Friday, April 25, 2008

McCain: Friend--Or Foe--Of NOLA?

Yesterday on a campaign stop replete with photo-ops in New Orleans, Sen. John McCain made an attempt to distance himself from the failings of the Bush Administration during Katrina and the federal flood by saying "Never again..." and spinning himself as someone who would have been more proactive than had Bush regarding this disaster.

But does McCain really represent a change from BushCo incompetence, if not outright genocide, in New Orleans? Would a McCain administration really aid New Orleans' recovery? Is McCain a friend of New Orleans, or a foe?

While in New Orleans, McCain listed some priorities for the city's recovery.
He said the Army Corps of Engineers can "refurbish its image" if it follows through and provides upgraded levee protection by 2011. He also called for investment in more extensive Category 5 hurricane protection and the restoration of the barrier islands and wetlands that protect New Orleans from storm surge.

McCain said health care services must be restored in struggling areas, such as the Lower 9th Ward, so displaced residents can feel confident about returning home.

But there are some contradictory things that make McCain's attempt to distance himself from BushCo on New Orleans look like spin. First of all, regarding the Lower 9th Ward, he is reported to have said
he was not sure if he would rebuild the lower 9th ward as president.

"That is why we need to go back is to have a conversation about what to do-rebuild it, tear it down, you know, whatever it is,” he said.
Aside from this, I haven't heard much of anything else McCain would do if elected that would repair the damage done by the federal flood--and BushCo neglect--to New Orleans.

And a Huffpo article quotes an AP article saying that McCain said in New Orleans that had Katrina happened on his watch,
he would have immediately landed his plane at the nearest Air Force base...

But the author of this article reminds us that, to the contrary, as Katrina happened,
Senator McCain wasn't far off from President Bush. In fact, the two were standing right next to each other.
celebrating Sen. McCain's birthday.

And then there's Sen. McCain's voting record. Per the Democratic National Committee,
McCain voted against relief measures for Katrina victims multiple times, as well as voting against an investigation into the failures of the government response. McCain also voted against providing additional funding for first responders' communication systems, despite claiming today:

We know that we had a situation where first responders were unable to communicate with each other. Where government agencies were getting information by watching cable television, rather than having a flow of information themselves.

And last but not least--when controversial remarks by Barack Obama's pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright have been quoted all over the place, far more rarely do we hear that McCain endorser Pastor John Hagee has been quoted saying that New Orleans was destroyed because of her people's sinful ways.

So regarding the question "Is McCain a friend or foe of New Orleans? I'll have to say, like many Rethugs, he's a foe. And if McCain is elected, New Orleans can expect more of the same.

Friday, April 18, 2008

That Shaky Feeling.....

When I awoke this morning, and was still half-asleep, lying on my back, I felt an unusually shaky feeling. This was close to 5AM. Having been having my health issues lately and recently had my dose of fluoxetine upped, I was at least a little worried--then I rolled on my side and the disturbing feeling went away.

Soon after that I turned on a morning news show on cable and they had a breaking news bulletin. An earthquake had been felt in Illinois! It turned out to be a 5.2 on the Richter Scale, and had been felt not only in neighboring states but also in such places as Georgia and Cincinnati. Imagine my relief when I realized it hadn't just been me! The epicenter was West Salem in Southern Illinois, and was the strongest quake felt in Illinois since 1895.

Earth Day #2: Bush Killing Coastal Louisiana

This is Part 2 of an Earth Day-themed series on environmental issues in the Gulf Region after Katrina and the federal flood.
In the first part of this Earth Day series, the environmental devastation experienced by New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Region was discussed. This installment will focus on Louisiana's wetlands which are being washed away and the sinking of New Orleans and the rest of southern Louisiana.

When conservationist Mike Tidwell wrote his seminal work Bayou Farewell, in 2003, he predicted how a massive storm would destroy New Orleans. In the opening pages of this book, he said,
A devastating chain reaction has resulted from the taming of the Mississippi and now the entire coast is dissolving at breakneck speed...and New Orleans itself is at great risk of vanishing. A major hurricane approaching from the right direction could cause tens of thousands of deaths.

