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The Truth Behind Federal Disaster Relief


By James Donahue

Sept. 1, 2005


Leave it to President George W. Bush to tear himself away from his lengthy summer vacation at his Crawford ranch to capitalize on a news “photo-op” in the midst of the ruins of the hurricane battered Gulf Coast this week.


As rescue workers were still trying to get through the maze of tangled debris, flooded streets, trees and wires to reach trapped and starving victims, a lot of people had to take time out from this important work to accommodate Bush. The president landed himself in the midst of the chaos, took a brief tour, made sure his mug got in all of the media outlets, made a typical presidential speech, and then departed.


That was the best part. He didn't stay long. Why would he want to? The place was already pretty smelly and the heat was oppressive.


True, there were promises of federal relief efforts, and what is left of the National Guard that didn't ship off to Iraq is in the thick of the mess. These men and women are working hard to bring food, water, blankets and other essential things to as many people as possible before time runs out.


The Red Cross is in there too, as well as many other individuals and service organizations that are volunteering their time and energy to do all they can.


And it is true that Bush is making all of the appearances of a President who wants to help this time. He has asked for billions of dollars of federal money for assistance and called Congress back early from summer recess to make sure all is done that can be done.


The disaster from Hurricane Katrina is undoubtedly one of the worst natural calamities ever to strike the United States in terms of lives lost and property destroyed. If we are not quick about rescue, the death toll could be shocking. The disaster already overshadows what happened in New York on 9-11 in terms of its financial impact on the nation.


The Bush Administration can’t use Katrina as an excuse to declare war against anything except Mother Nature. That Bush must already assume much of the blame for the runaway global warming that caused such a super storm to roar to life on the gulf is somehow being overlooked. Certainly Bush isn’t going to mention it, although some television and radio commentators are starting to ask the question.


That federal assistance line spewing from the president's mouth is an old one, used by presidents and political leaders for years. From my own experiences, and from I have seen in years as a news reporter, it rarely carries any weight when it comes down to collecting.


A few years ago my wife and I lived through a terrible ice storm that destroyed utility lines, cut power and caused flooding and severe damage to homes in a two or three-county area. The event was declared a disaster by the governor of our state and congress picked up on it with promises of federal assistance. Our home took a big hit with a furnace, utility room and other appliances in our basement, a deep freeze stocked with food, roof damage and other results from two weeks without power and heat during a Michigan winter.


When we applied for the so-called federal “relief,” we discovered that we were not eligible for a cent. The whole package was for big business interests, industry, and some of the big farms in the area that qualified as large businesses. Individual home owners were left twisting slowly in the wind. Other than the power and telephone companies, we were the ones who took the lion's share of damage. Those big farms and businesses had portable generators to keep their operations going during the black-out time, and power to the cities where the factories were located was restored within hours. They didn’t need help.


That is how federal assistance programs work for the poor. Nobody qualifies. And they don’t find this out until after homeowners devote days standing in long lines and filling out lengthy and complicated government forms. If any money comes, it arrives a year later in the mail, long after the disaster is over and the cost is bought and paid for through local sweat.


Hopefully this time it will be different. Hopefully thousands of hungry, thirsty, sick and homeless victims of this disaster will actually get some help from all those billions of federal dollars. I fear that the special people sent in to dole out the dollars, however, will go home with their pockets filled and very little of the relief money will filter down to the people it was meant for.


There is something else going on right now that a lot of people don’t know concerning the Bush Administration. The program designed to cut the costs of operating military bases by closing some of them also extends to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And that has a direct impact on what is going on right now in Louisiana and the other hard-hit states along the Gulf.


A copyright story this week by the Dolan Media Newswires revealed that plans are in the works to cut the budget for the New Orleans district of the corps by a record $71.2 million for 2006.


The effect of this has already forced a hiring freeze and put a study of ways to protect the region from a Category Five hurricane on the shelf. The change also means that major hurricane and flood protection projects may local longer be awarded to local engineering firms. They will go, instead, to contractors favored by the Bush Administration. And that in turn means there are some big pork-barrel projects in the works designed to make certain cronies in the U.S. richer than they already are.


So when George W. Bush asks everybody to pray for the disaster victims in New Orleans, take him up on it. A prayer, for what it is worth, is about all the support they may get from Washington.




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