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24.9.05

Louisiana's bad storm luck ready to spawn more kookery

So, Louisiana is about to get whacked again as I write this. At least it’s headed to a largely uninhabited area. But it probably means flooding around Lake Charles, and maybe parts north, plus a good deal of destruction in Cameron Parish. More costly physical and economic damage now lies ahead.

In fact, it should be more costly that the re-breaching of two parts of levees along New Orleans’ Industrial Canal earlier today. That already pretty much was wiped out. On the west side or Orleans Parish they seem to be holding there. Still, even if this estimate may prove high, we’re looking at billions more dollars damaged in Louisiana.

I do hope lessons have been learned from Hurricane Katrina, and the early indications are regarding her sister Rita that they have been. Both Cameron and Lake Charles mobilized and got people out. Farther north, officials sound like they’re on top of matters, too. Even Gov. Kathleen Blanco is doing what she does best.

Unfortunately, the kooks are out already on this one. Bet we’ll see in the coming days how a better response concerning Rita is a consequence of Pres. George W. Bush being from Texas as opposed to letting the Democrat-controlled Louisiana twist (literally) in the wind. And more conspiracy theories since it was the mainly black, poor section of New Orleans that got re-flooded while the levees in the wealthier, mostly white Lakeview area held, that (pick your villain) the federal government, the Army Corps of Engineers, the state, the city, the Orleans Levee District, whoever, favored repairing the 17th Street Canal’s breach more strongly. Just you wait.

But while we wait on this idiocy, pray for all who may be affected by this continued bad luck.

22.9.05

Time for Vitter to provide leadership on Katrina aftermath

At least Sen. David Vitter was half-correct when he testified in front of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Disaster Prevention and Prediction. What happened in and around the New Orleans area was preventable to a certain degree, and if we limited the scope of inquiry just to that topic, what the federal government could have done to prevent the flooding from breached levees, he would be totally correct.

But Vitter misspoke when he testified “data predicting that the levees on Lake Pontchartrain would be topped a full 36 hours in advance of the storm.” The prediction was wrong, in retrospect, for evidence now is that shoddy construction explains the breaks; these levees were not overtopped. On the lake, evidence shows there was no overtopping; any lake-driven breaches came through structural failures while the levees along the lake itself held without being overtopped.

This does not mean that better levees should not have been in place, given the huge sums allocated to entities such as the Orleans Levee District that could have been used for flood protection. At the same time, it does bring up the question about why other levees, particularly those along the Industrial Canal that actually did get overtopped, did fail.

Here, Vitter himself rests on shaky ground. Having been a U.S. representative for several terms in the affected area before Hurricane Katrina, it is clear that he did not push vigorously for projects that explicitly would have strengthened all levees. Instead, he lent his support to things like the inefficient new Industrial Canal lock. In addition, while Vitter has been a vocal spokesman for coastal restoration efforts, even if we turned the clock forward a number of years and these were in place, they would have done little to reduce the destructive force of Katrina.

At this point in time, especially since the state’s senior senator Mary Landrieu has destroyed her credibility on the issue, Vitter could be the most effective force Louisiana has to secure funding for rebuilding the New Orleans area and to gain further federal resources for hurricane protection, perhaps even to bail the state out on a budgetary shortfall. But to do so, to retain his own credibility, he must not present himself as if he were a kind of Cassandra trying to alert all about the dangers of hurricanes. He must admit what he demonstrated by his budgetary actions, that he could not quite get the necessary funding to where it should have gone.

At this point, a public skeptical of elected officials’ reactions to the storm would welcome one who admits he should have pushed harder for certain outcomes and that he is not going to assign blame for partisan purposes (unlike Landrieu’s rhetoric). This would strengthen his position of calling for an independent commission to track incoming federal money for reconstruction purposes and encourage a potentially reticent Congress to provide more money if necessary.

