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The facts you need to know
News about the hurricane disaster

September 16, 2005 | Pages 6 to 10

ARTICLES-IN-BRIEF BELOW:
Using the disaster to push down wages
Contempt for the poor
Halliburton's sweetheart deals
Reprimanded for saving hurricane victims
Questioning authority
Military's recruiters prey on the evacuees

Using the disaster to push down wages

GEORGE W. BUSH says he'll do anything to rebuild New Orleans--even if he has to slash workers' wages to do it.

On September 8, Bush issued an executive order suspending a law that requires contractors on federally funded construction projects to pay workers at least the local prevailing wage. The order will apply to all construction projects--storm-related or not--in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Calling the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina a "national emergency"--after his administration spent days sitting on its hands after the disaster--Bush was quick to gut legislation protecting workers' wages.

The Depression-era law, the Davis-Bacon Act, has long been on the Republican's hit list. Bush's father succeeded in suspending the wage rule for a few weeks in late 1992 after Hurricane Andrew. And Republican members of Congress tried to repeal Davis-Bacon Act completely when they won a majority during the "Republican revolution" of the mid-1990s.

Bush told Congress that the law increases construction costs, and suspending it would "result in greater assistance to these devastated communities and will permit the employment of thousands of additional individuals." There is, of course, another, more likely, possibility--that the contractors will take advantage of the low wages and pass the savings on to themselves.

Before Hurricane Katrina, wages were already a disaster for area workers--with New Orleans' poverty rate standing at 28 percent, more than double the national average. The New York Times reported that in the New Orleans area, the prevailing hourly wage for a truck driver working on a levee is just $9.04, and electricians make just $14.30. "Me and my wife, we were living paycheck to paycheck, like most everybody else in New Orleans," evacuee Eric Dunbar told the Washington Post.

With the Bush administration's cynically timed attack on the prevailing wage, this situation will only get worse.
-- Elizabeth Schulte

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Contempt for the poor

AFTER DAYS of ignoring the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration decided it would send Barbara Bush to the Houston Astrodome to demonstrate a little compassion. Instead, the former first lady showed something else: the Bush family's utter contempt for poor people.

Her remarks aired September 5, on National Public Radio's "Marketplace" program.

"Almost everyone I've talked to says we're going to move to Houston," she said, as she viewed the stadium, which is now home to more than 20,000 former New Orleans residents. "What I'm hearing is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.

"And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this [she chuckles slightly] is working very well for them."
-- Elizabeth Schulte

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Halliburton's sweetheart deals

THE DISASTER in New Orleans has already turned into a business opportunity for some well-connected corporate friends of the Bush administration.

Earlier this month, it was announced that Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton, has already begun working on a $500 million Navy contract to complete emergency repairs at Naval and Marine facilities on the Gulf Coast damaged by the hurricane.

KBR--which, along with Halliburton, is accused of "losing" millions of dollars of reconstruction money for Iraq--won the contract to provide debris removal and other emergency work associated with natural disasters last July, and is now slated to receive $12 million for work at the Naval Air Station at Pascagoula, Miss., the Naval Station at Gulfport, Miss., and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. KBR also will receive $4.6 million for work at two smaller Navy facilities in New Orleans and others in the South.

Vice President Dick Cheney is, of course, the former CEO of Halliburton. But the company's connections don't stop there. In March, KBR hired Joe Allbaugh--who served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the first two years of the Bush administration, and who groomed just-resigned FEMA chief Michael Brown as his handpicked successor--to be a lobbyist.

As reporter Jeremy Scahill told Democracy Now! last week, in addition to the contract itself, "What's more significant and what people are not focusing on is that Kellogg Brown & Root is also now traveling throughout the region, assessing damage to, for instance, the pumps in New Orleans and the infrastructure of the city. They have already begun providing services for some 500 Department of Homeland Security personnel. They have set up a camp for the Mississippi Power Company. And so they're setting up these same kinds of camps that we see in Guantánamo and Iraq and elsewhere to service the rebuilding of the Gulf area here of the South.

"There's a real sick irony here, as Dick Cheney comes to these areas now where his companies, Halliburton and KBR, are getting these lucrative contracts--that there are hundreds of Halliburton workers missing, who are unaccounted for, as Halliburton stocks are hitting a 52-week high, because of Hurricane Katrina."

