Saturday, April 29, 2006

Did I Miss Anyone?

So far I’ve got Suspect Device (twice), Ashley, Oyster, Seymour D. Fair, 2millionth, Markus, Loki, Ray in Austin, Lady Morwen, and Tim. Good stuff.

I also sense a little sedition in some of the posts. Great stuff.

Here’s all of what Bay Buchanan said
:

I believe Katrina has worn its welcome.

I think we’ve heard about it. We’ve heard about it.

The American people have responded.

The President suffered. It weakened his poll numbers.

But to suggest that somehow that this is going to continue to play against him... I think the American people are getting a little tired of it myself.
She is responding to a comment by Wolf Blitzer that this administration can’t “cut a break.” Every time it does something to improve its image, something damaging happens. In this case it was Bush’s Gulf Coast photo op being trumped in the headlines by a Senate committee’s recommendation to abolish FEMA.

Therefore, Buchanan, representing the right, is attempting to explain away the negative news about Bush by minimizing how important Katrina is politically. She is spinning the worst natural disaster in America’s history.

Implicit in her comments is that Katrina has been dealt with. It’s over. The President can move on to the next thing, and the American people want him to move on.

You can’t spin Katrina.

Katrina has not “worn its welcome.” It never really was welcomed. And it is still definitely wearing on Gulf Coast residents.

Yes, you’ve “heard about it.” And you will keep hearing about it because Katrina isn’t over for a lot of Gulf Coast residents. Why do you think they are still talking about it on CNN?

“The American people have responded.” WTF? What is that supposed to mean? Of course they have responded. Gulf Coast residents are Americans, too. Louisiana is one of those 50 stars on the flag. So are Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas.

“The President suffered. It weakened his poll numbers.” I think a few people down here can tell you a little bit about suffering. Scratch that – a lot about suffering. I guarantee you poll numbers will not be mentioned in any of their stories.

As far as “the American people are getting a little tired of it,” Tim’s tired of a few things, too:
The levees are not quite repaired back to even their pre-Katrina level. With the exception of temporary gates at the three outfall canals, no real improvements to the hurricane protection system have been made.

If another Katrina comes this year, it will be deja vu all over again. Plaquemines: washed away. St. Bernard: a giant bathtub. New Orleans East: running water in every building. The only thing that will be different is that there will be fewer people to drown.
None other than Secretary Chertoff seconds him:
Mr. Sesno: But as a sort of fact of life, what do you think would actually be left of New Orleans if another Katrina hit it this year?

Secretary Chertoff: Well, I think -- obviously depending on the way in which it hit, depending on the condition of those levees that remain from last year that weren’t broken but may be weakened, I think we could have a pretty significant and bad event in New Orleans.

Mr. Sesno: Could we see what we saw all over again? Could we see New Orleans under -- I mean, why not, right?

Secretary Chertoff: I mean, I think it would -- it’s a function of how much wind, how much storm surge, to what extent does the storm surge impact those elements of the levees that may be weak that haven’t been strengthened yet. So I can’t -- I'm not an engineer, I can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen. But I can tell you there are certainly scenarios that require us to be very, very cautious about what’s going happen.

Mr. Sesno: I guess my question is, how honest are people being with the residents of New Orleans and the rest of the country, that if there’s another hurricane that’s like Katrina – and it’s right in the path, I mean, it could happen, that there is no New Orleans to talk about?

Secretary Chertoff: Well, parts of New Orleans -- I don't want to overstate it -- parts of New Orleans are above sea level, and that's kind of a different situation. But there are no -- there's no question that when you have a city which has significant parts below sea level, in the right set of bad conditions, you could suffer damage that would be comparable to what we had last year, with the exception of the fact that we have fewer people. I think we have a more mobile population, and our planning and our preparation is going to be a lot better.

But at the end of the day, you can't stop a hurricane. So if, in fact, you get a 25- or 30-foot storm surge, and it comes into the city, you're going to see some pretty serious damage.
We know what can happen. We know it can happen again. We on the Gulf Coast do not have the luxury of “getting a little tired of it.” As long as we are dealing with it, American people are dealing with it.

Deal with it.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Loyalty Day

A Presidential proclamation:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 1, 2006, as Loyalty Day. I call upon all the people of the United States to join in support of this national observance, and to display the flag of the United States on Loyalty Day.
But don’t do it in Spanish!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Thank You White House Press Corps

For sucking:

Q How much has been spent or requested totally for the whole relief/recovery efforts? It's over $100 billion --

CHAIRMAN POWELL: Well, with this supplemental we'll be right at $100 billion.

Q With the money now?

CHAIRMAN POWELL: With this supplement that's in there now, it would be right at $100 billion.

Q Originally it was $108 billion, back a couple of months ago; there was a $108 billion figure.

CHAIRMAN POWELL: I'm not sure about -- I can get you those exact numbers.

Q --

Q That's with the bill that's in the Senate right now?

CHAIRMAN POWELL: It's right at $100 billion, yes.

Q That includes the money that's before the Senate today?

CHAIRMAN POWELL: Yes.
Why didn’t the reporter ask why it was $108 billion before, when the supplemental bill was lower, and now only “right at $100 billion” when the supplemental bill is higher? The supplemental bill went up, but the total requested went down?

Of course, the correct answer is that didn’t happen. The higher number includes the money the National Flood Insurance Program can borrow to pay flood claims. The lower number doesn’t. Powell must have slipped up and counted only the money he has at his disposal to actually rebuild the Gulf Coast. He must have forgotten that he needs to pad the totals with the insurance claims money – money that the NFIP is required to pay because insured homeowners have paid for it – and call it all “rebuilding money.”

The $108 billion number comes from the middle of last month. At that time, a little over $67 billion dollars had been approved:
* September 2, 2005 – $10.5 billion disaster relief bill

* September 8, 2005 – $51.8 billion disaster relief bill

* December 31, 2005 – $29 billion in hurricane aid, of which $5 billion is new funds and $24 billion diverted from the already authorized $62 billion.
The supplemental request stood at $19.1 billion. And the NFIP borrowing limit was raised to $20.8 billion.

Add those numbers and you get around $108 billion. (Actually, $107.2 billion. They round up.)

Today, the supplemental bill stands at $27.1 billion. Therefore, when asked “How much has been spent or requested totally for the whole relief/recovery efforts?” the correctly spun number should be $116 billion – if you count the NFIP borrowing limit.

If you don't, the number is $95 billion.

Powell said “right around $100 billion.” That’s much closer to the number not including the NFIP borrowing limit. It definitely doesn't *include* it. I don’t know where the other $5 billion comes from, but I guess $95 billion is "right at $100 billion."

If the reporter had just asked why the numbers were different, Powell would have had to explain all that.

Anyway, now we have a precedent. The Federal Coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding does not include flood insurance claims payments as rebuilding money. I can stop keeping count.

Previous posts on this:

Why Bush’s Number Fudging Bites Us in the Butt

Rebuilding the Gulf Coast with Flood Claims

$88 Billion is the New $85 Billion

When does 85 + 18 = 85?

I Want My $85 Billion

I Always Feel Like...

...somebody’s watching me:

The new Open Source Center (OSC) at CIA headquarters recently stepped up data collection and analysis based on bloggers worldwide and is developing new methods to gauge the reliability of the content, said OSC Director Douglas J. Naquin.

***

"I can't get into detail of what, but I'll just say the amount of open source reporting that goes into the president's daily brief has gone up rather significantly," Mr. Jardines said.
I can’t imagine anything from this blog going into the presidential daily briefing, but I can see only good things coming from the CIA or any public official reading blogs. They are open to everyone, including the President.

However, I don’t see what good it would do. When the President receives a briefing entitled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” a month before it happens and the country is still unprepared for 9-11; or, when he receives intelligence from the CIA that says Saddam Hussein didn’t attempt to buy uranium from Niger but he still uses those 16 words in the State of the Union address to convince our country to go to war; or, when the White House situation room receives an email in the morning when Katrina hit (WaPo) anticipating levee breaches but Bush still says a few days later that nobody anticipated levee breaches, it seems that it is not intelligence from the CIA that is lacking. It is intelligence from another source that is in short supply.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Absolves Itself: Part 2

At first glance, this seems absurdly obvious:

"Katrina was a storm that was significantly stronger than the protection system was designed for," Hitchings said.
When I read this quote by Dan Hitchings, the civilian head of the USACE’s Task Force Guardian, I thought it should go in the “No Shit, Sherlock” file.

