Levees Not War
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Posts Tagged ‘hurricane katrina’

Ten Years After, and Looking Ahead

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

A Time for Celebration, but Not for Complacency

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Has it really been ten years already? Indeed it has: a long ten years. And the work of rebuilding, the labors of love and determination, dedication, devotion, and sometimes of desperation—aided by countless volunteers from all around America and the world—are incalculable, and we hope that what they have rebuilt and reinforced will last for a very long time to come. Merci beaucoup.

We wholeheartedly join in celebrating the New Orleans area’s rebirth and rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood that ensued—we’ll be there this weekend for the 10th annual Rising Tide conference and other events. And we are grateful for the efforts of elected officials to dedicate funding for the rebuilding, and we welcome President Obama and FEMA director W. Craig Fugate and others to New Orleans to participate in the events.

At the same time, while the eyes of the world turn to remember and honor this anniversary—this momentous event so charged with tragic intensity, such widespread human suffering—we remain worried, skeptical about the long term. We feel compelled to sound a cautionary note about coastal Louisiana’s environmental predicament and the state’s political submissiveness to the oil and gas industry. Consider that even as President Obama is launching efforts “to reduce carbon emissions and slow the impacts of climate change” (in the words of WhiteHouse.gov), his administration has also given Shell Oil permission to drill in the Arctic. What we need is a new (early period) Huey P. Long for the environment.

Katrina10Now, this Katrina 10 weekend, the politicians, even the most eco-friendly among them, will spellbind us with reassuring words we want to hear, about resilience (Mayor Mitch Landrieu will say the word at least 189 times), accomplishments and promises delivered that make their administrations look good, and perhaps rightly so, but they all hesitate to stand up to ExonMobil, Shell, BP, and other oil and gas giants. If it weren’t so, wouldn’t the oil companies pay more than a pittance in corporate taxes?

I would ask you to respect this important time of remembrance by not inserting the divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.”

—Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, in a letter to President Obama 

We could not disagree more. Since we read it in the paper a few days ago, we haven’t been able to stop thinking about the very serious facts that Oliver A. Houck of Tulane Law School laid down in a letter to the editor of The New York Times:

How to Save a Sinking Coast? Katrina Created a Laboratory” (front page, Aug. 8), in which I am quoted, understates the seriousness of Louisiana’s predicament and its conflicting responses.

Whitehall Canal, in the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary.Jeff Riedel@NYTThere is no hope of restoring the coastal Louisiana we once knew. Sea rise is accelerating, the substrate is collapsing, and the oil and gas industry has torn the surface to shreds. Some 50 miles of marshes that protected New Orleans are largely gone. The Mississippi no longer carries sediment loads sufficient to offset these losses. We can maintain a few salients like New Orleans and create several deltas. That’s the best-case scenario.

Like many coastal areas, however, Louisiana continues to try to have it both ways, promoting restoration as well as more development on soils that are sinking more rapidly than anywhere in North America. The state’s future is the state’s choice, of course, except that, in the end, nature will have its say. The question is whether we face that fact and deal with it. The answer is not just what we do with the Mississippi. It is what we do with ourselves.

Much Stronger Flood Protection for New Orleans Metro Area

Now, in the ten years since Katrina, some substantial improvements have been made to the area’s flood protection system. Congress has allocated $14.5 billion to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild, reinforce, and install new protections. Times-Picayune reporter Mark Schleifstein describes it as “a $14.5-billion network of levees, floodwalls and pumps that nearly eliminates flooding for most so-called 100-year events and substantially reduces flooding from much larger hurricanes.” The Corps is also spending about $1.2 billion to improve the city’s drainage system, which accounts for the major work currently being done along Napoleon, Jefferson, and other avenues under which closed culverts convey excess water out of the city. The new system stood up well against Hurricane Isaac in September 2013; experts said that without the post-Katrina reinforcements, Isaac could have flooded the city as badly as the disastrous Hurricane Betsy of 1965, which struck almost exactly forty years to the day before Hurricane Katrina.

There have been other important structural changes that should improve the area’s safety from flooding. One of the main “delivery systems” of the inundation of New Orleans and vicinity was the convergence of the Intracoastal Waterway with the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO, known locally as Mister Go): The convergence forms a funnel that directs storm surges from Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain directly at the heart of Orleans Parish, a low-lying bowl between the river and the lake, enclosed by levees. This danger was predicted before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built MR-GO in the 1950s and ’60s. Following Katrina, a closure structure was built across MR-GO at Bayou La Loutre, completed in July 2009. Closer to New Orleans, a strong $1 billion, 1.8-mile surge barrier was constructed to close the funnel at the convergence of the Intracoastal Waterway and MR-GO. This barrier, completed in 2011, was designed to prevent storm surges from entering the Industrial Canal and Intracoastal Waterway—and, hence, reinforces New Orleans and vicinity’s defenses against flooding.

So, naturally we are grateful for the federal and state funding that has made these major improvements possible. And yet we remain skeptical for the future, doubtful of the realism and practicality of the state’s legislature, which continues to allow the oil and gas industry free rein. A lawsuit against 97 oil companies brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E) in July 2013 was strangled by Gov. Bobby Jindal and a compliant majority of the Louisiana legislature.

Will New Orleans, Est. 1718, Live to Have a 400th Birthday?

John BarryA former vice president of the flood authority, historian John M. Barry (right), mentions that lawsuit and the environmental catastrophe that it could have helped ameliorate in an authoritative overview he wrote for The New York Times titled “Is New Orleans Safe?” (Barry and the lawsuit were profiled by Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine last October: “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.”) In “Is New Orleans Safe,” Barry says that it is technically, geologically possible for New Orleans to survive despite the odds, if the right steps are taken, partly by “living with water” and also by intelligent use of diversions to rebuild sedimentary deposits from the Mississippi River.