Given a Louisiana public soured on politicians’ credibility over Katrina, Vitter would demonstrate strong and necessary leadership by adopting this course of action.

21.9.05

Shoddy levee work shows we're stuck on stupid

It took Louisiana native, affectionately (or ruefully) known by the soldiers under his command as the “Ragin’ Cajun,” Army Lt. Gen. Russell HonorĂ©, to succinctly summarize the problem with the political establishment, in and out of office, in Louisiana: we’re stuck on stupid.

The phrase describes the inadequate job the local and state media are doing to determine the real causes and sources of problems that led to the Hurricane Katrina disaster – if we don’t know these, we can’t fix them. It describes the inadequate actions taken by those elected to national office such as Sen. Mary Landrieu to ensure that the New Orleans area had the infrastructure to resist such a powerful storm. It describes the inadequate emergency preparation actions and reactions taken by state and local officials such as Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin before and after the storm hit. Worst of all, it describes the negligence of local government such as the Orleans Levee District to protect the parish.

Not surprisingly, the national media broke the latest story on the real cause of the tragedy, below-specification flood protection. Katrina’s effects appear not to have exceeded the design specifications of these structures, contrary to the official explanation emanating from the Army Corps of Engineers. Despite convincing evidence otherwise, the Corps seems determined to stick to its story:

20.9.05

Blanco inadequately explains her failure of leadership

What kind of nimrod do we have in Louisiana for a governor?

QUESTION (from reporter John Hill): Are you considering appointing a single person to be in charge of the state's recovery process, a sort of recovery czar?

ANSWER (from Gov.
Kathleen Blanco): We’re looking at all our options.

I thought this was settled. Didn’t she hire the ex-head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Clinton political hack James Lee Witt to do this? Maybe the overwhelming amount of criticism she has received from home and afar from her handling of the crisis from before Hurrican Katrina struck to days after has changed her mind? If she has, that's a good thing.

Q: In hindsight, what would you have done differently in the first response?

A: Well, I would have placed less confidence in a structure elsewhere (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and depended more on ourselves.

I see, so Blanco’s strategy, reminiscent of her core liberal beliefs, was to stick a hand out and wait for somebody either to put something of value into it or to grasp it to pull the state out of harm? It would seem so, given one expert’s evaluation of the quality of the state’s plan for an emergency like this.

Q: CNN aired a video of you and Denise Bottcher (press secretary) on the Wednesday after the hurricane. You were having a private conversation in which you said under your breath: "I should have specifically asked for more troops," or something like that. What was that about?

A: Well, that was at a point in time when we were wondering if we were getting any significant federal aid. I guess because of the dynamics of the situation, when I asked for help, then I started getting bombarded with, “Did you ask specifically for this, that or the other.” I'll tell you what. When people ask me for help, I know what kind of help I can get to them, and I can get it to them pretty quickly. I asked them (what they need). Nobody bothered to ask me those questions.

I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again, how long has she been governor? Didn’t we go through all of this about a year ago? She sure seemed to know what to do then.

Q: What were the biggest errors in the state government's response? What were you referring to when you said, "The buck stops here?

A: I'm just talking about everything. We are going to review every procedure. We have a model operation in the Office of Emergency Preparedness that other states have come in to model on ….

May whatever deity you believe in, if any, help you if this is a model for other states. With a vague, indeterminate, if not unrealistic, plan like this?

(answer continued): Did we anticipate the levees breaking? Well, that was always a possibility, but you pray and hope against hope that that kind of thing doesn't happen ….

According to at least two sources, this was a matter of time given the state of the levee system at that time. Blanco’s not to blame for the levees being inadequate because she’s only been in office (although one could argue as an elected official for much of her adult life maybe she should have used whatever influence she could have to have changed the situation), but, given that reality, she could have planned and led in a way that assumed, even if Katrina had missed, that there would be disaster anyway, rather than hoping it wouldn’t. To use a trite phrase, people don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan.

