What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Monday, July 09, 2007

The “F” word: FEMA


I first saw this as a bumper sticker on the window of a BIG truck on Hwy 90, Waveland, Miss. A big thank you to Commonscribe over at Daily Kos for this photo.

This is the third in a series of five to help the Democratic Party, particularly its presidential hopefuls, to get the framework right, to broaden its lens through which it views Katrina, what’s stopping recovery, what will speed up a vibrant recovery, and how Katrina affords us the opportunity to transform the basic quality of life for all Americans. ________________________________________________________________

All of the FEMA shenanigans have been unnecessary and avoidable. Unfortunate for us, Mr. Compassionless Conservative Bush apparently has a sadistic side to himself which he plays out in public, on the public, and at the public’s expense. FEMA is a case in point.

Hypocritical Leadership
The White House that is hell bent on handing no bid multi-billion dollar contracts to the largest Bush-Cheney campaign contributors (i.e. Halliburton) has insisted that in the days after Katrina, the ravaged areas impacted should have gone through a traditional bidding process complete with re-bidding when the cost became pricey. Bush’s “do as I say, not as I do” perspective joins his “you’re on your own” Republican version of government. Hypocrisy is no way to run a government.

Bush’s administration insists that the towns and cities of Mississippi and Louisiana paid too much money to remove Katrina’s debris. We’re sure that our cities did pay too much. Private industry price gouging the American public is everywhere. Been to the gas pump lately?

Nevertheless, Bush’s FEMA is questioning whether the federal government will reimburse these Katrina ravaged cities and towns. We’re not talking chump change, either. FEMA owes these cities and towns millions and millions of dollars for disaster clean up costs. The Washington Post reported the following.

St. Bernard Parish, La., just outside New Orleans, is among the communities waiting for a check. FEMA paid the parish about $100 million for debris removal but still owes about $70 million, said David Peralta, the parish's chief administrative officer. St. Bernard also is waiting for $30 million in reimbursement for sewer repairs, Peralta said.

Peralta said FEMA has "kind of implied" that it is looking into whether the parish paid reasonable rates. Peralta defended the Katrina contracts, saying officials tried to solicit competitive bids without delaying the work.

"We didn't have a whole lot of choices in those first few days," he said.

It’s a toss up on whether the Bush Administration’s hypocrisy or compassionless actions are more galling.

Promises, Promises
FEMA promised cities and counties money to repair sewers and drains, pave streets and rebuild schools. Bush’s FEMA has been reneging on its word. What a shock, huh?! On Good Morning America, Bush stated "I hope people don't play politics at this time of a natural disaster the likes of which this country has never seen." Yeah, well, if actions speak louder than words, the actions of Bush’s FEMA are screeching loudly, indeed.

Let’s look at what FEMA has been doing to Hancock County, Miss., the county where I was born and raised and from which I am now blogging and podcasting. Speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives, Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor (D-MS) described Hancock County as a place “where 90% of the residents lost everything, or at least substantial damage to their home.” [See the video.] Like everywhere else in Katrina Land, any and all assistance is immensely appreciated.

So when FEMA promised the county $33 million to rebuild a school, this was terrific news! For over 22 months, FEMA repeatedly reassured the county that the money was theirs, and the county complied with the agency’s requirements. The county board of supervisors, families, and community depend on that school getting up and running as soon as possible.

The Sea Coast Echo reported, “Repeatedly over the past 22 months, FEMA officials said in public meetings the school board could build the schools.” Then, just as the county was about to break ground, Bush’s FEMA reneged on the deal pulling the $33 million rug out from under everyone.
"FEMA has changed the rules in the middle of the game. Every single step in the process involved reps from MEMA [Mississippi Emergency Management Agency] and FEMA. It was our understanding from them that we could build above the ABFE [Advisory Base Flood Elevation]."
School District Attorney Mark Alexander

These and other financial horror stories are happening on Bush’s watch. Appropriate leadership from the White House would solve this FEMA issue. Alas, we don’t have that. We have Bush and Cheney.

Mr. Compassionless Vetoed Katrina Financial Relief

When he vetoed the Iraq Accountability Act, Bush also vetoed money for Katrina relief including waiving the 10% matching requirement that was putting a great deal of unnecessary burden on the towns and cities in the Katrina-ravaged area.

Cities, towns, and counties didn’t have an extra 10% hanging around to match the federal monies needed to rebuild. Bush should have automatically waived the requirement like was done for New York after 9/11. He did not. Thankfully, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) included the waiver in the Iraq Accountability Act. When Bush vetoed that legislation, the good Democratic leaders attached the waiver to another bill which Bush finally signed.

H-E-L-L-O?! Anybody there?!
At the celebration of the new bridge, I believe it was Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre who said that the foot of the bridge was the only place in the Bay-Waveland area where there was some cell phone coverage. (See bridge photos below.)

Paul J. Richards/Agence France-Press Getty Images.
New York Times
A seven-minute dash across the bay bridgebecame a 45-minute commute around it.

Photos from U.S. Surface Transportation Board
Bay Bridge after Katrina. Because the Bush Administration had no emergency communication system in place, the only cell phone reception was at the foot of this bridge. Image from Waveland and Bay St. Louis After Katrina.