But then he gives a sober assessment:

. . . the political reality is that taxpayers around the country are not going to be sending Louisiana tens of billions of dollars anytime soon, especially while Louisiana’s politicians avoid dealing with another major cause of land loss.

Oil, gas and pipeline companies have dredged an estimated 10,000 miles of canals through the coast; ensuing salt water intrusion killed plants, without whose roots land dissolved. Companies also sucked so much material from below ground that the surface sank. . . .

On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, there will be much congratulating over how far the city has come. Mayor Landrieu has declared rebuilding over and is preparing to make New Orleans an international showpiece for its 300th anniversary in 2018. If the city and state focus on the one existential threat they face. New Orleans could have a sustainable future. But if focus dissipates, if politics blocks action, the 300th anniversary will most likely be the last centennial the city celebrates.

And so, if you see an elected official during this weekend’s events in New Orleans, please urge him or her to help press the oil and gas industry to share in the efforts to rebuild a sustainable coast for Louisiana. It’s not easy but it’s not as naive or impossible as it may sound. Ask them—they’re people too—to shift toward renewable energy sources, to give up some of their profits, or look beyond their next reelection, and to support the practicable, realistic projects that geologists and engineers have devised that could slow the degradation and help regenerate the wetlands around southern Louisiana.

Some ideas for coastal restoration can be found in our interviews with Ivor van Heerden, Harry Shearer, Mark Schleifstein, and in the Coastal Conservation Conversation panel held at Loyola University in New Orleans in August 2014. For the nitty-gritty of paying for the state of Louisiana’s master plan for coastal restoration, click here for a PDF of “Turning Coastal Restoration and Protection Plans Into Realities: The Cost of Comprehensive Coastal Restoration and Protection,” published by the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy on August 18, 2014 (discussed at the Loyola panel mentioned above).

Sorry, didn’t mean to bring you down. Just trying to keep it real. In medieval and renaissance banquets there was often a skull on the table as a reminder to the guests (memento mori). We’re just trying to help make sure that there is a four hundredth birthday for the great, low-lying city we love so dearly.

Now, let’s pass the bottle and celebrate a job well done . . .

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Further Reading:

Is New Orleans Safe? by John M. Barry (New York Times)

Ten Years After Katrina (New York Times interactive)

Mapping Katrina and Its Aftermath (New York Times interactive)

Rebuilding Nature in Wake of Katrina (NYT slide show)

A decade after Hurricane Katrina, new books, new insights, old memories (New Orleans Advocate)

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Wetlands photo and John M. Barry photo by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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At the Intersection of Jon Stewart and Brian Williams

Friday, February 13th, 2015

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Jersey BoysBrian Douglas Williams and Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz both went to high school in New Jersey and held common, low-level jobs before working their way to the top of their respective, and interrelated, professions.

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“Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War.” —Jon Stewart on Brian Williams, The Daily Show, Feb. 9, 2015

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Last week we wrote a piece in defense of Brian Williams, little realizing it was probably already too late, even as other revelations of his storytelling were coming forth, and the social media pile-on was getting heavier by the minute. Then, this Tuesday, Feb. 10, we learned that not only is Williams being put on a six-month, unpaid leave by NBC management, but, even more distressing, Brian’s friend and ours, the widely beloved Jon Stewart, has announced that later this year he’ll step down from his anchor desk on The Daily Show at Comedy Central’s “World News Headquarters in New York,” the job he has held for 16 years. (“Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show”)

It seems to say something about the nature of our society and culture these days that as Jon Stewart announces his departure, a satirical comedian is very likely the most trusted source in news—at least to an entire, younger generation to whom the name Brian Williams is, maybe, vaguely familiar. As media columnist David Carr of The New York Times wrote, “Oddly, Mr. Stewart will leave his desk as arguably the most trusted man in news.”

(In more sad news this week,  David Carr himself died just last night at The New York Times after hosting a Times Talks conversation at The New School in New York with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and NSA whistleblower Edward J. Snowden about the new film Citizenfour, directed by Poitras. Click here for a clip of that Times Talks appearance.)

jonstewartDave Itzkoff of The New York Times wrote, “For a segment of the audience that had lost its faith in broadcast and print news outlets or never regarded them as sacrosanct in the first place, Mr. Stewart emerged a figure as trusted as Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.”

Just think about that for a minute: Cronkite and Murrow. We’d agree, it’s a fair comparison.

As Jason Zinoman of the Times wrote in “A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor”:

“The Daily Show” didn’t just offer insightful, cutting analysis, clever parody and often hard-hitting interviews with major newsmakers. For an entire generation, it became the news, except this report could withstand the disruption of the Internet far better than the old media. If anything, the web only made “The Daily Show,” with its short segments, more essential. Every time a political scandal exploded or a candidate made headlines or a cable fight went viral, the first thought for many viewers was: I can’t wait to see what Jon Stewart will say about this.  [emphasis added]

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Surely the status of being the most trusted man in news is one that Brian Williams wanted for himself, and it may once have been possible, but now that trust may be irretrievable. Further revelations have appeared about Williams’s whoppers, fabrications, outright lies, that make it hard to insist that he should be allowed to stay in his big chair. Even as we went to press with our piece last Friday (we learned later), The Guardian was reporting that New Orleans residents were calling into question some of Brian Williams’s tales about his time covering Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath—some of the very coverage for which we were expressing gratitude.

