for Rising Tide 5—and you’re invited too. First, on Friday afternoon, we’re embarking on a boat tour of Barataria Bay southwest of New Orleans—thanks to friendly connections at the Plaquemines parish government, Loyola University, and the EPA—to see the BP oil spill’s effects on the Louisiana wetlands. Photos, reporting, and possibly video footage to come soon.

Rising Tide Volunteer Community Service Friday Aug. 27

Volunteers are pitching in with a food drive to assist the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, packing food boxes from 9:00 a.m. until noon, on Friday, August 27, at Second Harvest’s Elmwood warehouse at 700 Edwards Avenue (map). If you can’t make it to this event, please consider contributing to Second Harvest to help hundreds of families who have seen their jobs and livelihoods evaporate since the BP oil spill. Each year, Second Harvest provides emergency food assistance to nearly 263,000 people, including approximately 82,000 children and 40,000 seniors across 23 south Louisiana parishes.

Rising Tide program for Saturday Aug. 28

The Howlin’ Wolf, 907 South Peters Street

Details about participants here.

8:30 | doors open

9:30 | Opening remarks

9:45 | Public Safety panel : Brian Denzer, Susan Hutson, Allen James, Peter Scharf, N.O. Police Chief Ronal Serpas, Jon Wool

11:00 | Keynote speaker: Mac McClelland, human rights reporter for Mother Jones

12:00 | Environmental panel : Steve Picou, Len Bahr, Robert Verchick

2:00 | Politics panel : Peter Athas, Jason Berry, Jeff Crouere, Clancy Dubos, Stephanie Grace, Jacques Morial

3:15 | “Why Can’t We Get Some Dam Safety in New Orleans?” Presentation by engineer Tim Ruppert

3:45 | Presentation of 2010 Ashley Morris Memorial Award

4:00 | “Down in the Treme” panel : Maitri Erwin, Lolis Eric Elie, Eric Overmyer, Becky Northcut, Dave Walker, Davis Rogan

Also happening in New Orleans

New Orleans area Katrina anniversary events (NOLA.com)

President Obama to speak at Xavier University Sunday, Aug. 29, to commemorate 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans C.A.R.E. Free Clinic | Tues. Aug. 31–Weds. Sept. 1 at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, 900 Convention Center Blvd. Volunteers needed and welcome! Register to volunteer: www.regonline.com/nolacare | Patients call 1-877-236-7617

Historic New Orleans Collection : Katrina + 5: Documenting Disaster | May 12–September 12  |  Williams Gallery, 533 Royal Street

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Anti-Islamic Furor Helps al Qaeda, Endangers America

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

“The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our City, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves—and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans—if we said ‘no’ to a mosque in Lower Manhattan. . . . We would betray our values—and play into our enemies’ hands—if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists—and we should not stand for that. . . . there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God’s love and mercy.Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Aug. 3, 2010

“We desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand and fall to his own Master. Wee are bounde by the Law to doe good unto all men, especially to those of the household of faith.Remonstrance of the Inhabitants of the Towne of Flushing to Governor Peter Stuyvesant, December 27, 1657 (alluded to by Mayor Bloomberg)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. —First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, 1791

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Ordinarily this blog would have no reason to comment on the building of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan—the subject doesn’t naturally pertain to our core mission of infrastructure, environment, and peace (especially for New Orleans and environs). But these are not ordinary times, and this is no longer an ordinary religious-freedom issue.

The uproar over Park51, commonly known as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” has reached national security–threatening levels of madness. What we find most troubling about the furor is that the hate speech against Islam generally—blaming all Muslims, including the 5 to 7 million Muslim Americans, for the crimes of al Qaeda on 9/11—is making it easier to justify war on the Islamic world, to continue fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and beyond. (Recall the WWII internments of Japanese-Americans and the atomic bombings made politically and morally more palatable by persistent demonization of “the Jap” as subhuman.) Most insane and threatening of all is that the broad-brush insults of Muslims validate Osama bin Laden’s claims that America hates Islam and that therefore all Muslims should fight against “the Crusaders.” Do Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin really want to do bin Laden’s recruiting work for him?

[The manufacture of the controversy cannot be understood without seeing Atlas Shrugs, the blog of author and activist Pamela Geller, executive director of a group called Stop Islamization of America (“a human rights organization dedicated to freedom of speech, religious liberty”) and coauthor of The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America (foreword by John Bolton). Salon’s Justin Elliott explains how Geller pushed Park51 from being unremarkable when announced to being suddenly seen as a dire threat to America.]