(answer continued): For instance, at the Superdome, the mayor brought 12,000 people in there, so FEMA ordered 500 buses, thinking they were going to evacuate 12,000 people. By the time we evacuated the Superdome with our school buses -- the FEMA buses didn't come in until (Aug. 31) -- we had evacuated some 20,000 to 30,000 people out of the Superdome itself. And then the same number just kind of gathered up in the Convention Center, and that was not a preplanned place that people were supposed to evacuate to.

Uh, but that’s what the plan for New Orleans suggested (oops … the city won’t let anybody look at that link anymore, but, ha! MSNBC nicely provides us with a copy) – head to the Superdome (although it also says nobody should be told that until right before the evacuation order went out). Are we to blame tens of thousands of people for showing up there because it was high ground and the plan’s reference to corralling school buses to take people out of the city never got implemented, stranding them all? And to keep showing up? And to go to another large building on high ground not far down Poydras Avenue, the Convention Center?

Q: Have there been political problems with a Democrat administration at the state and local level dealing with a Republican national administration?

A: I'd like to think not, but what happened on the political side (happened) on the national level, not at our level. It happened with what I call the political talking heads (on TV). Certainly, some decided to jump on the president because there was a slow federal response. So they beat up on him for a day or so. ... And so, his people didn't like his taking a beating, so they turned the political talking heads on the governor, and then they turned them on (New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin).

I’m more of a pair of typing hands, but I began to look at the decisions being made the morning Katrina passed by. By Wednesday the world could see Blanco already was over her head, not a good combination when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was as well (and so was Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard – so much so he couldn’t even get his story straight). The breakdown of leadership already shone clearly through the darkened streets on the greater New Orleans area but, out of deference to efforts to contain the tragedy, I chose not to write about the actions of a specific few until the next week.

In short, Blanco doesn’t think she did anything wrong, it was others' failures that made her look bad – consistent with her vague speech to the Legislature where she “took responsibility” but did not offer to endure the consequences of any missteps she made. To truly take “responsibility,” you either have to accept those consequences (in this case, resignation) or describe your culpability and explain how you would act differently in the future. Instead, she’s averred it was the media’s fault, or FEMA’s fault, or the federal government’s, anybody but hers. From what she indicates, maybe the VRWC is on her tail, too!

(answer continued): We all had our turn getting beat up. You know, I didn't have time for that.

There was no “turns” here because of a chattering class seeking to pound people for political or audience-attracting purposes. Governor, you got “beat up” because you richly deserved it. No doubt you “didn’t have time for that” because, besides trying to extricate the state out of this mess your partly helped exacerbate, you just didn’t want to face that reality.

I’m sure most of the time (except when she talks about evil tobacco companies and their heartless bedfellows against cigarette taxes) Blanco is a nice person and means well. But since her definition of decisive action is to call in a study group, she choked in this important task when a cool head, a leadership personality, and rolling up sleeves rather than sticking a hand out were essential. No doubt an emergency of this magnitude would try anybody, but we need leaders who can show to us at least they can try to lead, rather than wait on or blame others.

And since these episodes occur from time to time in government, voters in 2007 (if the people don’t sooner) are going to remember the old saying, “fool me once ….”

19.9.05

American taxpayers to pay claims for many Katrina victims

With insurance losses in the range of $25 billion, the sensitive subject of what claims insurers will pay in the wake of Hurricane Katrina has become a political hot potato that already has generated its share of demagoguery and will make sure almost nobody will feel treated fairly by whatever policy emerges.

The crux of the debate turns upon who must absorb what losses. With up to 50 percent of southeastern Louisianan homeowners not having flood insurance, many will have had their homes wiped out without enough monetary resources to rebuild. Unfortunately, it seems this kind of insurance, not the standard homeowners’ kind, applies even if a hurricane pushes water around.