We said last week, “We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.” A comment from AdHack on the cross-posting of “In Defense of Brian Williams” at Daily Kos answered that quite clearly:

It’s coming out now because Williams told his dishonest recollection of being shot down last Friday, after repeatedly being warned by NBC brass to stop it, and a bunch of military veterans called him on it, which was reported by Stars & Stripes and then picked up by other media. The question really should be: Why did it take so long for this to get out? Veterans have been trying to get out the truth for quite some time. 

Thanks to AdHack for that clarification. We have not found other sources attesting that NBC executives had told Williams to stop telling the tale about being shot down, but AdHack seems to know what he’s talking about.

Not the Only Tale-Teller with a Big Megaphone

We agree, though, with a Carla Wallach of Greenwich, Conn., the writer of a letter to the editor published in The New York Times on Feb. 12:

How sad that the NBC brass couldn’t see that all the brouhaha regarding the news anchor Brian Williams had nothing to do with his work. His fudging the truth regarding the helicopter incident was nearly an act of personal vanity, which is not a rarity among celebrities. So he was not on the helicopter that was fired on, as he claimed, but in one behind it: that’s close enough to death for me. A six-month suspension is too severe. People will have forgotten about the incident in less ethan a month. I will be among those welcoming him back. 

Nightly News with Brian WilliamsTrue, it doesn’t seem fair, especially when you consider the massive lies told in recent years and decades by government officials—too numerous to mention—and that there is an entire network with “News” in its name that does nothing but lie and distort, 24/7. But NBC Nightly News is and should be held to a higher standard of integrity. (See “Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” at The New Republic.)

We just hope we’ll see Brian Williams back on the job in not too long a time. And, again, the attention he helped bring to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was needed then and is needed still.

On a happier note, it’s Mardi Gras time, y’all (Tuesday, Feb. 17). Let the good times roll . . .

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Further Reading

Jon Stewart Will Leave ‘The Daily Show’ on a Career High Note” (NYT 2/11/15)

A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor” (NYT 2/10/15)

Kings of Their Crafts, but on Divergent Paths: Brian Williams’s and Jon Stewart’s Common Ground,” by David Carr, New York Times (2/11/15)

Brian Williams’ reports on Katrina called into question by New Orleans residents,” The Guardian (2/6/15)

NBC’s Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest,” Stars and Stripes (2/4/15)

Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show” (NYT 2/11/15)

Brian Williams Scandal Prompts Frantic Efforts at NBC to Curb Rising Damage” (NYT 2/11/15)

Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” by Nicole Hemmer, The New Republic (2/13/15)

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Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central

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In Defense of Brian Williams, New Orleans’ Loyal Friend

Friday, February 6th, 2015

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Now He Really Is Under Fire

The veracity of the leading network news anchor, Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, is in question—by his own fault—and now the sharks and wolves smell blood. A feeding frenzy ensues.    [ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Williams has apparently fabricated a story in which a military helicopter he was aboard in Iraq in 2003 was shot down. Other accounts say that his helicopter was never fired upon. He apologized on air on Wednesday night with a less than candid account, and critics aren’t satisfied—but we don’t care.

We Stand with Brian

Our confidence in Brian Williams is not shaken, and we called NBC Nightly News (212-664-4971) to say please keep him on the air. E-mail NBC Nightly News at nightly@nbc.com. We do not claim that he’s done nothing wrong—it looks pretty clear he repeatedly told a lie, with embellishments—but he has done so much good, particularly for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, that “all is forgiven.”

In a particularly rich nugget of hypocrisy, Howard Kurtz, an analyst at Fox News, says, “The admission raises serious questions about his credibility in a business that values that quality above all else.” We will not dignify that remark with a response other than to say consider the source: that’s about what we’d expect from fair and balanced Fox News, without which arguably there would have been no Iraq War for Brian Williams to report from. Other conservative voices are piling on. (Just check #BrianWilliams on Twitter—or, better yet, don’t bother.)

There is a tradition of news anchors going to places in the news, among the most famous of which was CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam in 1968 (transcript here), followed energetically by Dan Rather. (Rather went so often to dangerous places—such as to Afghanistan in 1980—that he acquired the nickname “Gunga Dan.”) Such on-the-ground reporting from war zones is often courageous, is surely good for ratings, and brings an enormous spotlight to the place or the issue in the news. It was in this tradition that Williams was in Iraq in 2003. (The New York Times’s television reporter Alessandra Stanley gives a well-rounded overview here. More below.)

In response to Williams’s admission of error (though not of lying) there is much righteous indignation and moral outrage, some of which has elements of accuracy. Of course, many competing news outlets would love to see the leading network news program weakened, its ratings and standing lowered, its anchor disgraced, possibly removed, as CBS anchor Dan Rather was dumped in 2004 following a dubiously sourced report about George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.

brian_williams_katrinaWhat we do know is that we and the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have great reason to be steadfastly grateful to Brian Williams for keeping the national spotlight firmly fixed on the region during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005. Williams camped out in the Superdome the night before Katrina made landfall, and was on the ground to report the damage and the resulting flood after the federally built levees and outflow canal walls failed.

For months, for years, he reported about New Orleans and environs, its struggles, successes, setbacks, and brave efforts and plucky initiatives to keep the good times—and life itself—rollin’. On the first anniversary of Katrina, on August 29, 2006, Williams took President George W. Bush on a walking interview through the Lower Ninth Ward—a Q&A in which Brian was visibly not taken in by Bush’s rosy account of things. (Transcript here.)

Brian-@-bayou1And in April 2010, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew out and killed 11 workers, Williams reported live from Venice, Louisiana (around the “birdfoot”). On the fifth anniversary of Katrina (August 29, 2010), he anchored three straight nights of news reports from New Orleans and interviewed President Obama, Brad Pitt, and Harry Connick Jr. (Other national networks also commemorated the event with special reports, and Anderson Cooper too was a reliable, loyal friend to New Orleans and environs.)