The site in question is occupied by a former Burlington Coat factory that was damaged on 9/11. The building dates back to the 1850s. The owners of the property, Feisal Abdul Rauf, a graduate of Columbia University, and his wife Daisy Khan, plan to build a Sufi Islamic cultural center—not a mosque—modeled on the (Jewish) 92nd Street Y, a prominent cultural and fitness center in New York City. (Sufis are well known as the most peaceful and “cosmic” of the varieties of Islam—they are like the opposite of extremist or violent. Think of the Persian poet Rumi.) The Park51 board includes Christians and Jews along with Muslims. The plans call for classrooms, a 500-seat auditorium, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11 (some of whom were Muslim, as were some of the first responders), a prayer room but not a mosque, and so on. Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam of a mosque in TriBeCa for nearly 30 years, vice-chair of the Interfaith Center of New York and the author of “What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America,” has conducted “sensitivity training” for the FBI. He is famous as a peaceful moderate. His wife, Daisy Khan, runs the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which she co-founded with Rauf. (When she appeared on Fox News in December 2009 to talk about the center, Laura Ingraham said, “I like what you’re doing.”) Rauf and Khan are precisely the kind of Muslims America should welcome and encourage. Harassing them and demonizing their project, telling them and others of their faith that they don’t belong here sends a very bad signal to the Muslim world and reinforces their suspicion that America is at war with Islam.

Where Is George W. Bush When You Need Him?

This is precisely why President Bush was careful to clarify publicly, repeatedly, that the U.S. is fighting al Qaeda, not Islam. “Islam is peace,” he said. Where is he now? Maureen Dowd writes (almost pleadingly), “W. needs to get his bullhorn back out.” At the time Bush said these things, we were not confident his heart was really in it, but he was right to reinforce the message, and it would do a lot of good for America as a United States if he would resurface to try to cool the hostility. (See Joshua Holland’s disturbing report at AlterNet about an epidemic of anti-Islamic hate spreading across the U.S., nearly 10 years after September 11.)

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As Combat Troops Leave Iraq, Where’s Our National Security?

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Out of Iraq, on to Afghanistan

The last combat troops have left Iraq, as a convoy of the 4th Stryker Brigade rumbled in the wee hours of August 19, 2010, from Iraq toward U.S. bases in Kuwait. At the end of August, Operation Iraqi Freedom will end and 50,000 advisory and security troops will remain in Iraq until the end of 2011 for a new phase to be known as Operation New Dawn. (May we have a new dawn in the United States, please?—or is it not “morning in America” anymore?)

Michael Gordon of the New York Times reports here on how the U.S. State Department, with about 2,400 civilian employees protected by up to 7,000 private security guards, will continue the training of Iraqi police and assist with political stabilization and other functions—including counterterrorism—in an effort to help Iraq rebuild without the presence of U.S. combat troops. The 2,400 civilian State Department employees will work at the Baghdad embassy and regional outposts in Mosul, Kirkuk, and at consulates in Erbil and Basra. Gordon writes:

The startup cost of building and sustaining two embassy branch offices—one in Kirkuk and the other in Mosul—and of hiring security contractors, buying new equipment and setting up two consulates in Basra and Erbil is about $1 billion. It will cost another $500 million or so to make the two consulates permanent. And getting the police training program under way will cost about $800 million.

So, the combat forces are withdrawing, returning to the Homeland. Some soldiers will get to rejoin their families after a long time away—we wish them well—and others will have to redeploy in maybe six months to Afghanistan, where Obama’s surge continues.

Where’s That “Mission Accomplished” Feeling?

It is surely a good thing that the combat forces are withdrawing from Iraq, but why don’t we feel any pleasure or pride? What has been accomplished, aside from doubling the price of a gallon of gas and making Iran the main power in the region? The soldiers themselves surely feel some pride and relief, and after all their hard work they deserve more than a good cigar. But what have we gained? Where is the security? The United States is immeasurably poorer, more weak and divided than when this war began—economically, socially, politically. As of this writing, 4,415 American soldiers are dead; tens of thousands are wounded, many critically, missing limbs, and some with unimaginable brain and neurological injuries, and alarming numbers have committed suicide: 27 in July alone, 32 in June. (In addition to all the Iraqi dead—estimates are around 100,000—there have been 179 British dead and 139 from other Coalition nations.) And then there’s the psychological, soul damage the soldiers suffer, and the broken marriages, the frayed family relationships, the children who have grown from infants to eight- and ten-year-olds hardly even knowing their fathers or mothers who have been away on multiple deployments and come home virtually strangers with scant job prospects here in the Homeland. But Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, so maybe it’s all worthwhile.

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Disarmament Experts Clarify Film’s Position on Nuclear Power

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Last week we reviewed the excellent new documentary Countdown to Zero, released in late July, just in time for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki anniversaries (Aug. 6 and 9). While we praised Countdown and hope everyone will see it, we had some questions about the film’s stand on the safety or acceptability of nuclear power (see below). We contacted the production company and some of the experts who appear in the film, and two experts, Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund and Dr. Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute and founder of Global Zero, replied in generous detail. We wanted to share their thoughts, and to express here our gratitude for their taking the time to clarify some important concerns about how nuclear power and nonproliferation can coexist.