Scahill also pointed out that some residents charged that Cheney, on his recent "tour" of hurricane-affected areas, went only to "rich, white Republican areas that were hit by Katrina." "You could look at it as a sick coincidence that he ends up going where Halliburton has its contract," Scahill commented, "or you could view it as part of the bigger picture of Halliburton receiving no-bid contracts in Iraq and being one of the chief profiteers of the occupation of Iraq, as well."

No wonder that a heckler twice told Cheney to "go fuck yourself" as the vice president surveyed the damage last week.
-- Nicole Colson

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Reprimanded for saving hurricane victims

TWO NAVY helicopter pilots rescued some 110 people, plucking them from rooftops the day after Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans. And then they were reprimanded for it.

Lt. David Shand and Lt. Matt Udkow were returning to their base in Pensacola from delivering emergency food, water and other supplies to the Stennis Space Center, a federal facility near the Mississippi coast, when they heard Coast Guard radio transmissions saying there was a need for helicopters in New Orleans to help in rescues. The Navy pilots were out of radio range of their base and only a few minutes from New Orleans, so they decided to go help with the rescue.

The two told the New York Times that they had flown over several Mississippi areas and seen rescue personnel on the ground, but when they got to New Orleans, there were precious few, on the ground or in the air. So the two helicopter crews rescued people stranded on roofs--and even a highway overpass, where 35 people were looking for help--and took them to Lakefront Airport, where a makeshift medical center had been organized.

On a trip back to an apartment building where more than a dozen people were trapped on the roof, Shand's crew learned that a blind couple was stuck inside. The crew went into the building, got the couple out and flew them to safety.

While Udkow was refueling at a Coast Guard landing pad later in the evening, he called Pensacola to get permission to continue rescues that evening. "I felt it was a great day because we resupplied the people we needed to, and we rescued people, too," Udkow told the New York Times.

Not so, according to Udkow's higher-ups. The next morning, their commander called the two pilots in and "reminded us that the logistical mission needed to be our area of focus," they said.

"They were not reprimanded," contends Patrick Nichols, a civilian public affairs officer at Pensacola. "They were counseled." But Udkow was temporarily taken out of flying rotation and assigned to a kennel that holds pets of service members who have been evacuated.

According to the Times, some members of the unit have stopped wearing a patch on their sleeves that reads, "So Others May Live" in protest.
-- Elizabeth Schulte

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Questioning authority

ONE OF the most remarkable developments of the hurricane disaster has been the sudden conversion of some of the corporate media's most docile mouthpieces for U.S. government policy into enraged questioners of authority.

CNN sent Anderson Cooper to Mississippi, and he obviously saw more than he bargained for--the only explanation for why he stopped throwing softball questions in an interview with Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu.

"Excuse me, Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting." Cooper said, after Landrieu tried to hype the latest congressional appropriation for disaster relief. "I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other--you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.

"And when they hear politicians thanking one another, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?...

"I know you say there's a time and a place for looking back, but this seems to be the time and the place. There are people who want answers, and there are people who want someone to stand up and say, 'You know what? We should have done more.'"
-- Alan Maass

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Military's recruiters prey on the evacuees

IT'S NOT enough for the military to prey on impoverished teens searching for a way to pay for college. Now they're going after the desperate victims of Hurricane Katrina.

According to a statement from several Houston and New Orleans-area activists that was widely circulated on the Internet, military recruiters last week held a "job fair" at the Houston Astrodome--the site of one of the largest temporary housing centers for evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.

"Doling out food to the hungry crowds overflowing Houston's Astrodome, the National Guard has engaged in ad hoc recruiting in recent days," the statement read. "Tomorrow, September 7, 2005, the U.S. military is conducting a job fair in the Astrodome in a blatant effort to exploit the despair of masses of Americans evacuated from the Gulf Coast. Once signed up, even if purportedly to reconstruct their region, they could easily find themselves deployed to Iraq, left with medical coverage for only two for only combat-related injury and the expectations for training eviscerated. And if they sign up on the promise of temporary relief, they could find themselves bound for extended tours of duty."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported last week that hundreds of Mississippi National Guardsmen currently stationed in Iraq have been denied even 15-day leaves to come home and aid their families displaced by the hurricane.

According to the Post, nearly all of the roughly 300 soldiers of 155th Brigade's B and C companies had their homes destroyed or severely damaged in the hurricane. While about 80 Mississippi Guard members have been granted emergency leave, the rest have been told that all other forward operating bases "are tapped out and cannot send troops," as one Mississippi Guard member, whose wife and child narrowly escaped before their apartment building was washed away, wrote in an e-mail to a family member.
-- Nicole Colson

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