NBC, through coverage by the late Tim Russert, Martin Savidge, environmental reporter Anne Thompson, and Rachel Maddow at sister network MSNBC, has consistently been the network most dedicated to keeping public attention on Louisiana’s environmental struggles. Brian Williams has been the most prominent and consistent of those nationally broadcast voices.

There are more reasons than these why NBC should hold steady and not even think about making Williams step down, but his loyalty to New Orleans and vicinity explains why we are willing to look the other way and remember that he is not the only prominent person of whom factual integrity is expected who has let the public down.

Damage Control, and Reputation Repair

To be sure, Brian Williams is very well compensated: The New York Times reports that his latest contract for serving as managing editor and chief anchor of NBC Nightly News reportedly brings him $10 million a year. That kind of money could help a lot of jobless, hungry families. (He’s not the only American with an extremely large salary.) Maybe he could create some goodwill by donating one of those millions to the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, and maybe another to Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). Just a thought. (We, too, in our own modest way, contribute to those organizations.)

Brian, Illegitimi non carborundum

A member of our staff who minored in “cod Latin” reminds us of the well-worn phrase Illegitimi non carborundum—“Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (a motto often used by General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in World War II).

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Click here for a news media contact list.

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With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale,” New York Times (2/5/15)

After a Decade Building Trust, an Anchor Starts a Firestorm With One Wrong Move,” Alessandra Stanley, New York Times (2/5/15)

Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq,” New York Times (2/4/15)

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Remember August 29, 2005

Friday, August 29th, 2014

aug28katrinaIf you don’t live in or around New Orleans you may have forgotten, but August 29 is the day Hurricane Katrina assaulted the Gulf Coast with Category 3 winds (up to 175 mph) and storm surges of 25 to 28 feet, killing 1,833 and costing some $108 billion in damages, the costliest tropical storm in U.S. history. It was not until the following day that we began to realize that although the eye of the storm had curved eastward and the city was spared the worst—“we dodged a bullet”—the city was flooding! In addition to coastal St. Bernard, Plaquemines, and other parishes, 80 percent of New Orleans flooded when Katrina’s massive storm surge burst through the city’s outflow canals to Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, etc.—53 different levee breaches in all. (The surge was about 10 to 20 feet around New Orleans, and nearly 28 feet at nearby Pass Christian, Miss., exceeding the previous record set by Camille in 1969 by some 4 feet.)

The most dramatic and infamous of the flooded areas was the already poor Lower Ninth Ward. An animated graphic produced by The Times-Picayune shows the sequence of events, still horrifying to watch. It was a catastrophic failure of the mostly federally built storm protection system, and in the years since the scorned and humiliated the Army Corps of Engineers has worked overtime to rebuild and reinforce the area’s defenses against flooding. (The Corps’ funding and directives come—or don’t come—from Congress; this blog does not hold the Corps alone responsible for the failures.) For more about the flooding, and recommendations on reinforcement of the area’s flood defense system, see our interviews with Mark Schleifstein and Ivor Van Heerden.

See The Times-Picayune’s dramatic then-and-now photo essay and editorial “Nine Years Post Katrina: A Recovery Still in Progress.”

New Orleans: Proud to Rebuild Home

Much of the city has been rebuilt, and in some ways life in New Orleans is better than ever (see Magazine Street, for example). Other parts of town are still damaged, depressed. There are neighborhoods that will never be the same. Many people had to leave and will never return—they left to avoid the storm and could not have imagined they would not be able to return, or would not want to—but those who remain are bravely, determinedly rebuilding, and there are also thousands and thousands of new residents, many of them young, talented, imaginative and energetic. There is a relatively new and improved mayor, Mitch Landrieu, and the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010 the same weekend Landrieu was elected—a good warmup for Mardi Gras a week later. And then, lest anyone get too optimistic, a few months later, on Earth Day (April 22) 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded nearby in the Gulf of Mexico and became the most destructive marine oil spill in history, devastating the state’s coastline, seafood industry, wiping out livelihoods beyond measure. The lawsuits go on . . .

8-29Much has improved since the storm, and much remains the same, or worse. The United States remains embroiled in Middle East and Central Asian wars, some of our own making (or making worse). The nation continues to spend far more on its military than on its crumbling infrastructure, and the Pentagon receives hundreds of billions per year that could instead go to a national healthcare system that covers everyone, to an improved educational system in which teachers are compensated as though their work is valuable, and so on. Scroll through this blog’s posts (samples below) and you’ll see that the issues are plenty, and the work goes on. Congress remains dysfunctional or, worse, actively hostile amid widespread unemployment, persistent and seemingly deliberate shredding of the middle class and its safety net (rolling back the New Deal and the Great Society), and ever-increasing corporate profits and tax evasion, and diminishing taxation of the super-wealthy. The earth’s environment is under increasing stress from carbon emissions (again, one party in Congress stubbornly denies that global warming / climate change even exist, or that humanity is responsible), so the warming and rising seas threaten not only coastal Louisiana but the entire globe, as New York and New Jersey learned from Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

Well, on the bright side, there is plenty of work to be done: we shall not lack for causes to advocate for, write about, and urge elected officials and community and business leaders to assist with. Readers’ ideas are always welcome. E-mail us at leveesnotwar@mac.com.

As we have said many times, National Security Begins at Home. And, as we wrote on our About Us page years ago:

If New Orleans is not safe, no place in this country is safe. . . . Where will the federal government be when you’re down and out? Earthquakes, wildfires, tornadoes, collapsing bridges, hijacked planes . . . If the federal government neglects one city’s disaster, it can neglect them all. Without funding, without investment, things fall apart. The collapse of the physical infrastructure and the hospitals and schools and the justice system after the storm—what’s happening to New Orleans is happening to the entire country—except perhaps in luxury high-rises and gated communities. The Lower Ninth Ward is the national predicament carried to an extreme.