I was wrong. It is crucial.

Many of us have blamed the USACE for the failure of the levee system. We can’t do that if “Katrina was a storm that was significantly stronger than the protection system was designed for.” If this is true, the levee system was designed properly, built properly, and functioned properly. It just wasn’t built to withstand a Katrina.

This would absolve the USACE and the federal government of any blame for the failure of the levee system and, therefore, any obligation to make up for it.

That is the conclusion the federal government wants. And they are looking for the evidence to support it:
An upcoming report sponsored by the corps will show maps of the inundation of the metro area, including what conditions would have been like if levee walls had not breached, said Dan Hitchings, the civilian head of Task Force Guardian, the corps' effort to rebuild New Orleans area levees to pre-Katrina levels.

"The breaches just made it worse," Hitchings told the House Transportation Committee in a special hearing Monday. Setting the breaches aside, "We will all be surprised at how much water still came into the system."

***

His remarks stunned some members of the committee who have attributed much of the flooding, particularly in Lakeview, Gentilly, Old Metairie and many areas in Orleans Parish and downtown, to breaches in the 17th Street and London Avenue outfall canals, which were not overtopped.

***

"A lot of that flooding came from the Industrial Canal as well," he said, adding that overtopping on the west side of the canal contributed to more flooding in the city than people generally know.

As for flooding in the Lower 9th Ward, St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans, those waters were because of a combination of levee overtopping and to breaches caused by the overtopping, Hitchings said.
I am as stunned to hear this as the committee members. With all the media stories done on the levees, with all the press conferences held by the USACE, and with three different groups (IPET, Team Louisiana, and the Berkeley Group) investigating the levees, I am surprised that this is the first I have heard that “the breaches just made it worse” or that a significant amount of water overflowed the west (upper) side of the Industrial Canal.

Such an overwhelming surge overtopping the levees to the point where the breaches didn’t matter would certainly absolve the USACE. But, other experts aren’t so sure that’s what happened.

Assistant director of the LSU Hurricane Center Ivor van Heerden:
Van Heerden said storm surge models show 16 percent of the volume of water in the Orleans metro bowl, basically the area west of the Industrial Canal, was from overtopping, and the rest from breaches. Breaches were responsible for 92 percent of the flood water volume in St. Bernard Parish and 65 percent in eastern New Orleans, he said.

Overtopping would have occurred for up to three hours the day of the storm, totaling nowhere near the amount of sustained water flowing in because of breaches, he said.
University of Missouri-Rolla engineering professor J. David Rogers:
"But for Lakeview and Gentilly, I don't know what he is talking about," Rogers said of Hitchings.

There was overtopping on the western side of the Industrial Canal, but for at most six hours, he said. "It's not what caused everybody to leave their homes," Rogers said. "As a percentage of property damage, it's not significant."
I eagerly await the June report. I am not an engineer. Nor do I play one on this blog. But I am sure plenty of engineers will comment on it when the report comes out. If the science is good, then the report will be good, giving us more information on how to build a levee system that works.

If, however, the USACE’s report varies drastically with the conclusions of other independent examiners, I don’t know where we go from there. We’ll see in June.

“As pro-life as it can be”

State abortion ban to be debated today in the Senate:

Sen. Ben Nevers' bill would allow abortions only to save the life of the mother.

***

Under the measure, doctors found guilty of performing abortions would face up to 10 years in prison and fines of $100,000.
I wonder if Bluey, the Body Rights Thingamabob, will be asked to speak before the Senate. As I have said before, I am pro-abortion, so Bluey speaks for me, although I believe the kiddies would enjoy his delivery more.

Exceptions for rape or incest are expected to be tacked on. They are not in there now because, apparently, those exceptions are not pro-life enough.

***WARNING: Read update for missing sarcasm tags***

In fact, if it were up to Sen. Diana Bajoie, there wouldn’t be ANY exceptions:
Sen. Diana Bajoie, D-New Orleans, said she’d rather have a pure abortion ban with no exceptions, even for the life of the mother.

“If you believe in life, that’s what it should be,” she said.

***

Bajoie said Nevers’ bill gives preference to the mother over the baby. She said the mother could decide that she wants the baby to live instead of herself. “This bill is not totally pro-life,” she added.
I guess I don’t believe in life.

Isn’t there something hurricane related we should be doing?

***UPDATE (4-27-06)***

Diane in comments says:
Sen. Bajoie, a pro-choice leader, was injecting some much-needed sarcasm into the debate.
The sarcasm doesn’t come through in the article, but that would be the fault of the writer.

Here’s a link to support what Diane says from Vote-smart.org:
On the votes that the Louisiana Planned Parenthood considered to be the most important in 2001, Senator Bajoie voted their preferred position 100 percent of the time.
It appears my take on Sen. Bajoie’s comments is WRONG. I am happy to hear that I am WRONG. Yey for wrongness! (...when it comes to state senators wanting a “pure abortion ban”)

Sen. Nevers had a 0% rating in 2001.

***UPDATE #2 (4-27-06)***

The bill passed without the exceptions for rape and incest.

Sen. Bajoie was one of six senators who voted against the ban, but she also voted against *adding the exceptions for rape and incest.* It seems a pro-choice leader would vote to give as many women a choice as possible. I hope I am wrong and she doesn't support abortion of any kind, because as President Pro Tempore of the Senate and a friend of the governor, she holds some sway.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Bush Threatens to Veto Bill with Hurricane Relief

Because it was moving along so fast already:

The White House promises to veto a huge Senate bill to pay for the rising costs of the war in Iraq unless the cost to taxpayers is scaled back to his original requests.

The must-pass $106.5 billion bill exceeds President Bush's February request by more than $14 billion with add-ons for farm aid, highway repairs and aid to the Gulf Coast fishing industry, drawing the ire of the White House and conservative Republicans.
That would be the same bill with the $4.2 billion in community development block grants that Louisiana needs to go through with its housing plan.

There's more:
Even as the White House raised the potential of a first-ever Bush veto over the bill's cost, the administration asked the Senate on Tuesday for $2.2 billion more to repair and strengthen levees in and around New Orleans. The request wouldn't add to the overall cost of the bill since it was accompanied by a decrease in funding for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds.

But the White House acknowledges FEMA coffers would now have to be replenished again in the fall instead of next year under the new proposal.
While asking the Senate to cut spending in the bill, Bush is effectively adding $2.2 billion through a debt-shifting shell game involving FEMA funding. I’m all for that money going to levees. But, as the proposal stands now, it is not new funding. He’s just robbing FEMA to pay the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Of course, when he touts how much money he’s sending to this part of the world, he’ll probably count this $2.2 billion on top of what is already in the bill.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Absolves Itself

The USACE has brought up the “overtop vs. breach” debate again. But here it is more than just semantics:

A top federal official ignited controversy Monday when he said overtopped rather than breached levees accounted for much of the water that engulfed New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

A federal investigation due out in June will say just that, Dan Hitchings, director of Task Force Hope for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told a House committee.
Simply put, if overtopping caused most of the flooding, then nothing in the design could have been done to save New Orleans from Katrina, and the engineers who built the levees bear no blame. If levee breaches occurred before being overtopped, then the levees did not work, and the builders of the levees bear some blame.

So, if the federal investigation to be released says overtopped levees caused much of the flooding, it absolves the federal government from much of the blame:
Hitchings told the committee that, once the federal investigation is over, it will show that even without the breaches a significant amount of water would have entered the city because of overtopped levees.

***

Much of the damage to homes in the Lower 9th Ward stemmed from breaches, he said. But lots of that flooding would have taken place anyway because of the overtopping, Hitchings added.

He said the breaches did play a big role in the speed of the destruction.
The USACE has already called the breach of the 17th Street Canal floodwalls the result of a “design failure.” Therefore, the report to be released is probably focusing on flooding in the Lower 9th Ward and N.O. East, involving the Industrial Canal and MR-GO levees.

Our local experts disagree with the USACE on what happened with the Industrial Canal and the MR-GO levees:
“Eighty-seven percent of all water that got into New Orleans was because of levee breaches,” van Heerden told the House Committee on Transportation, Highways and Public Works.

