Friday, September 02, 2005

Helping Hands and Pointing Fingers

Finally, finally, finally, there are some signs of federal action to relieve the primordial crisis in New Orleans, timed no doubt to coincide with the president's disaster tour, but welcome nonetheless.

There's not much question the relief is late in coming, but the more important question now is this: is it enough?

Here's an editorial from the Times-Picayune posted this afternoon:

On the elevated portion of Interstate 10 near Orleans Avenue, a group of displaced people pushed a wheelchair carrying a dead woman. She wore pink pajama bottoms -- and a white kitchen garbage bag on her head. People wandered around expressway on-ramps hoping for a ride to... anywhere. Outside the Superdome, refugees were crowded onto a concrete walkway. The situation inside the Dome was beyond hellish.

Hurricane Katrina has created a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions. And if the main strategy for addressing that crisis is to evacuate the east bank of New Orleans, then local, state and federal officials need to move much faster to get people out. On streets across the city, people are in agony. And lives are in danger, because of looters, because of dwindling medical supplies, because of conditions that would strain even the healthiest of people.

Security had improved in much of the city late Thursday and Friday. It was a relief to see so many uniformed men bearing machine guns patrolling expressways and major intersections. But in some parts of the city -- particularly those slivers of Uptown New Orleans that suffered relatively little flood damage -- the presence of law enforcement and relief agencies seemed minimal at best. In those same areas, some residents were still under the dangerous illusion that they could wait out Katrina's aftermath at home, just as they waited out the hurricane itself. Others understood the dangers but had no way to travel and little hope of getting authorities' attention. On Constantinople street near Prytania, a severely sunburned, diabetic 80-year-old had run out of insulin, and the woman who had given her shelter could get no assistance. On Belfast Street near Fontainebleau, two 93-year-olds needed to evacuate but could not. As more and more people clear out of the city indefinitely, those who remain are at even greater risk. People across the east bank need help in getting out, and lives will be lost if they do not get it.

In other words, photo-op relief efforts concentrated on the most visible problems are nice, but something more systematic needs to happen right away.

And that brings me to the difficult but necessary subject of the politics of this. A lot of Republicans have claimed that Democrats are "politicizing" Katrina by raising questions about disaster preparations and relief efforts, especially in terms of FEMA's languid pace in taking charge, the background of FEMA mission-drift and funding cuts, and the tardy White House focus on the crisis.

But it's now pretty clear the White House is politicizing the situation even more starkly and much more divisively. The underlying theme of the president's tour of the region today is that things are going very well in places like Alabama and Mississippi with the right (literally and figuratively) state and local leadership. Meanwhile, the storyline continues, Bush has to go down to New Orleans (with the wrong, i.e., Democratic leadership) himself to get things turned around.

This is apparently what Bush meant this morning before his departure from Washington when he said the relief effort wasn't "acceptable." He wasn't talking about FEMA's universally derided initial response; in Mobile, he told FEMA Director Michael Brown (or "Brownie," as he called him) he was doing a great job. No, Bush's stern disapproval was aimed at New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Watch the conservative blogs and news outlets; we're about to see a big effort to scapegoat Kathleen Blanco, perhaps Ray Nagin, and even the stranded low-income people of New Orleans themselves, for the disaster that's happened over the last few days; there have already been hints of this in so many places that I can't begin to cite or link to them. Maybe that's the price the victims of this nightmare have to pay for real and adequate federal relief, but it should not and will not go unchallenged.
-- Posted at 5:42 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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