Tidwell also described visiting the Louisiana coast in 1999, traveling with Cajun fishers and observing their unique way of life, and seeing drowned graveyards, telephone poles, and forests. Since the 1920's Louisiana has lost an astonishing amount of land--equivalent to the state of Rhode Island--to the sea. The levees designed to protect New Orleans from flooding have been part of the problem. As described by Tim Fitzpatrick in this article,
Natural landscaping can be considered a city's Achilles' heel when it is faced with an oncoming hurricane. New Orleans, being below sea level, is a prime example of that. The city lies at the bottom of a "soup bowl" with the Mississippi River running right through it. As the river reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it slows down and creates a fan of sediment or what is commonly known as a delta. This sediment could have traveled thousands of miles through 40 of the 48 contiguous states before it eventually dumps into the Gulf. It is such a huge amount of sediment being transported that the Earth's crust literally sags underneath it. Every time a sag forms, new sediment fills the gap. Through millions of years, the Mississippi has changed course east and west creating six delta lobes, which has formed the entire coastline of southern Louisiana. Lake Pontchartrain, twice the size of New Orleans, lies on the lip of the bowl to the north and coastal wetlands lie to the east, west, and south of the city. Flood control engineering was designed to hold back spring floods and make New Orleans an important port city for oil exploration and transportation. This man-made flood control concept contributed to the disappearance of coastal wetlands. Since silt and nutrients, the bread and butter for marshland growth, were unable to be replenished, the existing land sunk and the wetlands turned to open water. A natural sponge for soaking up the floodwaters and protecting New Orleans against hurricanes had disappeared.

In his later work, The Ravaging Tide, Tidwell describes how after the publication of Bayou Farewell, it was a struggle to get leaders outside Louisiana to take action on this issue. He says that Louisiana's conservative Republican governor Mike Foster
publicly committed himself to waging "jihad" against the problem of coastal erosion, pushing the issue to the top of the legislative agenda.

As far back as the early '70's, adds Tidwell, geologists at Louisiana State University had come up with a plan, called Coast 2050, to restore Louisiana's shores. It said a
series of feasible engineering projects not only could counteract much of the subsidence but could actually create new barrier islands and wetlands fairly rapidly. This would involve permanently closing some of the most damaging canals and channels, like the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. It would also invlove harnessing the great land-building power of the Mississippi River itself. By building several gate-like "control structures" right into the levees of the river, the sediment-rich water could be released and then surgically guided via pipelines and manmade canals to areas in greatest need of wetland and barrier island development.

But the $14 billion price tag was too steep for a Bush Administration which had no qualms about throwing hundreds of times that much money away in Iraq. Bush consistently ignored requests for coastal restoration funding from both Foster, his successor Kathleen Blanco, and members of Louisiana's bipartisan congressional delegation.

In fact, ironically, Bush seemed prepared to sacrifce Louisiana in favor of Iraq--even before Katrina and the federal flood brought to light this seriously misplaced priority.
Despite the growing crisis, the president somehow found millions of dollars for the restoration of wetlands in Iraq while Louisiana lay dying on the table. Saddam Hussein had drained a vast area of wetlands inhabited by some of his staunchest enemies--the so-called Marsh Arabs...the Bush Administration in 2004 proposed spending ten times more federal money restoring wetlands for these Arab people than for restoring the Louisiana coast for Americans. Congress ultimately denied the request, but Bush actually sent wetland experts from Louisiana (Emphasis mine) to Iraq anyway to help spend the millions of dollars he persuaded Japan and Italy to invest in the project.

Only in the summer of 2005, just before Katrina struck, did Congress finally appropriate $570 million in new coastal restoration money for Louisiana...Even this amount was allocated over the objections of the White House.

Will a new Democratic Administration give Louisiana coastal restoration the attention and financing it needs before New Orleans is permanently wiped out and the distinctive Cajun culture of the Gulf Coast there is gone forever? We all need to make sure our Democrats know the importance of this issue--and not just in Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Region, but in an increasingly energy-hungry world in which coastal erosion is bringing corrosive salt water closer and closer to oil installations. Indeed, Sen. Mary Landrieu has used the term "America's Energy Coast" to call attention to the value of this vital part of the country. Because as long as we are dependent on fossil fuels, we ignore the need to protect coastal Louisiana at our peril.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Earth Day #1: Katrina and the Environment

This is the first part of a 2-part Earth Day-themed series on environmental issues in the Gulf Region.