***

He said homes were knocked off their foundations in the Lower 9th Ward by a 14-foot surge of water because of levee breaks. In St. Bernard Parish, 92 percent of the water got in through levee breaches, the official said.

Van Heerden said the levees ruptured “due to design,” including the failure to properly account for soil conditions.
Previously, LSU researcher Dr. Hassan Mashriqui has proposed that these levees failed before they were overtopped:
LSU researchers said levees on the MRGO and the intracoastal waterway may have started to fail before they were overtopped by Katrina’s storm surge. They said that when that surge reached the Paris Road Bridge, the water was racing at a rate of eight to12 feet per second, and it may have been that rapid movement of water that was scouring and breaching the levees.

Mashriqui said he believes the levee breach at the Bayou Bienvenue gate may have occurred before the water topped the levee.
Poor soils and lack of armoring combined with the erosive effects of fast moving water could have caused breaches before the levees were overtopped. This, too, would be a design failure.

No one will see the federal report until June. So, I can’t comment on what it says. After reading it, I might agree with it completely. Science doesn’t lie, and if the science says it wasn’t the USACE’s fault, it wasn’t their fault.

I'm just saying be prepared. The federal government, and especially this Executive branch, isn’t very good at admitting and taking responsibility for its mistakes.

Levee Living

I’ve seen this headline before:

“Governor Blasts Feds For Response To Levees”
I’ve heard this quote before:
"I think the response that the federal government has given us is unacceptable," the governor told reporters at an Earth Day event on a San Pedro beach. "We need the federal government to come in and help us so we can build the levees as quickly as possible."
You say you don’t remember Blanco attending an Earth Day event? You say you’ve never heard of San Pedro beach in Louisiana?

That’s because it’s in California:
"We're not going to wait for their response," Schwarzenegger said. "We have seen what happens in New Orleans when people waited for the federal government. Their response was terrible there and we don't want to be a victim of that."
It looks like we are not alone in the shoddy levees department.

And California really isn’t going to wait for the feds:
President Bush has issued an unusual waiver that will allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accept state money for critical levee repairs, a senior Bush administration official said Friday.

***

The governor had sought the waiver to speed repairs on 29 levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that need critical repairs to prevent flooding and ensure the reliability of delivering water to cities and farms.

State officials fear that California's fragile levee system could fail in an earthquake or under strain from the unusually heavy rainfall and snow the state has seen this year.
Imagine that. A state wanting to stop a catastrophe before it happens. And the federal government does want to give it the funds to do so. Sound familiar?

Hey, but what do I know? I’m ten feet below.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Voters

Washington Post:

In the 2002 election, African Americans cast 62 percent of about 135,000 votes. On Saturday, African Americans cast 52 percent of about 108,000 votes, Rigamer's figures showed. The fact that the number of voters this time was 80 percent of the voters from the last mayoral election -- even though the city is half-empty -- was greeted as good news by some.
Going on those numbers, in the 2002 election (I am assuming they are talking about the primary), 83,700 votes were cast by African Americans. In 2006, 56,160 votes were cast by African Americans – 27,540 less than the previous mayoral primary.

Flipping the percentages, what that also says is the number of non-African American voters didn’t change much at all:

2002 – 51,300 non-African American voters
2006 – 51,840 non-African American voters

In fact, those numbers mean there were more non-African American voters this time around, even with less than half of the pre-Katrina population in the city.

Either these numbers reflect how voting was harder for still displaced residents, of which the large majority is African American, or they represent the changing demographics of a post-Katrina New Orleans – less overall population, with fewer African Americans and about the same number of whites and others.

If there is the same turnout for the runoff, it would strongly suggest the latter. Having already had a run-through with the primary and given another month to decide and get his or her vote in (EDIT: Early voting, May 8 - 13; absentee ballots, May 8 - 13, May 19 for some), the process becomes less of an obstacle for the displaced resident. Therefore, not voting could be an indication that displaced residents are not interested in the elections in New Orleans because they do not plan on coming back.

I hope the African American turnout for the runoff, whether in person or by absentee, is higher. I know Nagin does, too. He wants to win. I just want people to come home.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Saga of Kimbo and the Photo

As told by Wonkette.

And the photo has been replaced by a campaign sign with the phrase "The end of politics as usual." Yep.

What’s the Hold Up?

Jeffrey listed the highlights, or fireworks, of the 3rd WGNO debate, including this exchange between Nagin and Watson:

Watson also challenged Nagin's assertion that the state is "holding up" reconstruction funds and let fly at Nagin with all of the fire and brimstone he could muster here declaring, "Ray Nagin is the problem! Ray you are lying! You are a liar!" At one point in this exchange Watson actually used the words "I rebuke you." Nagin's response to all of this was even better. During the reverend's tirade Nagin affected to bless Watson making the sign of the cross and shouting, "Pastor! God bless you!"
The exchange came after Landrieu, addressing Nagin, gave an explanation of the legislative process reminiscent of “Schoolhouse Rocks” to show that the housing money hasn’t come because, well, that’s the process. It was very demeaning and I think I heard another candidate sarcastically thank Mitch for the civics lesson.

Nagin responded by citing that Mississippi already got its money and that Louisiana’s recovery will be six months behind Mississippi’s because the state is moving too slow.

Obviously, New Orleans, as well as the other hurricane ravaged parts of the state, would be better off with the funds already in the bank. So, who is holding up the funds? Nagin claims it’s the state government. The state says it’s the federal government.

It’s both.

The federal government set aside $6.2 billion dollars in CDBG funds for housing in Louisiana, to be released by HUD when the state presents a plan to use that money. However, the state (correctly) concluded that $6.2 billion, which was the most by law that one state could receive out of the original $11.5 billion allocated to the Gulf Coast, was not enough given the level of devastation in the state and convinced Bush to request an additional $4.2 billion. Therefore, the LRA did not present a plan to get the $6.2 billion that is waiting for us. Instead, it prepared a plan asking for that money plus the additional request, which is not waiting for us.

Basically, instead of going with the bird in our hand, we went for the two in the bush. This is not necessarily wrong because the bird in our hand was not big enough to feed our entire family. However, it could have held us over until the next bird in the hand.

Which is where Nagin’s frustration sets in. No plan was presented to get the money that the state knew we could get. In fact, as of today, no plan has been presented or even finalized:
The recovery authority is expected to vote next week on Gov. Kathleen Blanco's $7.5 billion proposal to assist homeowners, as well as another plan to foster the development of rental property in the areas hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Also, notice that the plan asks for $7.5 billion just for housing, $1.3 billion more than the $6.2 billion we know we can get. And that lower number was to be used for both housing and infrastructure.

So, the state is holding up the money we can get *today* and the federal government, by originally not allocating Louisiana’s fair share of money based on levels of devastation and then taking its time on voting on the additional funds (which, as Mitch tells us, is the legislative process), is holding up *everything* because our plan will ask for all the money at once.

The real disappointment here is that the state did not have an interim plan to use the $6.2 billion when it was ready. Sure, we were shortchanged and HUD probably would not have approved any interim plan that relied on $4.2 billion that the state wasn’t sure it could get. However, some plan could have been formulated to address immediate needs and implemented with the expectation of future funds.

The state didn’t do that, and we wait on Congress’ approval and the President’s signature for our share of the community development block grants. And right now, it’s just a bill. Sitting there on Capitol Hill...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Two Moderators, Two Debates

Oyster has some quick thoughts on last night’s WDSU/MSNBC debate.

I watched the debate online.
Although it made for good TV (in my case, good internet), and being nationally televised was a true service for the displaced residents, I thought the presence of Chris Matthews and MSNBC detracted from the informational value of the debate and the relevance to New Orleans’ voters, as evidenced by Matthews’ introduction:

“This is about a city. But, it’s also about a country that is being asked to pay to rebuild it.”
And his general questions reflected that national viewpoint, rehashing issues that we have already dealt with locally as well as issues that have nothing to do with a municipal election:
CM: “Why should a guy driving a cab up in Detroit pay for somebody down here in New Orleans to rebuild a house below sea level?”

CM: “Do you approve or disapprove of President Bush’s job performance?”

CM: “If those faces [at the Convention Center] had been white, would the reaction from the people of America have been different?”

CM: “When you think of a great American mayor, when you think of the role model for the kind of person you’d like to run this city, or any city in America, who is it?”