Normally, this would be viewed as unfortunate. But these are not normal times when potentially hundreds of thousands of homes fall into this situation, and it has loosed populists with destructive agendas. Mississippi’s attorney general already has taken this course against the advice of Gov. Haley Barbour; some displaced Louisiana residents also have sued insurers with the unpaid assistance of ex-Insurance Commissioner Prisoner #03312-095.

Known outside the big house as Jim Brown, the convicted perjurer is better known as Robin Hood in this scenario from his economically-ignorant assessment that insurance companies should pay for policies they didn’t write nor were paid for because they enough money. Note the havoc that would get wreaked under Brown’s philosophy. If the courts bought this, insurance premiums for everybody would go sky high in Louisiana since it would be established law that insurers would be on the hook for anything as long as they made decent profits. That is, if any company could be gotten to write a homeowner’s policy in the state.

In a perfect world of responsible people, almost everybody in the affected area would have had the good sense to buy flood insurance. Common sense would tell you that on the Orleans East Bank, or Jefferson’s, where you live below sea level, no matter how many miles of levees so many feet high were there, you should buy flood insurance.

(And you don’t even need that many clues. Nearly 40 years ago my father stunned a local insurance agent by asking to buy flood insurance. The agent replied there never had been any flooding and he’d hardly ever written any such policies, but my father pointed out that we lived on the edge of a bayou in a city smack in the middle of the Texas Gulf Coast runoff plain, and insisted. A few years later, the city flooded, putting several inches of water in our house. After that, everybody got flood insurance, which was good because 7 years later we got two feet of water in our house. For a short while, I was a teenage displaced person.)

But we don’t live in a perfect world of responsible people; instead, we live in a world of voters so it’s becoming regrettably clear that if we are not going to rob insurers, we’ll rob taxpayers instead. Assuming another $25 billion is uninsured homeowner losses, no doubt Louisiana federal elected officials will convince Congress that the federal government should pick up the tab given how broke the state was before and especially after Katrina. If so, that’s over $84 out of the pocket of every person in the country – except it’s taxpayers who will get hit up for it, so for them it’s closer to $200 a head.

(One could very successfully argue that government – because of a number of negligent actions taken by officials for local governments, the state, even the national government – allowed a condition to develop where flooding and the inability to control of it was more likely. But it’s not like we can garnish their wages or wealth, considerable as they may be, and come close to paying the claims. Even if government bears more responsibility than individuals in this matter, in the end, the taxpayer is going to be the one who takes the hit. And then there’s the question of the government’s culpability in its lack of enthusiasm to suppress looting, but that’s another story.)

Then again, we could argue whether it should be the American taxpayer’s responsibility to insure the uninsured in this way; however, in some ways, there’s little choice because the economic hole created by so many people unable to rebuild around New Orleans would leave an untenable void in the nation’s commerce. Yet, in a sense, this cheats the responsible folks who did have flood insurance. Many will have paid yet will find others who never paid for it will get the essentially the same benefits.

And observe how this sets us up for failure again. By the government stepping in and providing a good portion of compensation, it only encourages people to behave the same, thinking they don’t need insurance because the government will bail them out. And the area will get socked again, too many people will be unprepared in terms of insurance, and productive people nationwide again will have to pay up. (This is probably what U.S. House Speaker Denny Hastert meant by his controversial comments.)

(If Louisiana had any good sense, it would mandate flood insurance over much of the southern part of the state, with its extra cost potentially discouraging riskier-located or cheaper, less-sturdy buildings. However, this state’s policy makers in the past repeatedly have demonstrated an aversion to good sense.)

So even if you live in Alaska, American Samoa, or the U.S. Virgin Islands as far away as you can get from southeastern Louisiana, even if you owned property in the area that miraculously escaped destruction, even if you had insurance to cover all of your losses, even if you are a recipient of federal government aid because it's doubtful it would cover all losses, the solution to the Katrina insurance question probably will make you unhappy, again and again.