It has been nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina showed what conservative "every-man-for-himself" government means for ordinary working people.
New Orleans survived Hurricane Katrina only to nearly drown when the storm surge broke the levees on Aug. 29, 2005. While Louisiana's National Guard served in Iraq, US military resources in the Gulf of Mexico were placed on standby. Local and state authorities and civilians were left for three days to rescue those who were stranded in the flood.
Now the White House is blaming Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius for not following procedure to document gaps in disaster coverage when Kansas National Guard troops were sent to Iraq and then expecting the federal government to fill in after a giant tornado leveled Greensburg, Kan., on May 5.
Sebelius (D) said about half the state's National Guard trucks are in Iraq -- equipment that would be helpful in removing debris -- and the state is also missing trained personnel. "The issue for the National Guard is the same wherever you go in the country. Stuff that we would have borrowed is gone," she said, according to the Associated Press.
But White House Press Secretary Tony Snow went on a pre-emptive attack May 8, defending the administration's performance. "As far as we know, the only thing the governor has requested are FM radios," Snow said. "There have been no requests to the National Guard for heavy equipment." He added that the president's disaster declaration lets the state obtain heavy equipment through private contractors.
No doubt some of Dick Cheney's friends could fix the state up ...
It seems like deja vu in the Big Easy, where after the storm, Republican leaders first blamed Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, then questioned the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans. Dennis Hastert, who was then House Speaker, told a suburban Chicago newspaper three days after Katrina that he wasn't sure it was wise to rebuild a city "that's seven feet under ... sea level." In fact, researchers found that half of the city is at or above sea level. And even if all the metropolitan area were below sea level, the Times Picayune noted, it is no reason to write off New Orleans. Two-thirds of the Netherlands is below sea level, as much as 20 feet below the North Sea. But after a 1953 storm killed 1,800 people, the country built a $14.7 billion flood-protection system of barriers, dams and other structures that is engineered to fail less than once every 10,000 years.
Under Bush, the Corps of Engineers has spent $800 million to patch the levees, declaring that it has restored them to pre-Katrina strength. But Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the new levees show serious flaws that could let a storm weaker than Katrina breach them. The Corps of Engineers estimates it would cost $10 billion to fully protect the metropolitan area.
New Orleans' population has rebounded to an estimated 255,000 within the city limits, about 56% of the pre-flood population of 454,000, according to a local research firm. Many others would like to come home but are waiting for government assistance after private insurance largely stiffed them, claiming that casualty insurance did not cover flood damage. Renters are largely on their own. Rents on habitable apartments have soared while public housing remains largely shuttered, leaving the working poor to live in FEMA trailers, tents, cars or elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Lower 9th Ward, the neighborhood hardest hit by the flooding because it was nearest to the levee breaks, is still largely uninhabited although most of the damaged houses have been gutted or cleared -- many with volunteer help from around the country. In December 2006 it was the last neighborhood to get water and electricity restored. Some 60% of its 5,600 houses were owner-occupied. But its predominantly black, working-class residents had to fight for the right to rebuild, while there was never a question that the similarly-devastated middle-class Lakeview neighborhood would be rebuilt.
The federal government claims it has appropriated $120 billion for Gulf Coast relief after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but it's hard to see where the money went. Louisiana received $7.5 billion to restore housing and more than 130,000 homeowners applied for funds through the Road Home program to fix up their homes. As of April 30, state officials reported 13,753 claims have been processed, but it appears the fund could fall $3 billion short of paying all eligible applicants.
Even the 5,100 public housing apartments in New Orleans that are in faily good condition remain closed by order of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has controlled the Housing Authority of New Orleans since 2002. HUD plans to replace the garden-style buildings, which were undamaged in the storm, but many residents still suspect the prime real estate eventually will be handed over to developers.
The US House passed the Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act (HR 1227), which would re-open the public housing units and make sure there is no loss of affordable public housing in New Orleans. The bill is awaiting action in the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
In the meantime, FEMA has extended rental assistance for more than 120,000 victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita -- including an estimated 80,000 Gulf Coast residents still living in FEMA trailers -- through March 1, 2009. By then we'll have a new administration trying to finish the rebuilding job.
Two recent regulatory decisions favoring big corporate media pose grave threats to independent media. The agency that oversees postal rates in the US is on the verge of ordering historic changes that will strike at the pocketbooks of small magazines and their subscribers. The US Postal Service last year proposed a large but manageable increase of approximately 12% for all publishers. But the Bush-appointed Postal Regulatory Commission rejected the Postal Service plan in favor of a complicated scheme submitted by Time Warner that would favor large, ad-heavy magazines like Time and People at the expense of smaller publications like The Progressive Populist. Big publishers who can automate their mailings could see rate cuts while small magazines could see increases above 30%.
The new rates, scheduled to take effect in July, are supposed to make periodicals pay their way. The policy shift, made with little public debate, would overturn more than 200 years of postal policy that promoted the spread of diverse publications.
US Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), chair of the House subcommittee on the Postal Service, plans to investigate the matter. In the meantime, we don't know how much the rates will impact us, but we will keep any subscription increase to a minimum.
In another threat, the Copyright Royalty Board, acting under pressure from the recording industry, is about to order huge increases -- as much as 1,200% -- in royalties paid every time webcasters stream a song online. If these rules go into effect on July 15, many public, independent and smaller Internet radio stations will have to shut down. As FreePress.net notes, at stake is the diversity of musical choice that the Internet has come to represent for more than 50 million listeners.
HR 2060 -- the Internet Radio Equality Act, introduced by Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Don Manzullo (R-Ill.), would reverse the CRB's decision and establish more reasonable royalty rates. HR 2060 would set a fee structure for 2006-2010 that puts Internet radio royalties on an equal footing with satellite radio, protects the mission of public broadcasting by creating a separate rate for noncommercial webcasters, and ensures a reasonable and fair payment of royalties to artists by all. HR 2060 already has 42 co-sponsors but could certainly use a lot more.
To support independent media, contact your Congress member, call Free Press at 877-888-1533 or see Freepress.net.
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