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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gustav, GWB and the GOP

The arrival of Gustav on the radar couldn't have been timed more ominously than if the Bard himself came back to write political thrillers. The aftermath of Katrina in 2005 was thought to have served as a major wake-up call to American voters about the basic priorities and functioning of our very expensive government. The pictures the disaster painted weren't pretty. A President too occupied with two real wars and a nebulous "global war" on terror to recognize and react to the disaster for TWO DAYS. A newly centralized "Department of Homeland Security" (typing those words without quotes just seems silly) which failed nearly every objective measure of performance in coordinating relief and communications. Energy markets for oil and gas disrupted by a meteorological event that should not have come as much of a surprise but did. A federal budget so bloated with military spending and constrained by deficits that America seemed flat-footed in its ability to even start any attempt to rebuild a major city after a natural disaster.

Despite that wakeup call to Americans and their government, very little learning seems to have taken place since 2005. Is it fate that another storm likely equal in overall damage is headed to the EXACT same region BEFORE a major American election? Watching the reactions to Gustav's threat should be very enlightening for voters.

After Gustav strengthened from a Category III to Category IV storm, the White House announced President Bush would forego his previously scheduled in-person appearance at the GOP convention Monday night to better focus on managing the government's relief efforts. (#1) Okay, I guess that's good. That might demonstrate some a rare case of learning on the part of Bush and his administration. Buses are helping with evacuations. Depots are stocked up on bottled water. Great. However, the full extent of aid the Federal government will provide will be unclear for quite a while. How long will Gulf Coast residents have to wait for a complete picture for round II?

They might want to talk to residents of Illinois affected by flooding earlier in 2008. After floods affected portions of southern Illinois in March of 2003, Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich sent a request on May 23 for funds to assist residents in 15 counties. A separate request was sent on May 27 for funds to help local governments repair damage to public buildings and facilities. The state heard nothing from FEMA and Blagojevich sent a follow-up request on June 24 directly to President Bush. (#2)

The governor just got his final answer --- no aid --- on August 25, five months after the damage, three months after the first request and two months after the direct communication to the President. (#3) People may argue one way or the other about the final answer and whether the damage to those southern counties really warranted federal aid but why would it ever take THREE MONTHS for FEMA to respond to a state governor?

Could it be FEMA still factors in the electoral benefits of granting aid in its cost / benefit analysis? There's not much chance of helping the GOP party faithful and its candidates by throwing aid dollars at a blue state. Could it be the anticipated public reaction to a denial of aid while memories of flooded homes were still in the media was deemed too politically risky? Better to delay the "no" answer and hope it gets ignored during coverage of some other fiasco.

To avoid repetition of disastrous public imagery after Katrina, John McCain has supposedly taken control of GOP convention planning and cancelled most of Day One's planned festivities and speeches. While canceling Day One might avoid an image problem, there is frankly little either McCain or Obama can do by showing up in the area and distracting the press and local officials from focusing on recovery. Maybe McCain should have instead refocused Day One on insurance industry regulation, fraud and a better plan for rebuilding New Orleans that doesn't stagger billions in levee rehabilitation over seven years, jeopardizing the entire investment in the levees and the homes behind them until the last dollar is spent. This is akin to building a million dollar home and taking over two years to put the roof on and close the house from the elements while still proceeding to install the drywall and the hardwood flooring.

It may not be over until the fat lady sings but it DEFINITELY isn't over in the realm of disaster recovery until the insurance company checks clear and FEMA takes its own sweet time to answer basic fundamental questions about its sole mission.

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#1) http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080831/ap_on_go_pr_wh/bush_gustav

#2) http://64.233.167.104/search?q=cache:Z8yklHKrUyEJ:www.franklincountyema.com/press_releases/08%252015%252008%2520GOV%2520followup.pdf

#2) http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-ap-il-illinoisflood-fem,0,6477950.story