CM: “This city has long had the nickname ‘The Big Easy.’ Can it afford that nickname?”

CM: “The National Auto Dealer’s Association, just as an example, is trying to decide whether to come here with their convention. What’s your best pitch?”

CM: “Who’s Dickie Brennan?”

CM: “How come the French and the Brits can build a tunnel under the English Channel? It never leaks. It works. The Dutch have their dikes and stuff like that. It works. How come we have dirt piles to protect this city?”
I can understand why Chris Matthews and MSNBC would be interested in the answers to these questions. I, too, was interested. But, given the time constraints, it would have been nice to have focused on more local issues. For example, I don’t remember anyone even mentioning the recently released FEMA advisory base flood elevations.

Norman Robinson did provide some local relevance with his questions:
NR: “A category 4 hurricane is barreling down on the city of New Orleans. What would you do first?”

NR: [after playing Nagin’s “Get off your ass” comment] “What would you [all the candidates] have done to save lives in that situation?”

NR: “What about the people who live here, Ms. Boulet and the rest of the candidates? You’re talking about tourism. That’s wonderful. But, three quarters of the city where people lived... totally ruined. And what people are saying is it is an affront to us to tell us to come back when you don’t have hospital beds, when you only have a fraction of the schools open, and where hundreds of kids are running the street everyday with no place to go.”

NR: “There’s no guarantee – this coming from engineers – that the largest segment of the city, 144 square miles, Eastern New Orleans, will be protected in future hurricanes. What is your moral responsibility when people inquire about whether it is safe to rebuild there?”

NR: [regarding still finding the dead in the debris] “Why does that happen in the United States of America in 2006?
While voters are interested in the answers to these questions, they also need to know the answers. And those questions just scratched the surface of what voters need to know.

Tom Watson said, “There are people watching this who want to come home.” I do not think they were fully served by this debate.

But I enjoyed it. I am enjoying all the debates. We should have them all year round, even when there are no elections in sight, just to keep the elected officials honest.

My two cents on the performances of the candidates: I have the least negative and the most positive things to say about Virginia Boulet.

Monday, April 17, 2006

There's Habitable, and There's Habitable

Much has been said about the Katrina fatigue felt by Houston residents. Well, it looks like they’re not the only ones who want the evacuees out of Houston:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has notified about 8,900 heads of households in Houston, representing more than 20,000 Katrina evacuees, that they will be ineligible for the cash assistance intended to replace a massive city voucher program that has paid their rent.

A common reason was that the evacuees' former homes were now habitable.
Okay, sounds reasonable. If you have a home you can live in, you should live there. But (with FEMA, there’s always a but):
A team from Houston's Hurricane Housing Task Force, however, conducted a spot check of 43 New Orleans homes deemed "habitable" by FEMA and found 70 percent unfit for occupancy...

***

The Houston team found 13 homes habitable and 30 uninhabitable, [Houston Mayor Bill] White said.
Check out the pics of the “habitable” houses above the story. Here’s a description:
The city released photographs showing apartments and houses, including the one with little standing but the stairway, in severe disrepair. One apartment building, surrounded by a chain link fence, had been condemned, White said.
According to an earlier article, FEMA acknowledges around “12 percent of the ineligibility decisions were based on determinations that evacuees' former homes are now inhabitable,” which is around 1000 houses. I grant that 43 homes surveyed out of 1000 deemed habitable is not the greatest statistical sample. For example, the 43 surveyed might have all been in the hardest hit areas. I don’t know enough specifics about the “spot checks” to confidently apply the “70 percent unfit for occupancy” rate to all 1000 houses.

However, those 30 households aren’t a percentage or rate. They are 30 individuals or families that fell through the cracks. If it weren’t for Mayor White double-checking FEMA, they probably would have remained fallen through the cracks.

I don’t know much about Mayor White. But, judging by his actions in this matter and his comments afterwards, he seems sympathetic to the cause:
White said a "reasonable deadline" for evacuees to be self-sufficient would be a year to 18 months from now, or about two years after the hurricane. "It shouldn't be forever," the mayor said.

***

"We think there ought to be an orderly process," White said. "(Evacuees) shouldn't be treated as code numbers on a spreadsheet."
Of course, the pessimist in me says he helped these evacuees because he knew if FEMA didn’t pay their rent, the city of Houston would most likely have to come to their aid. But, it’s a holiday, and my sanity is on the ropes, so I’ll go with the glass is half full version of the story.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Let's Be Fair

I don’t necessarily think FEMA should be paying for the New Orleans citywide elections. However, it appears that the precedent has been set:

Secretary of State Al Ater wants to know why the federal government agreed to pay for New York City's municipal elections after Sept. 11, 2001, but refuses to pay for New Orleans' elections after Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA recently turned down Louisiana's request for the extra $3-4 million it will take to hold the April 22 New Orleans municipal elections, rescheduled in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But the agency shelled out $7.9 million after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks delayed New York City's elections.
So, if a few blocks of your city are destroyed by terrorists from another country, you get $7.9 million for elections.

If 80 percent of your city is flooded and half the population is displaced largely due to a “design failure” in the levees built by your own government, you get “$733,000 to replace destroyed voting machines and related equipment” – nothing to assist with the complications inherent in having an election under those circumstances. Of course, I would understand if, when the WTC towers collapsed, $7.9 million worth of voting machines and related equipment were destroyed. My guess is that didn’t happen.

Do I sound bitter? I am. So is the Secretary of State:
"After the election, I'm going to dedicate my life to this," Ater said. "I'm going to become very obsessive-compulsive about it."
In related news, FEMA will also not pay for voting machines to be placed in New Orleans Square in Disneyland. (As of this post, why hasn’t Kimberly Williamson Butler taken that photo down yet?)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

War Costs More than Levees Cost

A lot more:

Two U.S. Marines were killed and 22 were wounded - two of them critically - in fighting in western Iraq, the U.S. military said today. It was the biggest number of American casualties reported from a single engagement in weeks.
War costs lives. Levees save lives.

Instead of war, let’s wage levees.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Our Most Important Priorities

4/13/06 Press Briefing by Scott McClellan:

And we are engaged in a global war on terrorism. And the cost of inaction is far higher -- we are laying the foundations of peace for generations to come. But we're going to make sure that our troops and our military has everything they need to complete the mission and do the job when it comes to prevailing in the war on terrorism. And that's why the President has outlined budgets that meet our most important priorities and hold the line on spending elsewhere.
Protecting Plaquemines Parish must count as spending elsewhere:
Donald Powell, President Bush's point man for hurricane recovery across the Gulf Coast, announced Wednesday that the administration will not immediately seek $1.6 billion needed to beef up levees that protect lower Plaquemines and the parish's east bank. In a cold cost-benefit calculation, Powell said the administration could not justify spending that huge sum on an area that before Katrina was home to 14,000 people -- just 2 percent of the region's population.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville:
"As far as I know, Plaquemines Parish is still in this state and is still in this nation, and they are as important as any parish or any county that was hit by this storm."
If this “part of the world” were one of the President’s “most important priorities,” the funding would be there.

Mayor and State DEQ Present New Incentive to Rebuild

The first devastated neighborhood to rebuild and have a plan for the future...

Gets a landfill!

The state Department of Environmental Quality will allow the opening of a new construction landfill in eastern New Orleans despite the vehement opposition of a coalition of neighborhood residents and environmentalists, department officials announced Thursday.

***

The neighborhood has been actively planning its future, [Rev. Vien] Nguyen said, and many residents have begun rebuilding. He and others fear a new landfill nearby will hurt those efforts.
The large Vietnamese community of Village de l’Est and their neighbors are way out there in New Orleans East. It is remarkable that they have recovered as much as they have in so little time with fewer resources than other communities. Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church has become the hub of their efforts and at its website you can read about their recovery and see photos of what the area looked like after the hurricane.

The residents of this community have shown a clear desire to rebuild. While a landfill may be needed, how can the Mayor justify dropping it near a neighborhood that definitely will come back and will have to deal with the landfill for years to come?

I don’t know where else to put a landfill. Odds are it won’t be 0.8 miles from Lakeview, another neighborhood that has shown a clear desire to rebuild. I also don’t know if the long term problems of a landfill in the east outweigh the short term gains, but that’s principally because no one else does either:
[DEQ assistant secretary Chuck] Brown acknowledged, however, that his figures were not based on a scientific analysis of where debris is located and how long it will take to pick up. Rather, he used estimates of how much debris remains, and figured that each landfill could accept approximately 20,000 cubic yards per day.