Because the Bush Administration had no emergency communication system in place, the only cell phone reception was at the foot of this bridge.

He told the story of walking to the foot of the bridge where others had also arrived to try to talk with their family and friends across the country to let them know they were ok.

He overheard a man tell his brother, “no, mom didn’t make it. She died in the storm.” The story chokes me up even as I write this deeply personal and sad story, one that is surely to goodness shared by others, too many others.

Can you imagine the horror of going through the storm, losing loved ones in the hurricane’s wrath, and having to walk through miles and miles of debris to get to the one place where it was rumored that cell phones work? Then, calling family and friends to talk of the deeply personal tragedy and to do so without the privacy we normally expect with personal news of this nature? The only comfort, perhaps, was that everyone was in the same boat, no pun intended.

Where was the nation’s emergency communication system?! This isn’t leadership. This is the result of the absence of leadership. Another of George Bush’s FEMA and homeland security failures. Bush already skimps on protecting our ports, railroads, nuclear facilities, and the like. Skimping on developing a national emergency communication system is par for the course from a guy who didn't get into the White House in a forthright manner in the first place.

So when FEMA got here, what did they do to facilitate these good people in getting all the help FEMA had to offer? Their idea was to somehow set up shop where folks could come to them and they would provide phone numbers to call FEMA and web addresses to apply for FEMA assistance.

Never mind that folks had no electricity, no phone lines, and, of course, no Internet access. Whether computers had survived the devastation was another matter altogether and another area in which Bush’s brilliant folks had no concern or care on the impact to American families. Oh, yeah, remember that the cars had been submerged in the salt water pushed ashore. Transportation was scarce.

Since these federal fools couldn’t look around and see the obvious, Congressman Taylor’s office suggested that rather than waiting for folks to walk for hours on end to get to where FEMA set up a make shift station, that these bureaucrats travel by foot with a pad of paper and a pen and from each person impacted take down the information that they themselves could then input on behalf of the survivors whenever the feds were able to finally get to computers that worked.

I don’t know whether Bush’s agency actually listened to such obviously solid advice. What I do know is that if this is the best and the brightest our federal government can provide in an emergency, we're in bigger trouble than I thought.

FEMA to Katrina Survivors: About that Money We Sent You . . .
FEMA claims that it overpaid some Katrina survivors and began demanding survivors repay the money to the federal government. The checks ranged from $2,000 to $ 26,200. FEMA said that folks whose insurance companies eventually provided some daily expense money were ineligible for the federal money.
Ocean Springs resident Leslie Keller said she cannot afford to repay the $2,500 she was given for rental assistance. She said FEMA originally told her she didn't qualify for the money because she was living in a FEMA trailer. But because she was still paying a mortgage on her destroyed home, she said, FEMA relented.

"Then six months later, they said I had to give it back," said Keller, a 45-year-old mother of three who attends school during the day and works at night.

"I can understand going after the ones that fraudulently (received money)," she said. "But as far as the people who accepted aid and then FEMA says it's the wrong type of aid, it's not right."
Thankfully, a federal judge in New Orleans ordered Bush’s agency to stop.

Although FEMA gives aid recipients a chance to appeal, "the process, if it can be navigated at all, takes months," U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan wrote in her order.

"In the meantime, the defendants appear to treat the plaintiffs' and their prospects of homelessness and despair and stress of such added worries as if it were gnats to be brushed away, while the defendants busy themselves with creating more bureaucratic regulations."

What a blatant example of Bush’s utter betrayal with all of his blubbering about compassionate government. Cruel and compassionless are more apt adjectives. The FEMA nightmares continue on Bush’s watch from the formaldehyde-filled FEMA trailers to an inept debris removal process that may be creating contaminated water. (See my pieces titled Coffee, Tea, Contaminated Water? and Formaldehyde-Filled FEMA trailers.)

Awakening our American Ingenuity to See the Bigger Picture
As Bush sleeps comfortably in a White House that I believe should be the residence of President Al Gore, families and businesses in and around New Orleans and all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast suffer needlessly.

In spite of the miserable state of affairs in this region, I see folks everywhere who are taking whatever emotional, mental, and physical resources they can muster up to carry on day-to-day in a set of circumstances that are unfathomable, yet Bush and Cheney have allowed to linger and expand in the most unconscionable of ways. It doesn’t have to be this way.

A little bit of compassion coupled with genuine American ingenuity and good old fashioned elbow grease and out of these worst of times can come a renewed commitment to work diligently and consistently to the America in our hearts and in our dreams both inside and outside of Katrina Land.

Through the lens of Katrina, we can see a much bigger picture, if we look for it.

Broadening Katrina’s Lens:
A five Part Series
Part 1: Broadening Katrina's Lens
Part 2: Recovery’s Two Major Impediments: $$$ and the “F” word
Part 3: The "F" Word: FEMA
Part 4: Katrina’s Bigger Picture
Part 5: Katrina’s Karmic Payback: Insurance Reform
Return to A.M. in the Morning! Home

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