09/14/2005 09:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Profiteers of Disaster -- No Shame, No Shame at All

Well, yesterday the President declared that "to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong."

Only the previous Monday, Bush had denied that the federal efforts had been too slow, that African-Americans had been disadvantaged, or that there had been any Iraq-related shortage of troops or National Guard.

So since the President may not be aware of the full extent of what he is taking responsibility for, I thought I might set the record straight:

* I think Bush should take responsibility for appointing cronies to run FEMA, not once, but twice, one of whom could not even run horse shows competently.

* I think Bush must take responsibility for the fact that after he became President, a once-robust FEMA effort to spend federal disaster money helping communities prepare for and prevent disasters was almost entirely dismantled.

* Bush obviously must take responsibility for cutting funding requested by the New Orleans District of the Army Corps of Engineers for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80 percent.

* Bush made the decisions that sent 40 percent of the National Guard from the Gulf Coast states to Iraq.

* Bush failed to dispatch U.S. Navy rescue vessels that were standing by for disaster service until a week after they should have left port.

* Bush failed to give clear orders to U.S. military units actually already present in the storm zone to take effective action in the relief effort until days after it was too late.

* Bush cut the funding for cleaning up Superfund sites so severely that when the storm hit, there were a number of major toxic waste dumps inside the New Orleans metropolitan area that flooded and that now pose the largest single long-term risk to recovery.

* Bush failed to support efforts by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu to accelerate efforts to restore coastal wetlands, every two miles of which reduce storm surges by a half foot. Bush also removed environmental regulations that required careful review of oil and gas operations and would have minimized the erosion of protective wetlands.

* And Bush clearly needs to take responsibility for the fact that the United States not only has made no effort to meet the global-warming prevention requirements of the Kyoto protocol but also has also failed even to meet the more modest goals of the Rio protocol on global warning that his father signed, that the U.S. ratified, and that is therefore legally binding on his Administration.

But there are some things that Bush can only share responsibility for, things that were wrong with the federal handling, but that went wrong long before Bush was President:

* In 1982 the Army Corps of Engineers decided that it should adopt the so-called "high levee" flood-control plan originally suggested by environmentalists. Twenty-three years later, almost nothing had been done to implement the plan.

* Starting in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers began channeling the Mississippi in ways that deprived the wetlands of the Delta of the silt they needed to regenerate themselves. That this policy was creating serious hazards was identified at least as early as the 1980s.

* After World War II, oil and gas operations were permitted to fragment, drain, and carve up the wetlands in ways that allowed storm surge to accelerate their erosion.

* During the past forty years, development in and around the flood plain all along the Gulf Coast, not just in New Orleans, was permitted in places that were certain to be in harm's way in a major storm.

* The State of Mississippi, in a fig-leaf gesture to residents who opposed casino gambling, permitted the construction of enormous floating casinos that were moored right next to residential and commercial neighborhoods and that, predictably, turned into weapons of mass destruction when lifted by storm waves.

But we need not worry, it appears, that the White House is engaged in an exercise in self-flagellation or that Bush will take too much of the saddened nation's burden upon himself. No, because a whole new series of "villains" has emerged from the reactionary media echo-chamber in the last few days -- surprising candidates for blame in the nation's greatest national disaster, certainly the worst since the 1927 Mississippi floods:

* Public knowledge is the newest scapegoat. The government is already refusing to honor right-to-know laws that require it to tell the residents of New Orleans what toxics are polluting their water. It has launched an attack on the need to assess and report on the environmental consequences of its actions and on the right of the public to comment on its activities in the Gulf Coast.

* Greedy blue collar workers must also take a share of the blame. After the Administration awarded a huge contract to clean up the Naval Base in New Orleans to a subsidiary of Halliburton (Kellogg, Brown and Root), it decided that Halliburton couldn't afford to pay its workers $9/hour, and adopted an executive order that says these contractors do not have pay the prevailing wage.

* Then it was energy conservation that took the rap. The National Association of Homebuilders proposed to shelve energy efficiency standards in the rebuilding process, as if the problem with New Orleans before the flood was that the housing stock was too well-constructed.

Then, from the reactionary right, comes the clincher: It was environmentalists that caused the disaster.

* First, a retired Army Corps official claimed that in the late 1970s wetlands advocates had blocked construction of a flood-control project on Lake Pontchartrain. The project in question was a predecessor to the "high-levee" proposal mentioned above. Environmentalists said that the high-levee plan would work better and do less environmental damage. The Corps agreed. It then failed to build the project that would have worked -- and now the reactionaries are lying and claiming that the reason that levee failed was because the unworkable project the Corps abandoned in 1982 had been opposed by environmentalists.

* Then, in case that dog wouldn't hunt, exploiters dredged up another lawsuit, this one by the Sierra Club, against a project that opposed the destruction of wetlands hundreds of miles upstream from New Orleans to build levees on that part of the river. Never mind that it is more wetlands that we need to protect from flooding. Never mind that the levees in question did not fail, and did not come close to failing, and if they had failed, would not have flooded the Gulf Coast at all. The clincher that shows the cynicism of this attack is that the Club never opposed the levees at all -- we just wanted them constructed with earth taken from some place other than vital, flood-diminishing wetlands. And the levees were built.

Having thrown up their sleaze screen, the profiteers got on to the real agenda -- making sure that they could milk the relief effort for every nickel they could, without regard to the impact of their actions on the people and the region. The State of Mississippi's Governor, Haley Barbour, had his Department of Environmental Quality issue a declaration suspending basic environmental laws.

Then, when the Department of Transportation for no reason at all prepared to slaughter the ancient live oaks that remain in the median of Highway 90, the new mayor of the ravaged town of Gulfport had to step in to stop them.

Joe Barton, the chair of the House Energy Committee, described the possibility that the hurricane might increase public support for expanded drilling as a "silver lining," and called for lifting offshore-drilling restrictions and for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Senator Pete Domenici announced "I'm going after the Outer Continental Shelf." So blatant was the profiteering of the oil lobbies that Republicans for Environmental Protection warned the party's leaders in Congress:

"What we are seeing is a blatant effort to exploit a national tragedy to advance long-held oil and gas industry objectives. We hope that a majority of our Republicans in Congress will see this misguided opportunism for what it is and reject it."

And then the Heritage Foundation improved on Barton's "silver-lining" metaphor by saying that Katrina was an opportunity for a reactionary "triumph" over long-standing environmental protections, calling for its forces to rally behind an agenda that included "waiving or repealing Clean Air Act regulations," suspending health standards for air pollution, opening up environmentally sensitive and protected areas to oil and gas drilling, and repealing rules that gasoline be clean-burning.

In a moment of national tragedy, this profiteering is a national disgrace. It's time for Americans of all political persuasions to say to our leaders, "we want a government that prevents problems rather than profiteering from them, that protects citizens not campaign contributors, and that rescues those in peril not those who put them in peril.