Not only were Katrina, the federal flood, and Rita massive human tragedies, they were for reasons which will be detailed below easily this nation's biggest environmental calamity.

And their potential impacts on human health and life in New Orleans and in the rest of the affected area are still being assessed over 2 1/2-years later.

Soon after Katrina and the flood, long-term environmental damage was predicted in the affected area, potentially hazardous to human health. And this damage includes not only contamination but also the additional sinking of New Orleans:

Inside the flooded areas Louisiana were 60 chemical plants, oil refineries and petroleum facilities. Flooding caused six major oil spills between the mouth of the Mississippi River and New Orleans and several smaller spills in other places. Fifty thousand barrels have been recovered, but Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials estimate another 160,000 barrels were not recovered. Each barrel contains about 42 gallons of oil.

Oil from the 350,000 flooded vehicles in the area will take several years to decompose. The sewage system was also overrun during the hurricane. The EPA announced on Sept. 16 high levels of E-coli, a toxin-producing bacterium, in sediment around the city.

Pollution is not the only environmental factor preventing the safe rehabilitation of New Orleans. Geology Professor Jack Ridge doubts the city can sustain further sediment weathering. "Subsidence is one of the greatest threats to New Orleans," he said. Built on the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans rests on soil infiltrated with mud from the river. As the city develops and more structures are built, the accumulation of weight squeezes water out of the muddy ground. New Orleans is sinking further below sea level.

There will be more on the sinking of New Orleans in Part 2 of this series. And the following could have long-term environmental impacts--and this time not just in Louisiana and Mississippi, but they could add to global warming. According to this
Washington Post article,
New satellite imaging has revealed that hurricanes Katrina and Rita produced the largest single forestry disaster on record in the nation -- an essentially unreported ecological catastrophe that killed or severely damaged about 320 million trees in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The die-off, caused initially by wind and later by weeks-long pooling of stagnant water, was so massive that researchers say it will add significantly to the global greenhouse gas buildup -- ultimately putting as much carbon from dying vegetation into the air as the rest of the nation's forest takes out in a year of photosynthesis.

In addition, the downing of so many trees has opened vast and sometimes fragile tracts to several aggressive and fast-growing exotic species that are already squeezing out far more environmentally productive native species.

The article adds that forests over an area about the size of Maine were destroyed, and also says
Efforts to limit the damage have been handicapped by the ineffectiveness of a $504 million federal program to help Gulf Coast landowners replant and fight the invasive species. Congress appropriated the money in 2005 and added to it in 2007, but officials acknowledge that the program got off to a slow start and that only about $70 million has been promised or dispensed so far. Local advocates said onerous bureaucratic hurdles and low compensation rates are major reasons.

"This is the worst environmental disaster in the United States since the Exxon Valdez accident . . . and the greatest forest destruction in modern times," said James Cummins, executive director of the conservation group Wildlife Mississippi and a board member of the Mississippi Forestry Commission. "It needs a really broad and aggressive response, and so far that just hasn't happened."

Then there are the human costs of this disaster that can be attributed to its environmental impact on the region. Survivors are being exposed to pollutants and other hazards to long-term health from the formaldehyde-emitting FEMA trailers many thousands still live in to dusts and molds that contaminate New Orleans' air and have caused "Katrina cough." Also, when the toxic floodwaters of New Orleans receded, they left behind all sorts of pollutants including lead, arsenic, asbestos, and other heavy metals in such places as playgrounds, schoolyards...all over. People cleaning out their homes and gutting them are being exposed to toxic dusts and molds which have been contributing to New Orleans' elevated post-Katrina death rate.

All of the above are issues environmentalists must tackle in a post-Katrina Gulf Region. But there's more. In tomorrow's installment, there will be more about the sinking of New Orleans and the rest of southern Louisiana and efforts to halt before a unique part of this country is wiped off the map.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Walmart And Katrina--Heroic Or Opportunistic?

Conventional wisdom has been that the true friends of New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Region during the federal flood and the onslaught of Katrina and Rita were not FEMA or any other organization of the federal government. They include several big-box stores including a much-maligned Walmart. But there's far more to this story than meets the eye. More below the fold.....