***

The corps, which is in charge of the debris-removal effort, has also said that another landfill would make its mission cheaper and faster. However, corps officials likewise don't have a scientific estimate of how much difference another landfill will make.
Cheaper and faster isn’t always better.

Planning for Protection Isn't Easy

Or perfect.

FEMA and the US Army Corps of Engineers had to work together for the Advisory Base Flood Elevation guidance levels to be released. What the USACE planned to do with the levees was an important, if not the most important, variable that would determine where FEMA would set the Base Flood Elevations. Ultimately, FEMA did not change the 1984 BSE levels for the ABFE levels, but rather required adherence and tacked on the “three feet above ground” requirement.

That means FEMA thinks the levees will provide 100-year protection at the ABFE levels. I am sure the USACE assured FEMA that their plans for the levee system would do just that. But an assurance by the USACE isn’t always assured (copy and paste to avoid login, I think):

On a cloudy February day in 1998, the Army Corps of Engineers wrote Sacramento flood officials to tell them that Natomas, a deep floodplain with wide stretches of undeveloped land, had been fortified against 100-year floods.

It was what everyone had been waiting for. It would lead to cheaper flood insurance, an end to mandatory insurance and the complete lifting of a building moratorium. It would encourage acres of new homes to spread through Natomas, nearly tripling the area's population to 67,000.

Yet that assurance of 100-year protection from rivers and canals was based on illusion.

***

New studies have concluded the area would not be safe in a 100-year flood, the kind spawned by storms with a 1 percent chance of sweeping through in any year. It will cost $140 million to $200 million and take until roughly 2011 to provide that protection
The southeastern Louisiana levee system is much bigger project than the Natomas levees, and much more is at stake. And there is much more that can go wrong:
In retrospect, it's clear the corps missed basic features of the ground beneath Natomas levees because of those limited explorations, said David Ricketts, a former corps section chief who reviewed old and new Natomas findings at The Bee's request.

The misstep was fairly simple, resting in how many holes engineers drilled into the levees to bring up fat cylinders of soil.
This is not to say that the USACE can’t build good levees. This is not to say that the USACE is sloppy. This is not to say that the USACE lied when they said Natomas was protected.

This simply shows that guaranteeing 100-year protection is complicated:
Lessons learned in Natomas illustrate the elaborate - and sometimes shaky - foundation on which assurances of 100-year flood protection are built, and the countless ways those assurances can be undermined for levees throughout the state.

"It gets to be extremely complicated because of assumptions," said Herb Hereth, a retired Army Corps hydrologist. "You lay out for me the assumptions that you're going to analyze, and I'll give you an answer. You change the assumptions and I'm going to give you a different answer."
The ABFEs that FEMA released depend on the USACE building levees that work by 2010. When the levees are finished, the governor may get a call from the USACE assuring that southeastern Louisiana is protected. But they might be wrong – not negligently wrong – just wrong. The levees might not be good enough. And that will throw all the plans out the window.
"No matter what kind of levee you're behind, you should assume there's a risk," said John Hess, chief of the geotechnical and environmental engineering branch at the Sacramento corps.
That’s good advice for those of us who are sticking around.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Protect My Ass

The standard used to make the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs), which are used to determine how much we pay in flood insurance, is the Base Flood Elevation (BFE). The BFE is the level “that indicates the water surface elevation resulting from a flood that has a one percent chance of equaling or exceeding that level in any given year,” a one percent chance of flooding which translates into flooding at that level once every one hundred years, or the 100-year flood level.

That doesn’t mean flooding at the BFE will happen only once every 100 years, just that there is a one percent chance in any given year. Probability is funny like that. It says one percent, but the way it affects you and me is actually zero or 100 percent. It either happens or it doesn’t.

The Advisory Base Flood Elevations (ABFEs) that FEMA released yesterday are not the “flood maps” we have been waiting for. They are preliminary guidelines to help people who are rebuilding:

The flood recovery guidance documents provide Advisory Base Flood Elevations which are an interim product to assist communities in their rebuilding efforts while new ('preliminary') Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) are being completed and provided to the communities for comment by the end of this year.
And presentation for comment is only the start of the process (pdf, pg 3):
By the end of this year, FEMA anticipates issuing preliminary FIRMs for many of the coastal Louisiana parishes. However, these maps will not become effective until they have been through a formal appeals and adoption process.
The entire process could take a couple of years before the maps are the official “flood maps.”

But the ABFEs are promising. They show that FEMA thinks 100-year protection for the New Orleans area will ultimately come for those inside the levee system. And for people rebuilding, the ABFEs might as well be the FIRMs because communities must adopt them to get other benefits:
The Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) has stated that in order for residents to be eligible for its State Homeowner Assistance plan, all reconstruction work must meet or exceed the latest available FEMA advisory base flood elevations and meet the legal requirements of the State Uniform Construction Code. FEMA has previously stated that these advisories must be used for any rebuilding projects using certain FEMA grant dollars thus the advisories apply to both public infrastructure projects as well as mitigation grants.
Also, the ABFEs are expected to closely resemble if not equal the levels that will eventually be in the final flood maps for those inside the levees, so homeowners who rebuild now should be just as safe as those who rebuild later.

However, these ABFEs depend on one thing:
The flood advisories are linked to the certification of the area’s levees. Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stated that the levees were not certifiable, meaning that they do not meet the standard for a 100-year flood, which represents a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year, based on updated analysis of new storm data. The 100-year flood standard is a requirement of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
The USACE says certification won’t happen until 2010.

And that certification won’t happen without funding:
...the Administration plans to begin working with Congress immediately to address additional funding beyond what the Administration has already requested, estimated at $2.5 billion, for work in all of the New Orleans area except for lower Plaquemines.

***

Those improvements will provide 100-year protection to about 98 percent of the population in the New Orleans area.
The 2% left out is lower Plaquemines. Another $1.6 billion would have to go the USACE’s way for them to be able to certify lower Plaquemines’ levees four years from now. That $1.6 billion plus the extra $2.5 billion makes up the new $4.1 billion number that the USACE says it would need to give all of southeastern Louisiana 100-year flood protection, down from last month’s $6 billion dollar number.

When the USACE gave us that $6 billion number last month, our jaws dropped. Our Senators and Representatives shouted angrily. Governor Blanco called it a “monumental miscalculation.”

But it wasn’t a miscalculation. The USACE only does what it is authorized and funded to do. The initial mission of the USACE and what it was authorized and funded to do was only to restore the damaged parts of the levee system to pre-Katrina design by June 1, 2006, and make improvements by September 2007 – scheduled improvements that didn't give the entire area 100-year food protection.

Now, they have the mission but need the funding. Who can fund the USACE to provide 100-year protection southeastern Louisiana? Congress. And the President can petition Congress to do so.

I ain’t too proud to beg, but it shouldn’t have to come to that.

Protect my ass.

Specifically, protect my ass from the 100-year flood so I can afford flood insurance or flood mitigation on my home if needed.

In Orleans Parish (pdf):
Although USACE improvements to the flood control system will make Orleans Parish safer than it was before the storms, they will not eliminate the potential for flooding. In fact, based on analyses recently completed by the USACE, the flood control system will not meet the standards necessary for providing protection against the 1-percent-annual-chance (100-year) flood, which is also referred to as the base flood.
In Jefferson Parish (pdf):
Although USACE improvements to the flood control system will make Jefferson Parish safer than it was before the storms, they will not eliminate the potential for flooding. In fact, based on analyses recently completed by the USACE, the flood control system will not meet the standards necessary for providing protection against the 1-percent-annual-chance (100-year) flood, which is also referred to as the base flood.
In St. Bernard Parish (pdf):
Although USACE improvements to the flood control system will make St. Bernard Parish safer than it was before the storms, they will not eliminate the potential for flooding. In fact, based on analyses recently completed by the USACE, the flood control system will not meet the standards necessary for providing protection against the 1-percent-annual-chance (100-year) flood, which is also referred to as the base flood.
And in Plaquemines Parish (pdf):
Although USACE improvements to the flood control system will make Plaquemines Parish safer than it was before the storms, they will not eliminate the potential for flooding. In fact, based on analyses recently completed by the USACE, the flood control system will not meet the standards necessary for providing protection against the 1-percent-annual-chance (100-year) flood, which is also referred to as the base flood.
These analyses were released along with the ABFEs. Evidently, my ass is not being protected.

