Biblical in its uncontrolled rage and scope, the storm has left millions of Americans to scavenge for food and shelter, and hundreds reportedly dead. With its main levee broken, the evacuated city of New Orleans has become part of the Gulf of Mexico. But the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina may not entirely be the result of an act of nature.
A year ago the US army corps of engineers proposed to study how New Orleans could be protected from a catastrophic hurricane, but the Bush administration ordered that the research not be undertaken. After a flood killed six people in 1995, the Congress created the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project. Operated by the corps of engineers, levees and pumping stations were strengthened and renovated. In 2001, when George Bush became president, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a report stating that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely potential disasters - after a terrorist attack on New York City. But by 2003 the federal funding essentially dried up as it was drained into the Iraq war. By 2004, the Bush administration cut the corps of engineers' request for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80 per cent. By the beginning of this year, the administration's additional cuts, reduced by 44 per cent since 2001, forced the corps to impose a hiring freeze. The Senate debated adding funds for fixing levees, but it was too late.
Lack of preparation
Pleas for help from the ground at Grand Isle, Louisana, taken on August 31, 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina struck the US Gulf Coast
The Bush administration's policy of turning over wetlands to developers almost certainly has contributed to the heightened level of the storm surge. In 1990, a federal task force began restoring lost wetlands around New Orleans. Every two miles of wetland between the Crescent City and the Gulf reduces a surge by half a foot. Bush promised a "no net loss" wetland policy, which had been launched by his father's administration and bolstered by President Clinton. But he reversed the approach in 2003, unleashing the developers. The army corps of engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency announced they could no longer protect wetlands unless they were somehow related to interstate commerce. In response to this potential crisis, four leading environmental groups conducted a study that concluded in 2004 that without wetlands protection New Orleans could be devastated by an ordinary - much less a category four or five - hurricane. "There's no way to describe how mindless a policy that is when it comes to wetlands protection," said one of the report's authors. The chairman of the White House's council on environmental quality dismissed the study as "highly questionable", and boasted: "Everybody loves what we're doing."
Katrina moves in August 29: An image taken by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico as it headed inland.
In February 2004, 60 scientists warned in a statement, Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: "Successful application of science has played a large part in the policies that have made the US the world's most powerful nation and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy ... Indeed, this principle has long been adhered to by presidents and administrations of both parties in forming and implementing policies. The administration of George W Bush has, however, disregarded this principle ... The distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends must cease..." Bush ignored the statement.
In the two weeks preceding the storm, the trumping of science by ideology and expertise by special interests accelerated. The Food and Drug Administration announced it was postponing sale of the morning-after pill, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its safety and approval by the FDA's scientific advisory board.
The UN special envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa accused the Bush administration of responsibility for a condom shortage in Uganda as a result of pushing its evangelical Christian agenda of "abstinence". The chief of the board of justice statistics in the justice department was ordered by the White House to delete its study that African-Americans and minorities are subject to racial profiling in police traffic stops. He refused to concede and was forced to quit. When the army's chief contracting oversight analyst objected to a $7bn no-bid contract awarded for work in Iraq to Halliburton, she was demoted despite her superior professional ratings.
On the day the levee burst in New Orleans, Bush delivered a speech comparing the Iraq war to the second world war and himself to Franklin D Roosevelt: "And he knew that the best way to bring peace and stability to the region was by bringing freedom to Japan." Bush had boarded his very own Streetcar Named Desire.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is author of The Clinton Wars.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005. This article was first published by The Guardian, (Friday September 2, 2005). All rights reserved. Reproduced with kind permission.
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