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Bush administration fails Katrina victims
Abandoned again

October 28, 2005 | Page 5

ALAN MAASS reports on how the federal government has already broken its promises to the victims of Hurricane Katrina--and ROSE HAIRE talks to an evacuee about the untold stories of death and devastation in New Orleans.

GEORGE BUSH'S prime-time speech from New Orleans September 15 to promise "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen" was widely seen as a stunt to "reconstruct" his falling popularity.

Still, even the most cynical commentators have to be surprised at how quickly Bush abandoned--for a second time--the poor, mostly Black residents who bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina.

Bush has continued to make highly publicized trips to the Gulf Coast--on average, once a week since the storm. But he hasn't put much money where his mouth is.

As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, the administration has yet to draw up legislation to implement most of the major proposals Bush talked about in his speech. On the one where they have--$5,000 accounts to help workers left unemployed by the hurricane--the administration's bill would provide aid for fewer than a quarter of the jobless, the Times estimated.

Recently, Bush and his administration have shifted their rhetoric to talking about how local and state leaders "know best" about setting reconstruction priorities--a sure sign that they want to further offload federal responsibility.

The result has been chaos and confusion--just like after the hurricane hit. "I have no idea what we're supposed to do," Carolyn Pierce, a retired school teacher, told a reporter as she returned to New Orleans to see her ruined house and figure out how to rebuild her life. "I want a plan, but nobody seems to have a plan."

Expectations that the issue of poverty would remain in the mainstream political discussion following Katrina have been dashed.

Republicans were quick to "use the storm for causes of their own, like suspending requirements that federal contractors have affirmative action plans and pay locally prevailing wages," wrote the New York Times.

Otherwise, though, the climate has shifted fast in Washington. "We've had a stunning reversal in just a few weeks," Robert Greenstein, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said. "We've gone from a situation in which we might have a long-overdue debate on deep poverty, to the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that low-income people will be asked to bear the costs."

Conservatives were quick to prepare their sound bites against additional spending on programs that benefit working people and the poor. "This is not the time to expand the programs that were failing anyway," sneered Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation.

In fact, Katrina has become the excuse for conservative Republicans in Congress to push for even harsher cuts. One group of House members, who call themselves the Republican Study Committee (RSC), produced a draft plan for deeper cuts in Medicaid and other programs than the Bush administration had supported.

With the Republican congressional leadership in disarray following the indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on corruption charges, the RSC has reportedly gained the upper hand. "Now, cutting the budget--which only months ago seemed far from possible--is at the center of the agenda in the House," reported the Washington Post.

Yet at the same time as he and his caucus call for deep spending cuts, Rep. Mike Pence, the head of the RSC, still wants tax breaks. "Raising taxes in the wake of a national catastrophe would imperil the very economic growth we need to bring the Gulf Coast back," Pence said.

The administration stayed silent despite public criticisms from Pence and other members of the RSC. But when Republican Sen. Charles Grassley suggested that the government Medicaid health program be temporarily expanded to cover all the poor who survived Hurricane Katrina, the administration announced its opposition immediately.

Likewise, after the Senate voted to meet evacuees' housing needs through the federal government's Section 8 program--a target for Bush since he set foot in the White House--the administration instead created a parallel voucher program.

If Republicans are trying to sweep the issue of poverty back under the rug, the supposed "opposition" Democrats aren't doing much to stop them. Rather than propose a broad federal response to the Katrina disaster and use the opportunity to push back against the conservative offensive against "big government," Democratic leaders are talking like "uptight bookkeepers," as the Nation magazine's William Grieder put it--and echoing conservative calls for "fiscal responsibility."

The bipartisan establishment in Washington is clinging to the status quo, while the victims of Katrina are abandoned--again.

Trapped in the Orleans Parish jail as the flooding began
"They left them there to die"

WHO DIED in the flooding of New Orleans? There is an official death toll--but almost none of the victims' names have been publicly released.

More than a month after Katrina struck, the total number of deaths according to the state government was just under 1,000, but only 61 bodies had been released and 32 names made public.

The delay has naturally stoked suspicion--not least that the death toll is much higher than officials admit. With evacuated residents of the city's poorest areas increasingly scattered, many questions remain.

For example, as of the beginning of October, there was still no information on the whereabouts of more than 500 prisoners from the Orleans Parish jail.

Inmates at the jail--many of whom were being held at the time for minor offenses such as criminal trespass and disorderly conduct--were abandoned when guards fled the rising floodwaters after Katrina hit. The prisoners spent four days without food and water, trapped in locked buildings as the water rose toward the ceiling.

According to Human Rights Watch, prisoners said they were able to help some inmates escape from first-floor cells, but others drowned behind locked doors. After the evacuation finally took place, some 517 prisoners were missing from the list of those who were rescued.

New Orleans resident Annette Addison told Socialist Worker that she spent the disaster--which she and her sister barely escaped themselves--worried about her son, Leo, who had been due to get out of the jail when the storm hit.

She only learned that Leo was safe when she reached Houston. But Annette then faced more obstacles finding him--he had been taken to Wichita Correctional Facility in Monroe, La.--and arranging for his release on bond.

"When we went to get him," Annette said, "we ran to each other, hugged each other. He said, 'Mama, I never experienced anything like this in my life. You don't know what I went through.' He said so many people died. The guards didn't even unlock the cells--just left them there to die. He said inmates were busting windows with their hands to get the water out."

When they were finally evacuated, at least some of the prisoners were taken to a highway bridge, where they were left to sit in the open for hours, watched by armed guards with orders to shoot anyone who tried to escape. Leo suffered from skin infections due to all the time spent in the polluted floodwaters. After the evacuation, it was three days before he was allowed to change clothes.

Annette said Leo told her he himself saw seven bodies floating in the flooded jail. "The water was so high that if my son didn't know how to swim, he would have died," Annette said. "He said he stepped on a dead body, and was so scared. He said some of the guards were shooting inmates inside the prison. And some who attempted to get way once they were outside were shot to death."

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