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In the next few days we’ll be posting about the upcoming annual Rising Tide conference to be held in New Orleans Saturday, Sept. 13. We’ll also be writing soon about a massive People’s Climate March in New York City on Sunday, Sept. 21. We’ll be at one but not the other—but both are important and we hope you can be there, too.

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Further Reading: Check Out These Important ‘Back Issues’

Levees Not War, a New York–based, New Orleans–dedicated blog, primarily covers the environment, infrastructure, and war and peace. Below are some selections that will appear in The Levees Not War Reader, forthcoming in 2015 from Mid-City Books. 

Hurricane Katrina / Environment

Is Katrina More Significant than September 11?  (9/11/10)

Understanding Louisiana’s Environmental Crisis

Louisiana Flood Protection Agency Sues Big Oil to Repair Wetlands  (7/25/13)

BP Celebrates Earth Day with Bonfire, Oil Spill: Well Leaks 210,000 Gallons a Day into Gulf of Mexico (4/26/10)

When Harry Met a Cover-Up: Harry Shearer Talks About The Big Uneasy  (10/14/10)

Interview with Mark Schleifstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning coauthor of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms

Interview with Ivor van Heerden, author of The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina

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

IEA Sees “Irreversible Climate Change in Five Years”  (1/21/12)

Wrath of God? : Global Warming and Extreme Weather  (5/24/11)

Infrastructure

Framing the Case for Infrastructure Investment, Taxing the Rich (2/7/12)

Infrastructure, Baby, Infrastructure! A Defense of Stimulus Investments  (4/9/10)

Republicans Secretly (Seriously) Like the Stimulus  (8/20/11)

Public Works in a Time of Job-Killing Scrooges  (3/3/11)

Barack, You’re Totally Our Infrastructure Hero! Obama, in Wisconsin, Calls for $60 Billion National Infrastructure Investment Bank  (2/14/08)

War and Peace

A Reluctant, Tentative Endorsement of (More) U.S. Military Action in Iraq  (8/10/14)

Obama Sends Troops to Protect U.S. Embassy in Baghdad  (6/17/14)

Congress, Now Is the Time to Vote “Hell No”  (9/4/13)

Here We Go Again [Syria]  (6/14/13)

As “End” of Iraq War Is Announced, U.S. Digs In, Warns Iran  (10/30/11)

As Combat Troops Leave Iraq, Where’s Our National Security?  (8/19/10)

“Kill the Bill” vs. “Stop the War”: A Tale of Two Protests  (4/11/10)

Deeper into Afghanistan: 360 Degrees of Damnation  (12/10/09)

Tax Day: How Much Have You Paid for the War?  (4/15/10)

Politics and Social Issues

GOP Is Not to Be Trusted with Adult Responsibilities  (10/17/13)

Marching on Washington [1963] for Economic and Social Justice  (8/29/13)

In Honor of Medgar Evers and Res Publica  (6/12/13)

Occupying Wall Street with Nurses, Teachers, Transit Workers, and the Rest of America’s Middle Class  (10/6/11)

“Arguing about How to Defuse a Huge Ticking Bomb”: Burn-it-Down Nihilism Spreads Among Tea-Infused House Republicans  (7/20/11)

Tyranny Disguised as Fiscal Discipline  (3/13/11)

Anti-Islamic Furor Helps al Qaeda, Endangers America  (8/23/10)

Nagasaki, Not Forgotten [65th anniversary]  (8/9/10)

Are “Conservatives” Conservative? Are They Even American? (10/6/09)

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“8-29-2005 Remember” design courtesy of Mark Folse.

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Elvin R. Heiberg III, General Who Took Blame for Hurricane Katrina Failures, Dies at 81