My new rally cry: “Protect da po’ boy’s ass in every parish! $4.1 billion more for 100-year levees!”

Wait a minute, my ass isn’t that big. But I am that big of an ass sometimes, so it is a fitting rally cry.

An alternative: “Big ass protection for southeastern Louisiana! $4.1 billion more for 100-year levees!” I think I am off topic now.

FEMA Thinks Levees Should Hold Back Water

Me too.

FEMA released its flood level recommendations for the New Orleans area, and they didn’t change the Base Flood Elevations that were established in 1984. As in pre-Katrina 1984.

Why is that? Because the levees should have worked.

In the areas protected by levees, Katrina caused far worse than 100-year level flooding. But FEMA did not recommend the Base Flood Elevation levels - the 100-year flood levels - change for those areas.

Homeowners with substantial damage must now raise their homes to the BFE when they rebuild if they want to be able to afford flood insurance in the future. And FEMA did advise that homes be built three feet above the ground. So, if your house had substantial damage and was at BFE or above it, but not three feet off the ground, you must still raise it when you rebuild.

But they are using the old BFEs. FEMA is saying that the levees should have worked, and they should work in the future. We should have been protected from Katrina’s worst. And we should be protected against future Katrinas if the USACE does their job right (pdf, pg 3):

For areas that receive the Advisories stating that communities should elevate to 3 feet above the highest adjacent existing grade on site or elevate to the BFE on the current FIRM, whichever is higher, the final elevations to be depicted on revised FIRM may be similar. However, this will be dependent on the status of the flood control system improvements as well as the involvement of the community and the USACE in developing a restoration plan for restoring the system to provide protection against the base flood.
Make levees, not war. More now than ever.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Sound Familiar?

Elke DeMuynck is a resident of Hayward, California, about 25 miles from San Francisco:

DeMuynck could throw her paint brush from her front stoop and hit the Hayward Fault, which geologists consider the most dangerous in the San Francisco Bay Area, if not the nation. Like others who live here, she gets by on a blend of denial, hope and humor.

It's the geologists, emergency planners and historians who seem to do most of the worrying, even in this year of heightened earthquake awareness for the 100th anniversary of San Francisco's Great Quake of April 18, 1906
Experts say the area is due for a big quake, yet I don’t hear any calls for government programs to buyout homes in Hayward and to encourage residents to move out of a disaster just waiting to happen:
...there was the Great Quake of 1868 on the Hayward, a magnitude-6.9 rumbler that killed five people. Severe quakes have happened on the Hayward Fault every 151 years, give or take 23 years, meaning it is now into the danger zone.

Experts forecast the next big one will be in the potentially lethal 6.7 to 7.0 range. The Association of Bay Area Governments estimates it would wipe out about 155,000 housing units, 37,000 in San Francisco alone.
I don’t want Hayward or Bay Area residents to move. If they want to live on top of a fault on which, in the event of an earthquake, the “ground on each side of the fault could shift 3 feet, meaning two objects on opposite sides could be abruptly carried a total of 6 feet apart,” I’m down. Personally, I prefer drained swampland that is sinking in a coastal flood zone that could be inundated with 12 feet of water in the event of a hurricane.

For those who criticize us for living here, I just don’t see the difference between living in Hayward, CA, and NOLA. If anything, in New Orleans, we have just reset the risk dial while Hayward is, presumably, about to make the flip.

I hope they don’t make the flip. But that’s exactly it. I don’t have a say in when and where disasters happen. No one does. Disaster could happen tomorrow in Hayward. It could happen again in New Orleans next hurricane season. It could happen next Monday to someone driving to work in Idaho.

What sounds familiar to me is not so much Elke DeMuynck’s situation, but her attitude – getting by on a blend of denial, hope and humor:
"There's dangers all around us, all the time, so if we thought about those dangers all the time, we wouldn't have anything else to think about," said DeMuynck, 62. "We just come home and say, 'The house is still here. We're OK for another day.'"
I remember denial, hope, and humor. It was New Orleans’ house blend before the storm. After the storm, for those who stay, it will have to be acceptance, resolve, and humor.

Acceptance, because we came home one day and our houses were not still there. You can’t deny that.

Resolve, because we are not OK today and we must fight to be OK. It’s not about hoping someone else will fight for us.

Humor, because hey, this is still New Orleans, y’all.

New Orleans’ new house blend: acceptance, resolve, humor. I like mine strong, black, and no sugar. And, of course, chicory. I’m still a little bitter.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Tough Choice

You are a St. Bernard resident. You lived inside the Murphy Oil spill zone. You want to come back to your home and rebuild. You don’t want to come back to your house if it is hazardous to your health.

There is a class action lawsuit filed (pdf) against Murphy Oil on behalf of all the residents in a court determined spill zone (pdf). Murphy Oil has offered (pdf) to test homeowners’ homes inside a smaller spill zone they determined and clean the homes if oil is detected, provided the homeowner opt out of the class action lawsuit. Otherwise, no resident inside the court determined spill zone can legally contact Murphy Oil if they are still involved in the lawsuit.

Do you opt out so you can get cleaned up and get back quick? Or do you participate in the class action lawsuit which could drag on for years and ultimately be unsuccessful?

If you opt out and come back quick, you may be the only person to do so on your block. You might be living on an island of oil-free land surrounded by houses which haven’t been cleaned because the owners don’t plan to opt out. When it rains, contaminated runoff may flow into your yard and when cars drive by contaminated dust may be kicked up and into your breathing space.

If you don’t opt out, you slow down the overall recovery of the spill zone. Nothing can happen until the area is cleaned up. The parish can’t do it because they can’t clean hazardous materials. The cost of cleanup to the individual would be too high. For every year the class action suit drags on, the rebuilding of the spill zone will be delayed. Meanwhile, the entire parish must deal with the threat of contamination spreading through runoff or floods.

A tough choice in the land of tough choices.

Where’s FEMA?

It seems like they don’t want to hear what the locals have to say:

The senators appeared even angrier when FEMA simply blew off the second round of testimony, the one that featured local officials. A stunned Coburn stopped that portion of the hearing after a few minutes and asked whether any representative from FEMA had stayed to listen or take notes. For a moment no one spoke, and then Strock raised his hand.

"No, general, you're with the corps, not FEMA," Coburn said. "No one from FEMA stayed around to listen to this and hear what's going on? That's part of the problem right there."
Other parts of the problem revealed in the subcommittee hearing:
The testimony illuminated accounts of poor or nonexistent planning by federal agencies, of curiously lax contract oversight and of inflexibility that hampered local authorities.
Also, does the federal government do anything by itself anymore, or does it just contract everything out to the private sector?
There were a number of ways, testimony showed, in which costs ballooned. For example, it showed that large companies, already familiar players with federal bureaucracies, who landed gigantic federal contracts in the storm's immediate aftermath, subcontracted from 70 percent to 99 percent of their work. That led to a curious and costly arrangement: overhead and profit margins for the big companies of up to 47 percent, and multiple tiers of subcontractors that sometimes stretched five or six companies deep.

***

"Bechtel, CH2M Hill -- why do you need them?" Coburn asked, citing two of the multinational companies that landed prime contracts. "They go out and subcontract 99 percent of this stuff anyway. Why can't you do that?"
The private sector is motivated by profit and will only do just enough to obtain that profit, even when the objectives set are not enough to achieve the desired result.

When the people of southeastern Louisiana stand up and say, “We want Cat 5 protection no matter what the cost,” I don’t see the private sector respond saying, “We will give you Cat 5 protection no matter what the cost.” Why? Because they are all about the cost.

The federal government should be all about the people. Obviously, the two need to work together. But what we are seeing after Katrina is the federal government relying too much on the private sector, and the people are losing out:
The second theme is that tens of millions of dollars were frittered away in layers of subcontractors. What Washington and the nation need to realize, the Louisiana contingent argued, is the totals bandied about as earmarked for relief are, in fact, grotesquely inflated by misspending.
The over-inflated “more than $100 billion” number looks a lot smaller when you factor in money misspent as well as the money that shouldn’t be included (like flood claim payments).

