By JOHN HALL
Media General News Service
September 21, 2005
Throwing money at Hurricane Katrina victims from a government living on credit wasn't the answer. Finally, spending while in debt is being seen for the ill-considered solution it has been all along - whether for fighting the war in Iraq or using the highway bill as a political pork barrel.
Bush initially proposed a recovery program for the Gulf Coast of an estimated $200 billion without any means to pay. That finally brought fiscal conservatives out of their long hibernation. The message Capitol Hill got was that the long national spending spree has to stop now regardless of the urgency of the cause. Either something has to be cut elsewhere in the government or taxes have to be raised.
Within a day of his speech, Bush was conceding in his weekly radio address that major spending cuts would be necessary to pay for the New Orleans recovery. That's something he didn't do after 9/11, the war in Iraq and other emergencies.
Bush has seemed shaken by his precipitous fall in public approval in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps his mea culpa at the White House and his speech promising New Orleans would be rebuilt might have been seen - in another context, in another year, on another topic - as a bold and deft step toward political rehabilitation. But not this time.
In the days and months after the 9/11 attacks, Bush's standing with the public soared. His identification with brave New York police and fire fighters was like a wind that carried him through three years later to the New York Republican convention and reelection, even though there were harsh questions about administration's performance.
The New Orleans flood, by contrast, produced acrimony from the start. Governments at all levels seemed to collapse. Rescue and security preparations, some instituted because of insufficiencies exposed by the 9/11 tragedy, were either not carried out or never put in place, Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean, the co-chairmen of the 9/11 commission, said disgustly.
Both are calling for prompt action by the administration to fix what may be a far more serious problem exposed by this tragedy than the paralysis of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And that was the inability of New Orleans, Louisiana and the White House to organize a way for federal troops to be deployed quickly to the flood area and decide who was in charge of them.
Hamilton and Kean said it is clear that problem now needs to be revisited by Congress and resolved quickly in case there is another natural disaster or a terrorist attack on a major city.
"You cannot do anything without establishing order," says Hamilton, in arguing that the priority must be to put in place a workable plan for deploying troops.
"What discourages us," says Kean, "is that this (reform of domestic military deployment in emergencies) was one of our recommendations" and nothing was done to carry it out. Kean puts much of the blame at the state level, where few functioning emergency plans for using the National Guard are place.
In Louisiana, what was in place was distrust. The Republican administration in Washington and the Democratic city hall in New Orleans were still treating each other more as suspects than partners last week.
Within 48 hours of Bush's speech promising relief, Bush fought openly with Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans over whether people should be admitted back into the city. Nagin said they could come back to some drier areas but Bush warned them to stay away because of a public health emergency.
The approach of another hurricane temporarily halted Nagin's repopulation effort and left the dispute to simmer, but it exposed how divided the relief effort is and how disunited the republic.
"The American people are sick of it," said Kean, a former New Jersey governor and a Republican.