Some of this gets a little technical—but it’s a technical matter, after all—so you can skim the excerpts if you like. The main point is that the experts took the questions seriously and took time to answer, and their replies show they’ve been thinking quite extensively about these issues.

We wrote last week:

Countdown to Zero is excellent but not perfect. We had questions about some important practical issues that were raised but not dealt with. The film advocates bringing all world nuclear stockpiles down to zero. (Agreed.) But the film also explains that nuclear power plants produce fissile material (as in the case of Iran). So, does the film also advocate elimination of nuclear power? How is the danger posed by production of fissile materials through ordinary operation of nuclear power plants to be managed? Unless we missed something, the film said nothing about what should be done about nuclear power plants. Presumably terrorists or their would-be suppliers could also get their hands on fissile material—or is that somehow not possible? There is still the question of what to do about Iran, or what threat may be posed by Iran or other possibly hostile or unstable nations possessing nuclear power plants, or the fissile material produced by them. Would France, for example, have to shut down its nuclear power plants, the source of most of its electricity?

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Melancon Blasts Vitter’s Worse-Than-“Serious Sin” Record of Voting Against Women

Friday, August 13th, 2010

We’re Levees Not War, and We Approve This Message:

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The text of the commercial, running in various media markets in Louisiana, goes like this:

We know how David Vitter handled his “serious sin.” And when David Vitter’s staffer violently abused his girlfriend, Senator Vitter let him keep his job—working on women’s issues. David Vitter on women: he voted against equal pay for equal work; against coverage for mammograms; even against protections for women raped on the job. David Vitter: for women, his “serious sin” isn’t even his worst.

See Charlie Melancon’s “Serious Sins” web site. Click here for Talking Points Memo’s article about the ad, and Vitter’s commercial that prompted Melancon to bring out the big guns (linking Melancon with “millionaires and illegals”). TPM comments, “No Wallflowers in This Race.”

Charlie Melancon, a Democratic congressman for Louisiana’s 3rd congressional district, is running for United States Senate. Levees Not War strongly endorses his candidacy and will be pushing for him between now and the November elections.



Nagasaki, Not Forgotten

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Today, Aug. 9, is the 65th anniversary of the atomic (plutonium) bombing of Nagasaki. (Hiroshima was bombed first, with a uranium bomb, on Aug. 6, 1945.) Some 60,000 to 80,000 civilians died, most of them instantly; others, like Sumiteru Taniguchi, pictured below, suffered lingering deaths from radiation burns. Among the casualties may have been American soldiers in a prisoner of war camp (possibly known by the military). Questions of why the U.S. used the atomic bombs when Japan was near defeat—or whether Japan was in fact the primary target; maybe the main audience was the USSR—have been analyzed by better informed and more rigorous intellects and are not likely to be settled here today.

Why did the U.S. have to use the bomb twice? Did we have to use it at all?

The legend, or conventional wisdom, is that if President Harry Truman (below) had not pulled the trigger, American forces would have had to launch a bloody, costly land invasion of Japan. This is possible, though no major U.S. military offensive was slated to begin before November 1, 1945, and the Soviets, our allies against Nazi Germany, had promised to help with a ground war. What was the hurry?

In hindsight, it is difficult to imagine the bomb not being used, after a $2 billion investment and six years’ work, even if Japan were not already seriously weakened and soon to collapse. When President Truman was first briefed about the existence of the atom project on April 24, 1945 (two weeks after FDR died), his first response was to sit down; he had received the generals standing up. He ordered a search for other options, with one committee composed of soldiers and civilians, and the other of scientists. Both panels met twice, on May 31 and June 1, and reached the same conclusion. A committee of scientists including J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi told Truman that they could devise “no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.” Meanwhile, Truman’s generals were pressing him to let them move forward with plans for a massive land invasion of the Japanese home islands.

One consideration was that the Soviet Union had promised at the Tehran conference in late 1943 and again at Yalta in February 1945 to join the fight against Japan within three months after the European war ended (May 8). Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall had pushed hard for Soviet help against Japan, knowing that the combined pressure of U.S. and Soviet forces would likely compel the Japanese to surrender. (Even among those who knew about the ultra-top-secret Manhattan Project, it was uncertain whether the new weapon would work until it was tested in mid July 1945.) Until the bomb was proven, the only way to crush the Japanese army was to fight it, and General Marshall preferred to let the Russians do a lot of the heavy lifting. There were reservations, however, about Soviet involvement: American officials did not want to have to share defeated Japan with the USSR the way the Allies were already sharing postwar Germany, divvied up into four military occupation zones: American, Soviet, British, and French.

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