Politics & Policy

State of Damage

Blanco vs. Big Easy.

As quickly as engineers drain the flood waters in New Orleans, evidence rushes in that state-level missteps deepened the Crescent City’s suffering during and after Hurricane Katrina. As hard as left-wing activists and liberal commentators try to blame President Bush and federal officials exclusively for this mess, their story continues to spring leaks.

”I really should have called for the military,” Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D., La.) whispered to her press secretary, Denise Bottcher. “I really should have started that in the first call” to President Bush.

Blanco’s quiet confession was caught on tape while she sat in a studio between interviews on August 31. Her comments aired on Bayou State TV stations, appeared on CNN, and bounced around the Internet in recent days.

On September 2, CNN’s Miles O’Brien pressed Blanco to explain when she called for federal troops to ride to New Orleans’s rescue:

O’BRIEN: Did you ask that the Pentagon deploy troops? Because that is a very specific request that a governor needs to make of the federal government.

BLANCO: We had troops being deployed. We had the first wave of troops being deployed at the level of 12,000. But before we even got to 12,000, I asked for 40,000.

So you know, I saw that we needed a greater capacity.

O’BRIEN: When did you make that request, though?

BLANCO: Miles, I’m lost in the days.

O’BRIEN: When did you make that request?

O.K.

BLANCO: I don’t even know what today is.

O’BRIEN: On Wednesday morning…

BLANCO: I made that request perhaps Wednesday.

So, in Blanco’s own words, she did not request federal troops until Wednesday, August 31, the day after the 17th Street Canal floodwall broke, drowning New Orleans; two days after Hurricane Katrina roared in from the Gulf of Mexico; three days after she and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, on President Bush’s insistence, ordered the city’s mandatory evacuation; and four days after the president, in response to a letter from Blanco, declared a state of emergency along the Gulf Coast.

So what happened that Wednesday?

According to CNN’s Carol Lin, “Blanco called the White House to appeal for federal troops. President Bush was not available. Instead, she spoke to Homeland Security Adviser Francis Townsend. A senior administration official says that’s when troops started moving.”

“The Cavalry” started to roll and reached the Big Easy in big trucks full of water, food, and medicine.

Should they have arrived before Friday morning, September 2? Everyone wishes so, but they likely would have shown up earlier had Blanco requested troops before mid-week as that crisis unfolded.

Meanwhile, the board of commissioners of the Orleans Levee District, better known as the Orleans Levee Board, is emerging as another state agency that is, at best, distracted and, at worst, fatally corrupt.

Located at 6001 Stars & Stripes Boulevard, the Orleans Levee Board is responsible for flood control as well as management of recreational projects on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. While such activities are within its charter, their gold plating and lack of privatization raise questions about their legitimacy. The Levee Board’s greatest hits include:

‐A $2.4 million Mardi Gras Fountain on the banks of the same Lake Pontchartrain that engulfed New Orleans.

‐$15 million for two highway overpasses to speed motorists to and from Bally’s Casino New Orleans. The Levee Board is the gambling den’s landlord.

‐$45,000 for a private eye’s nine-month probe into Robert Namer, a radio host and Levee Board critic. It blew another $45,000 on a legal settlement with Namer after he sued the Levee Board.

‐Of the 11 construction projects on its website, only two appear flood-oriented. Others involve painting and coating, pouring asphalt, and installing a marine fuel tank.

‐As if all this did not leave its plate overflowing, the Levee Board also owns and runs New Orleans Lakefront Airport. Its webpage boasts “Meeting rooms, free of charge” and “Full course dining with a view of the airfield in the Walnut Room.” It also announces, “We have 83 acres of prime airport land available for development.”

‐The Levee Board owns and operates Orleans Marina. As its website suggests: “Bring your boat and stay with us for your convention, the Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, or any special event–or just to have a fling!”

‐In addition, the Levee Board owns and manages South Shore Harbor Marina, another yacht basin with 447 open slips and 26 covered slips. “Wednesday nights are Red Beans and Rice nights,” its website chirps.

‐According to a state inspector general, the Levee Board suffers from “a long-standing and continuing disregard of the public interest.”

In his agency’s defense, current Levee Board President Jim Huey told NBC’s Lisa Myers: “As far as the overall flood protection system, it’s intact. It’s there today. It worked. In 239 miles of levees, 152 floodgates, and canals throughout this entire city, there was [sic] only two areas” that failed, namely the 17th Street Canal and the Industrial Canal floodwalls.

This is akin to saying, “All of Grandpa’s blood vessels worked perfectly, except for the two that went ahead and got blocked before his stroke.”

One former Levee Board insider sees that agency as much more than hyperactive. Billy Nungesser, GOP ex-Governor Mike Foster’s Levee Board president in the mid-1990s, considers the organization lethally unethical.

