Friday, September 02, 2005

Debt and Disaster

In 1995, heavy rains caused flooding in New Orleans that killed six people. Congress authorized funding for the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project. Over the next few years, the Army Corps of Engineers spent $430 million shoring up levees; but the money began to dry up as the cost of wars abroad mounted.

It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.
— Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 8, 2004.

On September 22, 2004, a Times-Picayune report on flood control noted that another Army Corps of Engineers study of levees and floodgates to protect metropolitan New Orleans was not initiated because:

…the cost of the Iraq war forced the Bush administration to order the New Orleans district office not to begin any new studies, and the 2005 budget no longer includes the needed money...

When President Clinton left office, the U.S. had a surplus. Campaigning for the presidency, Al Gore promised to begin paying down the debt. Republicans insisted that the money in federal coffers belongs to the people. They said the people know how to spend their money better than the government, so the people should get their money back.

Contrary to propaganda, however, the government is not a mindless machine that blindly shreds money. People in government, human beings, make spending decisions — good decisions, dumb decisions. The Bush team cut taxes, launched what has become the most expensive war in our history, saddled us with a monstrous debt, and wasted money designated for homeland security.

For days, television coverage of the situation in New Orleans featured scenes of reporters in boats surveying the damage; but there was virtually no sign of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the National Guard. Over 3000 members of the Louisiana National Guard are in Iraq — along with the equipment they would normally use in disaster relief. There is some discussion of sending troops from other states, but those other states also have guard troops in Iraq and are not anxious to overextend themselves. In a telephone interview on WWL radio on September 1, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin spoke bluntly about the relief effort:

It’s politics, man, and they’re playing games and they’re spinning. They’re out there spinning for the cameras.
…I’ve talked directly with the president; I’ve talked to the head of homeland security; I’ve talked to everybody under the sun…I keep hearing that it’s coming — this is coming and that is coming. My answer to that today is B.S.

The catastrophe in New Orleans was a disaster foreseen. The fact that New Orleans is below sea level was not exactly news. The levees needed to be raised; but that wasn’t news, either. The Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project should have been completed ahead of schedule, especially after Florida’s experience in 2004. The effort should have been expanded, not slashed. The cost of completing the project was less than the cost of one day of war in Iraq.

From Alabama to Mississippi to New Orleans, millions of people have been displaced and thrown out of work. New Orleans could be uninhabitable for months. Tens of thousands of people will be filing for bankruptcy. And rain is in the forecast for New Orleans next week.

For that matter, another hurricane could hit New Orleans, or flatten Miami. An earthquake could devastate California; a tsunami could strike the east coast. The federal government is already borrowing $50 billion a month. Federal disaster relief means more debt.

The United States of America is the richest nation on earth, but we are borrowing money to kill people abroad and save them at home. It’s time to rethink our priorities. Debt contributes to disaster; and if we’re not careful, debt may one day be the disaster.