Jewish Journal


September 8, 2005

Disaster Exposes Government Failures


President Bush and Congress talk a good game when it comes to homeland security, but the tragic truth is that the country is less able to cope with disasters than before Sept. 11, 2001. The proof is on the flood-ravaged streets of New Orleans, where an unprecedented natural disaster quickly produced violent anarchy and a flaccid government response that multiplied the suffering.

For all the money thrown at preparing for massive terror attacks and other disasters, the new Department of Homeland Security looked more like a Third World bureaucracy, as armed gangs roamed the city and people died for lack of food, water, sanitation and medical supplies.

If a hurricane turned New Orleans into Haiti, imagine the impact of a nuclear detonation in Washington or New York. And it's hard to argue that years of tax cuts and corresponding reductions in important programs didn't severely impair the ability of government agencies at every level to respond, compounding the misery of the drowned city's most vulnerable residents.

That fact will put Jewish organizations to the test in the next few months, as Congress and the administration consider new tax and spending priorities. Put simply, it may be time for reticent Jewish leaders to abandon the comfort of silence and directly address policies that threaten the future of the nation.

In the shocking aftermath of Katrina, Americans were digesting numerous lessons, many centered on the failure of government at every level and politicians in both parties to address basic needs.

Skyrocketing gas prices and the threat of shortages, as old refineries and oil terminals along the stricken Gulf Coast went out of service, pointed to the nation's abject failure to craft a practical, forward-looking energy policy, despite past oil shocks and the threat of terrorism against oil facilities.

Oil companies have been reaping record profits, but not investing heavily in new capacity; political interests have prevented tough new mileage standards, as the nation's love affair with gas-guzzlers continues unabated. The result is a nation whose economy and way of life continue to depend on a fragile energy lifeline easily disrupted by natural or manmade disasters.

That poses a long-term threat to U.S.-Israel relations, as well, because it increases America's dependence on supplier nations that are implacably hostile to the Jewish state.

The disaster also pointed to the reality that billions of dollars in homeland security spending have left the nation no more secure than before Sept. 11.

From the start, the idea of homeland security turned into a supersized boondoggle. Jurisdictions and programs with strong political backers got piles of money; others were left strapped, and need was rarely a factor. Everybody played the game. Political payoff blended with real need until it was almost impossible to sort out what was what.

Giant bureaucracies were created, but with blurry lines of command and vast tangles of red tape. Planning was slipshod and unrealistic.

Top officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) didn't even know what was being reported on television at the height of the emergency. FEMA Director Michael Brown is a political appointee without a scrap of disaster experience.

How many other leaders of the new Homeland Security bureaucracy were hired for reasons of cronyism, not competence?

Another lesson of New Orleans may center on a conservative political philosophy that is systematically working to "starve the beast" of the federal government.

While claiming national security is their top priority, the Republican administration and Congress have steadily been reducing funding for even the agencies that are supposed to deal with such crises, including FEMA, as well as countless agencies that address the needs of the poor and the sick.

Bush says more tax cuts are needed to spur the economy, but leading GOP theorists are more honest, expressing the view that cuts will help them do what they haven't been able to do over the decades: cut even big entitlement programs like Medicaid and slash and ultimately kill countless other health and human service programs.

Katrina revealed some of the costs of that policy: first responders who couldn't respond, agencies without the resources to prepare for the hurricane as it approached and a decayed social service infrastructure that left the poor to fend for themselves once it struck.

New tax cuts as the nation struggles to meet the costs of rescue, cleanup and rebuilding -- even as it continues to fight two expensive wars -- will vastly compound the problem.

For five years, most Jewish organizations have stood on the sidelines as this assault on domestic programs intensified because of a lack of consensus on tax policy and a fear of antagonizing the administration and Congress, not to mention big communal donors.

Hurricane Katrina and its horrific aftershocks reveal that reticence for what it is: an excuse to avoid controversy, not a response to the needs of the Jewish community or the nation at large.

Events of the past week demand a major reevaluation of the nation's approach to homeland security and disaster preparedness. Just as importantly, they demand a re-examination of tax and spending policies that are rendering the federal government increasingly impotent.


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