There is another reason why tipping the scales to the private sector is bad for the recovery. The government must make up for the money that was misspent by the private corporations. Every dollar misspent still comes out of the US Treasury and every job left undone or done inadequately by a private corporation has to be finished by the federal government. However, we will never see the private corporations give back any of their profits or see any CEOs give back any of their salary for a job poorly done.

We will just see more House and Senate committee investigations.

Peeps for Nagin

The company that makes those yellow marshmallow chick-shaped sugar bombs called Peeps released their "2006 State of Marshmallow Peeps" survey. Strangely or fittingly, New Orleans’ politics gets a mention:

Those polled believe that President George W. Bush is the public figure most in need of a Peep - picked by 19.4 percent of respondents. He was followed by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (9.1 percent) and New York Senator Hillary Clinton (8.5 percent).
Who needs the T-P’s endorsement when you have the Peeps on your side?

Monday, April 10, 2006

“Wild speculation”

Bush on media reports that his administration is considering nuclear strikes against Iran:

"And by the way, I read the articles in the newspapers this weekend. It was just wild speculation, by the way. What you're reading is wild speculation. Which is, kind of a -- you know, happens quite frequently here in the nation's capital."
Hmmm...
wild (adj) – based on little or no evidence or probability; unfounded

speculation (n) – a message expressing an opinion based on incomplete evidence
Imagine that. The President accusing others of expressing opinions based on little, incomplete, or no evidence. Iraq and WMDs, anyone?

He’s right. It does happen a lot in the nation’s capital.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Battling the Myth

In his post “If You Tell a Lie Big Enough and Keep Repeating It, People Will Eventually Come to Believe It PART 2: Utah Senator Bob Bennett,” Seymour D. Fair shines a light on the myth that New Orleans is ten feet below sea level:

The majority of the City of New Orleans and its immediate Southshore suburbs are built within a few feet above sea level, at sea level, or below sea level. However, the only areas ten feet below sea level in the New Orleans area--despite what Senator Bennett blindly assumes--are limited to drainage canal embankments, roadway underpasses of bulwarked railroad corridors (I-10, Canal Boulevard, Orleans Avenue, etc.), and retention lakes and ponds (primarily in New Orleans East).
And, taking a look at the Google search, that myth is shaping public opinion of whether or not to rebuild the region.

Excerpts from articles and blog posts:
Such an endeavor, though, would not seem very prudent, as it doesn't make sense to rebuild a city that will still sit ten feet below sea level.

***

But should we rebuild New Orleans, 10 feet below sea level, just so it can be wiped out again?

***

New Orleans is ten feet below sea level and in between several bodies of water. We've known for eons that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. It has flooded in the past, it has flooded now, and if we rebuild, it will certainly flood again.

***

The rebuilding of New Orleans should not be done hastily. This city is ten feet below sea level.

***
In my previous post, I mentioned the utter insanity of rebuilding New Orleans. A city surrounded by water on three sides, ten feet below sea level in most spots, and in the path of deadly hurricanes 5 months out of the year hardly seems worth rebuilding, in my opinion.
Excerpts from comment sections and forums:
People, let's get real!

The Corps of Engineers and other public engineering and safety authorities are the people who warned the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana about this, not vice-versa.

And, they did so YEARS ago!

So, let me ask, just what did Louisiana and the city of New Orleans do about it?

Why, they just kept on building ten feet below sea level...

***

This is a city that is TEN FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL. Geologically, the land New Orleans is on shouldn't even exist. That NO exists in the first place is a miracle of civil engineering. It was only a matter of time before this happened.

***

Building a major city ten feet below sea level in a coastal hurricane alley was an urban planning nightmare waiting to happen, and I think you could make a case that all the disaster planning in the world wouldn't have helped New Orleans this time.
The comments to Seymour D. Fair’s post also present some of the misconceptions that come along with believing the myth as well as some good counterpoints belying the myth.

One exchange interested me. After pointing out that ports tend to be at sea level, that the lake isn’t as much the danger as is storm surge from the Gulf pushed into the lake, and that we are so well-protected from the river that it doesn’t play into the storm surge scenario, Anonymous said:
Senator Bennett wants to back down and retreat in the face of the threat of hurricanes. I believe the Governor of California would call him a girly man.
To which another Anonymous replied:
If being a "girly man" means being able to understand that building a city on the floodplain of a river on land below sea level is a bad idea, then "girly man" must mean "smarter than Schwarzenegger."
In true testament to his uber-manlihood, even according to that twisted definition, Schwarzenegger is not a girly man, for he too desires to maintain a city in a floodplain:
Schwarzenegger has said billions of dollars are needed to shore up the levees. Largely because of weaknesses in the levees - some more than 100 years old - parts of the Sacramento region have less than 100-year flood protection, the lowest of any large urban area in the nation.

That's led to fears that an earthquake or flood could cause a Katrina-type catastrophe and jeopardize the water supply for 22 million people.
It is true that Sacramento is not ten feet below sea level. But, neither is New Orleans.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Junior Wants a Brownie

He must think it will taste better the second time it goes down:

Michael Brown, who left the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sept. 12 amid stinging criticism of his and the agency's performance, is expected to meet with Rodriguez and the Parish Council next week to discuss how he -- at a price -- can help the parish's recovery.

***

Rodriguez said Brown's knowledge of how to work through the system's red tape would speed the flow of recovery dollars into the parish.
Is it just me, or is it highly unethical for the person who created the red tape to profit from showing others how to get around it? Shouldn’t he be forced to do that as punishment for sucking?

Via Lady Morwen, Oyster, and Loki.

“No jury trials have been held since August.”

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands; one nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

For all:

An Orleans Parish judge said Friday that he will begin releasing pretrial inmates this summer unless the Legislature sends money to pay public defenders, ensuring poor defendants their constitutional right to a lawyer.

***

In four months, Hunter noted, it will be one year since Katrina made landfall, yet people "have been waiting in jail pre-Katrina and post-Katrina to have their cases heard and victims, victims' family members and witnesses have also been waiting to testify and seek closure."

All the while, poor defendants awaiting trial have been denied not only the right to adequate legal representation, but also the right to have an attorney at all, Hunter wrote.
I would say that justice is an essential service, like police, fire, and medical. But, work is only beginning now in earnest to reopen the Criminal District Court building at Tulane and Broad, the place where justice is served:
Workers from the Shaw Group will go into the building on Monday, and barring unforeseen delays, several courtrooms and other key offices should be ready for occupancy by May 1, eight months after Hurricane Katrina flooded the courthouse.

***

Although judges have been using a room at the U.S. District Court to hold hearings, they can't hold jury trials there. "There's no place to put juries" at the temporary site, Judge Raymond Bigelow told the council Thursday.

Before Katrina, Judge Camille Buras said, the court had 3,500 inmates awaiting trial. It has been able to handle fewer than 200 cases a week at federal court. "We are way past due process times," she said.
The poor have no public voice. People accused of crimes have no public voice. Therefore, it is no surprise that poor defendants are having their constitutional rights denied. No one is telling their story.

Criminals should go to jail. However, without a jury trial, we do not know who the criminals are. In the meantime, everyone awaiting a trial that is long overdue – guilty and innocent – is in jail.

That is not liberty and justice for all.

Friday, April 07, 2006

We Have a Partially-funded Plan

Mississippi already got their housing plan approved by HUD and can start using their community development block grant money.

Now, Louisiana has a plan (pdf). Actually, we have two plans – Plan A (Fully-funded), which is dependent on the extra $4.2 billion dollars in CDBG funds pending in the Senate right now, and Plan B (Partially-funded), which uses what we have already in CDBG money but would help about half as many residents.

The T-P spells out Plan A:

The proposal offers insured homeowners and those who were flooded outside the flood plain up to $150,000 to help them repair or tear down a house and rebuild in place, as well as to relocate within the state. Insurance payments and awards from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be deducted from the damage estimates used to calculate the grant.