When Bush was busy celebrating McCain's 100th birthday and then fiddling as New Orleans drowned, and BushCo's officials were busy sitting on their hands and figuring out how best to blame Louisiana Gov. Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Nagin for the disaster, and relief supplies supposedly had been held up from reaching the area (including Walmart supplies!) by a mean-spirited federal bureaucracy, Walmart has been praised as having been heroically busy engaging in relief activities.
In the first two and a half weeks following Katrina, Wal-Mart shipped 2,500 containers to the region and delivered another 517 containers post-Rita. Wal-Mart also set up satellite links for its stores that lost phone or Internet service so that they could stay connected to headquarters; Wal-Mart stores in areas that were without power for weeks were able to keep generators in stock.

Here are some examples of Walmart's efforts, which are why it's being touted as a place to go for disaster relief:

A Kenner, La., employee used a forklift to knock open a warehouse door to get water for a retirement home.
A convoy of Wal-Mart trucks carrying supplies for victims of Hurricane Katrina waits to enter New Orleans three days after the storm hit.

In Marrero, La., employees allowed police officers to use the store as a headquarters and a sleeping place, as many had lost their homes.

In Waveland, Miss., assistant manager Jessica Lewis ran a bulldozer through her store to collect basics that were not water-damaged, which she then piled in the parking lot and gave away to residents. She also broke into the store's locked pharmacy to supply critical drugs to a hospital.

And according to the Washington Post,
Wal-Mart's response to Katrina -- an unrivaled $20 million in cash donations, ...truckloads of free merchandise, food for 100,000 meals and the promise of a job for every one of its displaced workers -- has turned the chain into an unexpected lifeline for much of the Southeast and earned it near-universal praise....

However, this article says Walmart in essence saw Katrina as an opportunity to improve its image. The article's author notes that a Walmart whose image had rapidly been going downhill hired the Edelman public-relations firm, and that
When Hurricane Katrina hit, the Edelman teams sprang into action. Initially, Wal-Mart's old stingy inclinations surfaced. The company contributed a measly $2 million to relief efforts and indicated that workers at stores shut down by the storm would receive only three days of additional pay. Yet it quickly switched gears. A few days later, on September 5, Lee Scott was on hand to make a $15 million contribution when former Presidents Bush and Clinton announced the launch of their private fundraising campaign for hurricane victims. Both Bush Senior and Clinton (whose wife Hillary, now a U.S. Senator from New York, used to serve as a director of Wal-Mart while she was a corporate lawyer in Arkansas) sang the praises of the company for its cash donation. Clinton also commended Wal-Mart for announcing that employees forced to flee their home because of the hurricane would be rehired at their new location.

The article adds that Walmart, which has made far more in profits than it has donated, has used the needs in the Gulf Region as an opportunity to profit as well as a marketing opportunity and a public relations coup. Several examples are cited--including when
a FEMA official spent some $66,000 on relief supplies during a single shopping trip to a Wal-Mart store in Louisiana.
Says the New York Times,
The $66,000 Wal-Mart bill, the company says, was for a truckload of goods ordered directly from the retailer's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., but attributed to the La Place store for accounting purposes. A television set and a sofa on the Forest Service list were for out-of-town firefighters to rest between grueling runs...
Walmart, flush with cash from previous corporate welfare, found barely a dent in its gains.
The giant distribution centers in Louisiana and Mississippi that were mobilized to provide aid were-like virtually every one of the company's warehouses-built with government subsidies. The 20-year-old facility in Brookhaven, Mississippi received more than $1.5 million in infrastructure assistance and millions more (the exact amount is unknown) in tax breaks. The newer facilities in Louisiana got much more. The distribution center in Opelousas, which opened in 1999, received an estimated $33 million in tax breaks and infrastructure help. The one in the town of Robert, opened in 2001, enjoyed subsidies of more than $21 million. In other words, each of these two Louisiana distribution centers received more or less the same amount in government assistance as Wal-Mart has spent on hurricane relief. The company is still far ahead of the game-even without considering the rest of the more than $1 billion it has received in development subsidies across the United States.

So, in light of what happened during and after Katrina, Rita, and the federal flood, should Walmart have done any less? No--in fact, don't buy (pun intended) the idea that Walmart was a hero of Katrina. And in fact, Walmart should have done more.

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Midwest lover of New Orleans and of all things having to do with Louisiana.