Friday, October 4th, 2013

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Former Head of Army Corps of Engineers Regretted Not Fighting for Storm-Surge Gates
As Tropical Storm Karen approaches the Gulf Coast, and FEMA employees, furloughed by the latest GOP Government Shutdown, are called back to work without pay, The New York Times reports the death of Lt. Gen. Elvin R. Heiberg III, “who rose to the top of the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980s and decades later expressed regret for failing to fight hard enough to build floodgates that he believed might have protected New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.” Gen. Heiberg died last Friday, Sept. 27, in Arlington, Va. He was 81. In June 2007, the Times reports, “nearly two years after Katrina, General Heiberg wrote a letter published in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans that ‘As too many continue to rush around to find someone to blame for the Katrina engineering failures, they can blame me. I gave up too easily.’ ” After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conceived a plan to build flood-surge gates at the eastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain at the Chef Menteur and the Rigolets passes to be lowered in case of an oncoming hurricane (map below). Environmentalists worried that the presence of the floodgates would make it easier for developers to drain areas for development and that the flow of water would be blocked.Luke Fontana, executive attorney for Save Our Wetlands Inc., filed a lawsuit to block the floodgates. In 1985, twenty years after Hurricane Betsy, the Corps gave up the plan. (The plan and its defeat—“death-by-environmentalism,” we call it—is discussed in detail in Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid’s excellent 2006 book Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms. See our interview with Schleifstein here.) In an interview cited by NPR online, Gen. Heiberg said, “I think that’s probably the biggest mistake I made, quitting instead of fighting. . . . I think Katrina proved that.” (See “Why Did the 17th Street Canal Levee Fail?” NPR, May 19, 2006.)   1965CorpsFloodgatesPlan The New York Times obituary in full appears below.
Elvin R. Heiberg III, General Who Took Blame for Hurricane Katrina Failures, Dies at 81
04heiberg-popup Lt. Gen. Elvin R. Heiberg III, who rose to the top of the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980s and decades later expressed regret for failing to fight hard enough to build floodgates that he believed might have protected New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, died last Friday in Arlington, Va. He was 81. The cause was cancer, said his daughter Kay Bransford. In June 2007, nearly two years after Katrina, General Heiberg wrote a letter published in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans that read: “As too many continue to rush around to find someone to blame for the Katrina engineering failures, they can blame me. I gave up too easily.” He explained that in the 1970s, when he commanded the New Orleans district, the corps planned to protect the city by building gates at the east end of Lake Pontchartrain. Environmentalists opposed the project, and local interests objected to sharing the costs, as federal law requires. A federal judge blocked the project and called for a more thorough analysis of its environmental impact. In the 1980s, when General Heiberg was commander of the corps, or chief of engineers—the youngest man to head the corps since the 19th century—the fight over the so-called barrier plan was still going on. “I was discouraged and decided to stop fighting for the barriers any longer,” he wrote in The Times-Picayune. “In retrospect, that was the biggest mistake I made during my 35 years as an Army officer.” In lieu of the barrier, the corps turned to raising levees and floodwalls around the city. It turned out to be a patchwork project that was still not complete when Katrina hit 20 years later and many segments of the floodwall failed. The official corps report on the disaster called the hurricane protection system “a system in name only.” General Heiberg’s letter fed an argument that had begun circulating soon after the storm that had blamed environmentalists for the destruction of the city, accusing them of blocking efforts to protect it. The conservative FrontPage Magazine called their tactics “Green Genocide.” But the barrier envisioned by the corps would have been ineffective, said G. Paul Kemp, an author of Louisiana’s official report on the disaster and an adjunct professor at the Louisiana State University department of oceanography and coastal sciences. Much of the water that inundated New Orleans, he said, had flowed in from a corner of Lake Borgne, which lies to the south and east of the city and which would have been outside the barrier’s reach. Alfred Naomi, a former senior project engineer for the corps in New Orleans, agreed that the barriers “might not have made a difference for Katrina,” though he argued that some areas might have suffered less damage had the barriers been there and that the project would have improved safety overall. He expressed admiration for General Heiberg and his public stand. “That showed integrity and moral certitude that you don’t find a lot in today’s society,” he said. “Right or wrong, he took the hit — and took some responsibility.” Elvin Ragnvald Heiberg III—he went by “Vald”—was born on March 2, 1932, at Schofield Barracks, the Army installation on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Like his father and a grandfather, he joined the Army and attended the United States Military Academy at West Point; the grandfather served as military attaché in Rome and died when he was thrown by a horse while visiting the Austro-Hungarian front in 1917. Vald III graduated from West Point in 1953 and earned master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George Washington University. His career in the Army and Corps of Engineers took him to wartime service in Korea and Vietnam and to Saudi Arabia, where he oversaw $14 billion in corps-led construction projects for the country’s national guard. He led the corps’ cleanup and rebuilding effort after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State in 1980, and ran the Army’s Ballistic Missile Defense Program, a precursor to the Reagan administration’s “Star Wars” plan. General Heiberg’s many decorations included the Silver Star Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross from his Vietnam service; he twice earned the Distinguished Service Medal. After retiring from the military, he worked with a number of companies, including Dawson & Associates, a consulting and government relations firm with expertise in water resources, where he was a senior adviser. In addition to Ms. Bransford, General Heiberg’s survivors include his wife, the former Kathryn Schrimpf, whom he married in 1953; another daughter, Kathryn Heiberg-Browning; two sons, Walter and Elvin IV; and a sister, Dorethe Skidmore. Contacted by a reporter last year to discuss the old barrier plan, General Heiberg said, “I haven’t changed my mind on any of that.” New Orleans is now protected by a $14 billion ring of walls, levees and gates, including a two-mile barrier at the northwest corner of Lake Borgne, and gates that can close the city’s drainage canals to block any surge from Lake Pontchartrain. Barriers for Lake Pontchartrain are again under consideration. #


Rising Tide Update: “Category 5 General” Russel Honoré Is Keynote Speaker

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans SaintsThree-star general hailed as “John Wayne dude” by former N.O. mayor Ray Nagin

The  annual Rising Tide conference has been ramped up to a whole new level: the keynote speaker will be Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, the no-nonsense “Category 5 General” who took command of Joint Task Force Katrina that coordinated military relief efforts following the August 29, 2005, hurricane and resulting “federal flood” of the city of New Orleans.

The 8th annual Rising Tide conference will be Saturday, Sept. 14, at Xavier University in New Orleans. Please see below for details about panels and other conference attractions. Registration (only $20) is still open; all are welcome. Click here for a map to Xavier University.

Honoré, a Louisiana native (born in Lakeland in Pointe Coupee Parish) and graduate of Southern University, was designated commander of Joint Task Force Katrina by President George W. Bush two days after the storm. Amid official incompetence from local to federal levels, Honoré exhibited decisiveness and a gruff management style, but also restraint and a local’s understanding of the people he had been sent to assist. He knew that the task force was on a relief mission, and barked at one soldier who had flashed his weapon at a New Orleanian in a threatening way, “We’re on a rescue mission, damn it!”

“Now, I will tell you this—and I give the president some credit on this—he sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done, and his name is Gen. Honoré. And he came off the doggone chopper, and he started cussing and people started moving. And he’s getting some stuff done.” —former New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin

Rising Tide is delighted to welcome Lt. Gen. Honoré. Copies of his new book, Leadership in the New Normal, will be available for sale.