People who want to leave Louisiana would be limited to a buyout worth 60 percent of their house's pre-Katrina value. Homeowners who lived inside the flood plain, but did not have flood insurance, will have to take a 30 percent reduction on their grant package, although state officials have said that affordable loans will be available to ensure those families can rebuild.
And here are the limitations of Plan B as presented in “The Road Home”:
Because Congress has not fully funded The Road Home to meet the need of all homeowners, this Action Plan amendment must limit assistance to homeowners within the following categories, provided that program costs do not exceed projections:

-- Owners whose homes lay outside the FEMA flood plain and were flooded, and

-- Owners with incomes at or below 70% of area median income (AMI), adjusted for household size, with any type of damage.
What’s the difference?
A partially funded plan would cover about 67,000 homeowners whose flooded homes were outside the flood plain or who are living on a low income.

The hurricanes destroyed or severely damaged 122,000 owner-occupied homes.
In an earlier post, I decried the lack of a backup plan if we don’t get the extra $4.2 billion. At first, I thought Plan B was a backup plan. Then I thought again.

You can’t say, “I have a plan to achieve my goals,” and then, when you only get half the money you need, say, “I am only going to achieve half my goals.” That’s not a backup plan. That’s a half-done plan.

If your plan is to have a full ass, and you only get half of an ass, then you have a half-ass plan.

Whether full funding or partial funding is approved by Congress, no funding will be forthcoming for a while:
Owners of flood-damaged houses looking for help from the state to rebuild should not expect to get any money until at least late summer.
Late summer, like August 29th?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Insurance Companies: Save Us from Our Profits

Via Library Chronicles, I see that insurance companies made crazy profits last year:

The companies that provide Americans with their homeowners and auto insurance made a record $44.8-billion profit last year even after accounting for the claims of policyholders wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and the other big storms of 2005, according to the firms' filings with state regulators.
The insurance companies call the 18.7% increase “a fluke” and the only way to “fix” this problem of crazy profits is with “substantial premium hikes, a scaling back of commitments by several firms to the most disaster-prone portions of the country and, according to some, a greatly expanded role for the state and federal governments in insuring individuals against the largest of catastrophes.”

Huh?

More insanity from the article:
Besides boosting profits, the industry raised its surplus by more than 7% to nearly $427 billion, according to an analysis of company filings by the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners, which represents regulators from the 50 states. The surplus is intended to provide a financial cushion in times of high claims.
So, in a time of the highest claims when they are supposed to rely on their surplus to bail them out, their safety net actually increased:
The industry covered virtually all of its claims and expenses with premiums earned during the year rather than with surplus funds, according to the organization's analysis. The ratio of claims and expenses to premiums was among the lowest in three decades.
But it’s a fluke.

Or, maybe not. You see, the insurers were insured:
The answer, in part, is that U.S. insurers purchased disaster insurance of their own before the 2005 storms, much of it from overseas firms. Executives said that half — and by some estimates, nearly two-thirds — of the insured losses from last year's hurricanes ultimately will be borne by so-called reinsurers, many based in Bermuda and Europe.
And were insulated:
But the industry's remarkable performance also reflects a dozen-year effort by insurers to insulate themselves from the most extreme financial consequences of catastrophe by, among other things, shifting risks previously borne by companies to policyholders and the public.

***

While premiums for homeowners insurance have increased by more than half since the early 1990s, coverage, especially in disasters, has shrunk.
On top of that, insurers aren’t paying the claims they should be paying:
Despite what he says is evidence of roof damage and leaking, [Allstate subsidiary] Encompass recently denied his claim for $100,000, saying damage was due to flood or settlement and therefore was not covered by his policy.

"My wife and I are both lawyers," said Sebastian. "We've put every bit of our wherewithal into pursing these claims, and we're still not settled after seven months.

"I wonder what happens to the grandmother in Gentilly."
The three-headed monster of success in the insurance world:
1. Pass the loss. Get back the claims you pay by insuring yourself.
2. Charge a lot, cover a little.
3. Don’t pay for the little you do cover.

This process leads to statements like this:
"We've been through some of the worst natural disasters and man-made catastrophes in our history, and had some of the best earnings in the last 20 or 30 years," said Frank W. Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Assn. of America, a Washington trade group.
Don’t mess with success.

Here’s Allstate Chief Executive Edward M. Liddy’s attempt to explain why the insurance companies need to protect themselves from ever losing any money:
"When Hurricane Andrew hit the coast of Florida in 1992," Liddy told a Washington audience in January, "it wiped out all of the profits Allstate ever made in the state from all lines of insurance over the course of our history…. And when four hurricanes hit in 2004, they wiped out all the profits from 1992 to 2004.

"That's not a viable economic proposition for a company," he told his audience. "It's not a viable economic proposition for an industry."
And now, why this is the best article ever written:
But a quick check of Allstate's regulatory filings from the mid-1990s through 2004 showed that the insurer earned $6 billion more in premiums in Florida than it incurred in losses. Add to that the premium earnings for last year, and the total rises to more than $6.6 billion.

Asked about what happened to that sum, Allstate spokesman Mike Trevino responded: "What Mr. Liddy meant to say is that … the four hurricanes wiped out all the profits Allstate earned from our homeowners line of business," not all lines.

Overall, the company made money.
If Liddy isn’t counting that $6 billion, we could sure use it down here to build some levees.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Why Bush’s Number Fudging Bites Us in the Butt

We will eventually need $6 billion more for comprehensive levee protection for all of southeastern Louisiana. And that money needs to come from the federal government because it is their job to build the levees. Our Congressional delegation has to ask for that money because, apparently, our President doesn’t want to give it up.

But at least one of them sees a rough road ahead:

Vitter acknowledged that coming back to Congress to ask for another $6 billion will be difficult after the administration has already requested more than $100 billion in recovery funds.

“There is not a great mood,” Vitter said. “That’s why the surprise nature of this couldn’t happen at a worse time.”
Vitter thinks “the administration has already requested more than $100 billion in recovery funds,” and he feels it would be difficult to ask for more.

Well, let me make it a little easier for him.

He should tell the President that, in fact, the administration has *not* requested more than $100 billion in recovery funds. Congress has committed $67 billion dollars to the Gulf Coast. And the $25.3 billion dollars in the current version of the latest bill in the Senate would bring the total requested up to $92 billion (which is a few billion higher than what the President wanted). Last time I checked, 92 was less than 100.

Vitter needs to tell the administration to stop including the money the National Flood Insurance Program can borrow to pay flood claims when saying how much they have requested. Congress authorized the NFIP in March to borrow up to $20.8 billion. But that’s not for a grant. That’s not for a loan. That’s for what is due to policy holders.

If the President doubts the numbers, Vitter can show him this:
* September 2, 2005 – Bush signs $10.5 billion disaster relief bill

* September 8, 2005 – Bush signs $51.8 billion disaster relief bill

* December 31, 2005 – Bush signs defense bill which includes $29 billion in hurricane aid, of which $5 billion is new funds and $24 billion diverted from the already authorized $62 billion.

* March 16, 2006 – Congress raises NFIP borrowing limit to pay flood insurance claims to $20.8 billion.

* April 4, 2006 – Senate Committee passes bill with $25.3 billion in hurricane spending. That's not a final number, yet.

Total committed to date, not including insurance borrowing: $67 billion.
Now, go in peace, and ask for the $6 billion.

Mississippi Has a Plan

And they can now tap into their over-represented share of the community development block grants:

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson today announced he is approving a $3.4 billion plan to help thousands of Mississippi homeowners to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

***

Today's approval means thousands of qualified homeowners in Mississippi can receive up to $150,000 to help them recover from Hurricane Katrina, according to HUD's Web site.
We have a plan, too. But it relies on $4.2 billion coming from a bill currently in the Senate.

At first, it looked like Congress didn’t want to give the new $4.2 billion dedicated to CDBG funding only to Louisiana. But things are looking up, as in up $1 billion:
By adding $1 billion to the measure Tuesday, the Senate committee included enough money for the other states, restoring the $4.2 billion for Louisiana, officials said.

“I’m very happy with it,” said Landrieu, who sits on the committee. “It provides some money for Texas and Mississippi, so it doesn’t come out of our $4.2 billion.”
While we are waiting for approval of that $4.2 billion, it sure would be nice to have an interim plan that could start using some of the $6.2 billion we already have committed to Louisiana. And, it would probably be a good idea to have a backup plan in case we don’t get all $4.2 billion [EDIT] or not enough of the $5.2 billion in the new version of the bill.

But that's not likely, which is unfortunate, because we all know what happens while we make plans.

Hurricane season.