Thursday, April 17, 2008

Katrina, Rita and the GOP Crony Capitalism

I'm taking part in a two-day NOLA/Gulf Blogathon over at DailyKos. This is my diary from Thursday, April 17.

You can click the headline to go to the DailyKos post.

• • • • •

Hurricane season is about six weeks away. The Mississippi River is very high due to heavy rains in the MidWest. The Bonne Carre Spillway has been opened for the first time in 11 years to let some river water flow through Lake Pontchartrain into the Gulf of Mexico.

Things are tensing up down along the Gulf Coast. Less than three years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck and the levees failed in New Orleans, nature is reminding us of what a tenuous hold we have on the lives we've created and are still rebuilding for ourselves down here.

We don't want to — and can't — go through another disaster again. Especially with the current administration in place. Real help will not come.

The hard and, yes, bitter lessons learned along the coast over the past two-and-a-half years are going to come in handy for the rest of the country it focuses on the coming federal elections.

The core lesson is this: Republican crony capitalism doesn't fix anything that's broken. It's all about them taking care of their own while the rest of us are left on our own. The proof is being lived out daily on the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi.

The federal response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita should tell Americans all they need to know about modern Republican crony capitalism as practiced by the Bush/Cheney administration and its heir wannabe John McCain.

There are three places that illustrate the model and its impact on the recovery: Biloxi and Pascagoula, Mississippi; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Cameron Parish, Louisiana. The better known places show the business model in all its awfulness. Cameron, in a way, demonstrates how far the GOP has lost touch with its roots and its basic decency in less than 20 years.

Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it hit the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana and, later, the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The blows it delivered there were natural disasters — the combined effect of wind and storm surge. The floods in New Orleans were the result of levee failures caused by a relatively weak storm. Winds in Lake Pontchartrain never exceeded 90 miles per hour. As we should all know by now, the cause of the floods in New Orleans were defective levees built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

So, what happened in New Orleans was a man-made disaster.

LET 'EM EAT CHIPS

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has been trying his best to turn the natural disaster of Katrina into a man-made disaster by diverting federal housing money from low income families into projects like improvements at the the Port of Pascagoula that could include luxury condos.

Scandal-plagued HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson granted Barbour's request to use $600 million in money appropriated for low income housing for use at the port instead of on housing. The result is evident. A drive along US 90 on the Mississippi coast reveals freshly repaired casinos standing a parking lot or two away from houses that are still in ruins.

Oh, and one of the scandals helping drive Jackson from office deals with him allegedly giving preferential treatment to a contractor for work on public housing-related contracts in post-Katrina New Orleans.

In a speech to the Delta Regional Authority annual meeting in 2007, Barbour said his wife was his "eyes and ears" on the Gulf Coast in the weeks and months immediately after the storm hit. Other members of his family, it appears, were his wallet. Barbour didn't spend much personal time on the coast, apparently only finding time to travel down there when George W. came looking for a photo-op.

Compare that to (now former) Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who actually went to the Louisiana Superdome in the first days after the levees broke in New Orleans. She was there. She also took extraordinary measures to ensure that federal dollars sent to Louisiana were used for their intended purpose — disaster relief and the recovery of our citizens.

As Michael "Heck of a job, Brownie" Brown pointed out, Blanco worked under the additional burden of being a Democratic governor seeking help from a highly partisan Republican administration. The storms and their aftermaths eventually cost Blanco her job, or at least made her decide not to seek re-election.

HOOKED ON POWER


Republican opportunism in Katrina's wake in New Orleans arrived in full force about the time the water was finally pumped out of the city (almost 60 days after the storm).

The first hint of what was to come was when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin appointed Bush Pioneers Joe Canizaro and Boysie Bollinger to head up his Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

But, the real power grab began in December of 2005 when U.S. Senator David Vitter and his wife Wendy convened a group of Vitter's biggest contributors to a meeting to launch an effort to turn the diaspora of the poor and African Americans out of Orleans Parish into a political transformation of Louisiana politics.

The result of that meeting was the formation of the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority (LCRM). It was led by Canizaro and funded by a core group of other Republicans (some, though not all, from Louisiana) who committed to raise $2.5 million to try to elect a Republican majority in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

That Canizaro and Bollinger were never committed to the rebuilding of the city was exemplified by Bollinger's decision to shut down his shipyard in Algiers and shift the work and the jobs to other of his operations across the coast. And, he collected recovery money in the process!

Modeled after Tom DeLay's criminal enterprise, Texans for a Republican Majority, the LCRM was raising barrels full of money until Vitter's links to prostitutes were made public in the summer of 2007.

The LCRM did not succeed in winning Republican control of the Louisiana House, although they came close enough for Democrats to hand the speakership to a Republican after Bobby Jindal won election as governor.

The LCRM and its members are committed to defeating Mary Landrieu and will definitely be active fighting to defeat the U.S. Senator who has done more to ensure that the recovery in Louisiana gets the federal financial help it needs.

Again, as in Mississippi, the recovery is viewed as nothing more than an opportunity for Republicans to advance business and political agendas that have little or nothing to do with alleviating the suffering and mitigating the losses that resulted from the disasters that prompted the relief efforts.

NOBLESSE OBLIGE & CONNECTIONS

In Cameron Parish, though, the proof of how far the Republican Party has fallen is evidence by the new hospital there. South Cameron Memorial Hospital was destroyed by Hurricane Rita two weeks after Katrina hit eastern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The hospital is located a mile or so off the Gulf of Mexico in what is the community of Creole.

Cameron Parish is the largest parish in Louisiana in terms of area. Prior to Rita, there were about 10,000 residents in this vast parish that is home to fishermen, offshore oil workers, and now liquified natural gas plants.

Knowing that access to healthcare was essential to rebuilding the devastated parish, local officials committed to working to get FEMA and the Louisiana Recovery Authority to support rebuilding the hospital. Both entities provided financing to "restore" what had been destroyed. That meant that no new services could be added; what had been destroyed could be replaced, but there could be no expansion of services.

The federal assistance was also conditional on residents in the parish agreeing to tax themselves to ensure that there was operating revenue for the hospital if it was to be rebuilt. That tax passed overwhelmingly in 2006.

Still, there was a shortage of money to build the hospital, so residents turned to the Bush/Clinton Katrina Fund for help. All of the money raised by the fund was earmarked for Katrina-related recovery and restoration efforts. But, locals made their plea to former President George H.W. Bush who used his personal connections to bring help to the residents of Cameron Parish.

At the hospital grand opening last month, it was announced that Bush Sr. had gotten the government of Kuwait to provide the $2 million needed to complete the hospital rebuilding project. There was nothing in that effort for Bush Sr. And, so far as can be determined, there was no benefit to any of the contractors involved other that the work they were obligated to perform.

Cameron Parish has their hospital back due in no small part because Bush Sr. still has in him that sense of decency and empathy — yes, noblesse oblige — that the current batch of craven Republicans so evidently lack. The decency gap between Bush Sr. and George W. is in itself the story of the core of the story of what has happened to the Republican Party and to this country.

It is evident in the federal response to the credit crisis: bail out the investment banks, the home builders, and other lenders, but leave homeowners and their families to fend for themselves.

In the GOP's America, we are on our own. The rest of the world saw it in the wake of Katrina and Rita. Americans may have forgotten. The people on the Gulf Coast know it now. The rest of the country is getting ready for the refresher course.

Mike Stagg

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