An Aug. 29 interview with Lt. Gen. Honoré by WWNO ’s Jim Engster on the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, including remarks about the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, can be heard here. See also the expansive Washington Post profile, “The Category 5 General” (Sept. 12, 2005), CNN.com’s profile., and Lt. Gen. Honoré’s impressive curriculum vitae. • Historical note: In his interview with Jim Engster, Honoré mentions in passing that at the time he went to Rosenwald High School in New Roads, La. (class of ’66), the school was segregated: all-black. (As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”)

[ Because of health issues in her ongoing recovery from a gunshot wound in the Mother’s Day parade shootings in the Seventh Ward on May 12, 2013, the previously scheduled speaker, Deborah Cotton of Gambit Weekly, will not be able to appear. We wish Ms. Cotton well—and the other victims of that shooting, too—with a full and speedy recovery. (Contributions to a fund to help Deborah Cotton with her medical bills can be sent here.) ]

Rising Tide panels

Click here for more schedule details.

•  Creating Community for Writers of Color: MelaNated Writers Collective

•  Beyond Tourism Beyond Recovery

•  Charter School Access & Accountability

Second Stage: Tech School

•  Working with Bloggers

•  Personal Branding: When You Are What You’re Selling

•  Using Visual Tools in Online Promotion

•  Content Marketing

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More about Rising Tide

Past featured speakers have included David Simon (co-creator of HBO’s Treme and The Wire); the actor and activist Harry Shearer; N.O. geographer and historian Rich Campanella; Treme-born writer Lolis Eric Elie, director of the documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans; former Tulane professor of history Lawrence N. Powell, author of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans; Mother Jones human rights and environmental reporter (Ms.) Mac McClelland; and authors John Barry, Dave Zirin, and Chris Cooper and Bobby Block.

Click here for a listing of previous Rising Tide programs, with links to videos and more.

Like Rising Tide on Facebook (don’t forget to share!), follow Rising Tide on Twitter (remember to retweet!), and check for programming updates on the Rising Tide Conference Blog or Rising Tide website. Visualize Rising Tide at the RT Flickr site.

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For more information, please see our earlier post, “Rising Tide 8 is Sept. 14 in New Orleans: Register Now!

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Ask Not “Why Live There?”—Ask “How Can I Help?”

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

[ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Please Give to Red Cross

We just made a donation to the American Red Cross. We’re asking all our readers to please make a donation if you can. Click here or phone 1-800-HELPNOW or text “RedCross” to 90999. Even $5 or $10 can help buy food, water, bandages, batteries, blankets, and other necessities for people hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Thank you.

Click here and here for lists of volunteer opportunities and relief efforts that could use your help. Merci.

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Ask “How did you do?” and “How can I Help?”

Who can forget the question asked repeatedly after Hurricane Katrina, “Why do they live there?” The question was usually spoken with a tone of contempt or exasperation, and without sympathy, perhaps out of impatience after days of seeing “those people”—poor, forlorn—on TV screens where faces of “that complexion” were rarely seen. Maybe it was a Fox News–type of question. If those people just had sense enough to evacuate . . .

Now the same can be asked of those who live—as we do—in the largest, most densely populated metropolitan area in the United States, along the heavily populated upper Atlantic Seaboard. “Why do they live there?” is a fair question, as long as it’s not asked with contempt, without compassion. It could be asked as well of those who live in other at-risk areas such as Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Netherlands, or low-lying coastal areas of India, Bangladesh, and so on. It can also be asked of people in Tornado Alley in the central United States. Just about every spot on earth has its hazards, as we know.

The fact is, for very logical, practical reasons, humans have always tended to live near water. And, though it may seem strange, water often tends to be near coastal areas, which are sometimes prone to high tides, severe storms, and worse. (Inland people, too, can be flooded: Just ask Cairo, Ill., Memphis, Vicksburg . . .) On Wednesday Rachel Maddow showed a map identifying the population centers along the coasts of the United States: some 63 million residents, amounting to one-fifth of the U.S. population. Nineteen million in and around New York City, nearly 13 million in metro Los Angeles, and millions more in and around New Orleans, Miami, Tampa, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and so on. Is “Why do they live there?”—in the sense of “How could they be so stupid?”—a reasonable question of all these people?

In a letter to the editor of the New York Times printed Nov. 1, Suzette Marie Smith of New Orleans wrote:

We could not have said it better. We hope everyone will take Ms. Smith’s lesson to heart. Have compassion for your fellow Americans. We live in a time of extreme weather in all forms, and, though we hope not, next time it could be you, whether you live on a coast or in the middle.

Click “Read More” for dramatic photos of what Sandy left behind

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Hurricane Isaac and Tampa’s Blizzard of Lies

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

What Would Romney-Ryan Mean for FEMA and Infrastructure?

[ cross-posted at DailyKos ]

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“One of the themes of the Tampa convention will be the failure of government, and the prosperity that will result if it is cut to ribbons. But in a different corner of the television screen, the winds of Isaac are a reminder of the necessity of government—its labor, its expertise, its money—in the nation’s most dire moments. It is hard to forget what happened to New Orleans when that Republican philosophy was followed in 2005, and it will be harder still to explain how it might be allowed to happen again.” —“The Storm, Again,” NYT editorial, Aug. 27, 2012

“We have responsibilities, one to another—we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.” —vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan, acceptance speech, Republican National Convention, Tampa, Aug. 29, 2012

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If Hurricane Katrina was indeed divine retribution for abortions and tolerance of homosexuality, then how are we to understand God’s twice visiting strong hurricanes upon the U.S. at the exact moment when the Republican National Convention gathers to nominate its presidential candidate, with Gustav in 2008 and now with Isaac, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast on August 29, the exact 7-year anniversary of Katrina? (Rush Limbaugh has a suspicion.)