“Every rock you turn over is crooked,” he says by phone from his home in Belle Chase, Louisiana. “It was a cesspool of politics, bad spending, and wasted money that should have been spent on flood control.” He adds: “I have been quoted as saying, ‘If your kid dies in a flood or hurricane, come out here and shoot us, because we’re responsible for it.’”

Nungesser, former chairman of the Louisiana GOP, tried to expose and prevent some of the Levee Board’s more extravagant projects.

“Billy Nungesser came in talking fiscal prudence,” James Gill wrote in the March 24, 1999, New Orleans Times-Picayune. “Once the rest of the board realized he was opposed to squandering public money, he was toast.” Nungesser says he faced resistance from his colleagues as well as well-connected contractors, attorneys, and others who found the status quo perfectly cozy. He believes their opposition to his reform efforts extended far beyond the agency’s offices.

“The Levee Board has its own police force,” Nungesser says. “They followed me home after meetings, even though I didn’t want that.” He believes that some of those who did not want their boat rocked “were trying to frighten me off. They broke beer bottles with manure on my driveway. They tried to run me off the road. I got threatening phone calls at 2:00 o’clock in the morning. They put roofing nails under my tires…With all the threats, my wife didn’t sleep for months.”

The post-Katrina flooding “was a catastrophe waiting to happen because the Levee Board was run strictly as a political board,” Nungesser says. “This is the worst thing that ever happened to New Orleans,” he says, “and it was preventable.”

Yet another development suggests that Washington’s billions of Katrina-relief dollars should stay vigilant while in Louisiana. The September 17 Los Angeles Times reported that federal auditors are looking for up to $60 million in unaccounted-for FEMA money that seems to have steamed down the Mississippi. Last March, FEMA demanded that Louisiana refund $30.4 million. This outlay was dedicated, in part, to purchase the homes of property owners in areas vulnerable to floods.

“Much of the FEMA money that was unaccounted for was sent to Louisiana under the Hazard Mitigation Grant program, intended to help states retrofit property and improve flood control facilities,” the Times learned. Among $40.5 million sent to state emergency-management officials for hazard mitigation, there were no receipts for 97 percent of a $15.4 million allocation awarded to subcontractors on 19 different projects. That comes to $14.94 million in spending with no paper trail.

Three state workers have been indicted in this mess, and two more have been named as unindicted co-conspirators. One of those indicted last November is Michael L. Brown, no relation to Michael D. Brown, the disgraced FEMA chief who resigned September 12 after blowing the response to Katrina.

Even in Brown’s absence, unfortunately, FEMA keeps proving that Baton Rouge has no monopoly on incompetence. NBC News focused September 16 on a very simple FEMA assignment: supplying ice to Katrina’s victims so they can cool food, chill medicine, and chomp on while awaiting normalcy. FEMA’s handling of this basic task suggests that vaudeville is alive and well.

NBC found hundreds of ice-filled trucks in Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, and Tennessee, as well as hard-hit Louisiana and Mississippi. Some had been in nearly perpetual motion for two weeks.

One truck departed Oshkosh, Wisconsin September 6. It traveled to Louisiana, before FEMA sent it to Georgia, then re-directed it to South Carolina, then Cumberland, Maryland, where it stopped for at least three days. This big rig’s wild ride has cost Uncle Sam an extra $9,000 so far. There are hundreds more just like it.

“The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” said the Cool Express Trucking Company’s Dan Wessell. “The right hand is telling us to go to the left hand. We get to the left hand, they tell us to go back…From a trucking aspect, I’m happy. Keep it coming. From a taxpayer aspect, it’s sick.”

FEMA says it ordered too much ice and wants to pre-position it near the paths of future hurricanes. That hardly explains why FEMA purchased more ice and dispatched several trucks full of it–to Idaho.

In partial defense of every official who performed below expectations, Katrina was a handful. It proved to be the most destructive storm to strike America in our 229-year history. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially granted Katrina that distinction based upon its sustained winds of 175 MPH, its barometric pressure of 902 millibars (the fourth-lowest recorded in an Atlantic hurricane, and about 88.8 percent of the 1,106 millibars normally measured at sea level), and its hurricane-force winds stretching 120 miles from its eye. Katrina’s expected financial aftermath–$125 billion in economic destruction and perhaps $60 billion in insurance payouts–far outstrips the 21 billion current-dollar toll that Hurricane Andrew exacted in 1992.

But don’t blame this ferocious natural force for submerging the streets of New Orleans. So says Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

“I heard from a very reliable source who saw a 25-foot-deep crater under the levee breach,” Farrakhan explained in Charlotte, North Carolina September 12. “It may have been blown up to destroy the black part of town and keep the white part dry.”

Well, at least we cleared that up.

Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.

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