Far be it from us to question the wisdom of the true believers, but it’s our view that if hurricanes must come at all, it’s best they blow when the elephants are gathering at the water hole—preferably in Florida, or some other red coastal state. Let the screen be split. Let the images be juxtaposed. Let the nation never forget how the Republican way of governing—staffing disaster relief agencies with inexperienced cronies and then cutting funds—resulted in the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina: immeasurable death, destruction, anguish, financial ruin and impoverishment, dispersal, heartbreak . . . (To be sure, however, blame rests with both parties for the chronic underfunding of the Army Corps of Engineers that left the city’s levees and outflow canals’ floodwalls compromised.)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), established by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 at the persistent urging of state governors, only functions well when Democrats are in the White House. Democrats take governing and disaster management seriously, and Republicans do not. Bill Clinton’s FEMA director James Lee Witt (1993–2001) and the present director, W. Craig Fugate, are widely respected as disaster response professionals. In Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security (2006), Chris Cooper and Bobby Block survey the sad story of Republican disregard for disaster relief. FEMA’s tardy and disorganized response to Hurricane Andrew (shown above) in August 1992 likely cost President George H. W. Bush many votes in Florida, and beyond. Bill Clinton wrote in My Life (2004):

Traditionally, the job of FEMA director was given to a political supporter of the President who wanted some plum position but who had no experience with emergencies. I made a mental note to avoid that mistake if I won. Voters don’t chose a President based on how he’ll handle disasters, but if they’re faced with one themselves, it quickly becomes the most important issue in their lives.

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More Tax Cuts for the Rich, While Disaster Relief Is Held Hostage?

Five, six days after the storm, the lights are just coming back on in Mid-City and other parts of New Orleans. It’s 93 degrees, and thousands are still in the dark, without air conditioning.

While Hurricane Isaac was not as destructive as we feared—the reinforced floodwall system around greater New Orleans held up well—this storm’s timing was a reminder that there is one political party that is not to be trusted with disaster management, or with anything else relating to the social safety net. Mitt Romney’s economic plan would reduce non-discretionary spending by 30 percent.

Others have examined the falsehoods in Paul Ryan’s v.p. nomination acceptance speech and the overall dishonesty of the RNC show in Tampa (see here and here). Many have objected to the Republicans’ hypocrisy in blaming a president for failures ensured by their own blocking of every effort at repairing the economy. They filibustered or voted No on all potential remedies to make the public reject Obama. Many independents as well as Democrats and moderate Republicans are put off by the Mad Tea Party–style conservatives’ insistence that nothing good can come of government.

Many of the lies and evasions that concern us most, however, stem from the GOP’s hostility to spending taxpayers’ dollars on programs of direct help to the public, from Medicare and Social Security to FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service.

Paul Ryan sounds reassuring when he says, “The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves,” but the budgets he has put forth as chair of the House Budget Committee tell another story: You’re on your own.

Tim Murphy of Mother Jones in “What Would Romney-Ryan Mean for FEMA?” surveys the implications for disaster relief in the Ryan budgets—the same ones that would convert Medicare to a privatized “Vouchercare.” Murphy notes that the Ryan budget does not detail specific cuts (just as Mitt Romney avoids specifics), but “the overall math suggests that [the cuts] would be drastic.” In 2011 there were 14 disasters costing over $1 billion in damages, a record high, and with the intensifying climate change that the Republicans refuse to acknowledge, the disasters’ frequency and destructiveness are only going to get worse.

Murphy writes:

“. . . under a Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan administration, FEMA’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to natural disasters could be severely inhibited. In a 2012 report on Rep. Paul Ryan’s ‘Path to Prosperity’ roadmap (which Romney has said is similar to his own), the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that, due to the severe cuts to non-entitlement, non-defense spending, the costs for things like emergency management would have to be passed on to the states—which, with just a few exceptions, are currently in an even tighter financial bind than Washington.

“FEMA also helps states and local governments repair or replace public facilities and infrastructure, which often is not insured,” the CBPP report explained. ‘This form of discretionary federal aid would be subject to cuts under the Ryan budget. If it were scaled back substantially, states and localities would need to bear a larger share of the costs of disaster response and recovery, or attempt to make do with less during difficult times.’ ”

Pat Garofalo at ThinkProgress describes how Republicans held disaster relief funding hostage several times in 2011, demanding that funding be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. “The GOP pulled the same trick when Missouri was hit by a deadly tornado in May, when Virginia was affected by an earthquake, and when Hurricane Irene struck America’s east coast.” Garofalo quotes David Weigel at Slate:

According to the House Appropriation Committee’s summary of the bill, the [GOP’s 2011 continuing resolution] funds Operations, Research and Facilities for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association with $454.3 million less than it got in FY2010; this represents a $450.3 million cut from what the president’s never-passed FY2011 budget was requesting. The National Weather Service, of course, is part of NOAA—its funding drops by $126 million. The CR also reduces funding for FEMA management by $24.3 million off of the FY2010 budget, and reduces that appropriation by $783.3 million for FEMA state and local programs.

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We won’t pretend to interpret divine intentions in the timing of the recent hurricanes and other disasters, but we can be thankful for the opportunity to point out to the concerned public that there is one slate of candidates who will not be there for you when a tornado rips through your town, or an earthquake splits your streets. We won’t say (though others may) that natural disasters are God’s way of saying “Vote Democratic,” but don’t you want to be on the safe side?

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Photo credits: Hurricane Andrew (1992) by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); downed stop light in New Orleans (2012) by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

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