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Excerpted from Armed Madhouse, a new book by Greg Palast.
The National Public Radio news anchor was so excited I thought she’d pee herself: The President of the United States had flown his plane down to 1,700 feet to get a better look at the flood damage! Later, I saw the photo of him looking out of the window of Air Force One. The President looked very serious and concerned. That was on Wednesday, August 31, 2005, two days after the levees broke and Lake Ponchartrain swallowed New Orleans.
The President had waited the extra days to stop first at the Pueblo El Mirage Golf Course in Arizona. I’m sure the people of New Orleans would have liked to show their appreciation for the official Presidential photo-strafing, but their surface-to-air missiles were wet. I don’t want to give the impression the President did nothing. He swiftly ordered the federal government to dispatch to New Orleans 18 water purification units, 50 tons of food, two mobile hospitals, expert search teams, and 20 lighting units with generators. However, that was President Chávez, whose equipment was refused entry to the disaster zone by the U.S. State Department.
President Bush also flew in generators and lights. They were used for a photo op in the French Quarter, then removed when the President concluded his television pitch. The corpses floating through the Ninth Ward attracted vultures. There was ChoicePoint, our friends from Chapter 1: The Fear. They picked up a contract to identify the bodies using their War on Terror DNA database. In the face of tragedy, America’s business community pulled together, lobbying hard to remove the “Davis-Bacon” regulation that guarantees emergency workers receive a minimum prevailing wage.
The Rev. Pat Robertson got a piece of the action. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Web site encouraged those wanting to help victims to donate to the charities he controls. Within the week, the Navy penned a half-billion-dollar contract for reconstruction work with Halliburton. More would come. Our President, as he does in any emergency situation, announced additional tax cuts. He ordered immediate write-offs for new equipment used in rebuilding. That will likely provide a relief for Halliburton, but the deductions were useless to small New Orleans businesses which had no income to write off. The oil majors, the trillion-dollar babies, won a $700 million tax break. Don’t think of hurricanes as horrors, but as opportunities. For the schoolchildren among the refugees, instead of schools, our President promised school “vouchers” on a grand scale. And there was a bonus. Louisiana had been a “purple” state- neither a solid Republican Red nor Democratic Blue. It was up for grabs politically. With a Democratic Senator and a new Democratic Governor, Louisiana was ready to lead the South out of the GOP. Louisiana’s big blue Democratic splotch was enclosed within the city below sea level.
On August 29, this major electoral problem for the Republican party was solved. I’m not saying our rulers deliberately let New Orleans drown. But before they would save it, the lifeguards boarding Air Force One had to play a few more holes.
In 1986, I was hired by the City of New Orleans to check out suspicious doings by a corporation called “Entergy.” I flew in to meet City Councilman Brod Bagert, who is also New Orleans’s top trial lawyer and its most accomplished poet. Over beignets and chicory coffee at the river, he said, “You want to know what this city’s about, Mr. Palast? I’ll show you.”
He drove me to a concrete bunker, banged on the metal door, and greeted a guy named Fishhead, who brought me into the belly of a horrendously loud, gargantuan and astonishing apparatus. “This here, Mr. Palast, is a pump. Forget Bourbon Street. This is all you have to know about New Orleans: We are under water. Below sea level, sir, and the only thing that keeps the river from pouring in over our heads are these pumps. You got that, son?” Outside flowed the Mississippi. America’s toilet. The poisoned expectorations of a hundred cities dumped into it or leached from suburban lawns and from factories when no one is looking, come out here in the tap water. A couple years ago, we buried our friend Gary Groesch, aged 50, of some mystery disease. “The City That Care Forgot” is their motto. The City That Everyone Forgot, a Bantustan where the Forgotten can be ignored except for the jazzy minstrel shows for tourists.
I called Bagert four months after the flood. Nearly half the city is still in the dark. The electric company, New Orleans Public Service, “NOPSI,” is owned by a holding company, Entergy, the company Bagert, Groesch and I investigated in 1986. Here’s what we found. In 1986, the New Orleans company was going broke because of the eye- popping cost of buying wholesale power-four times normal-from a company called Middle South Energy, charges they were passing right on to their captive customers in the city. Middle South is 100% owned and controlled by, you’ve guessed it, Entergy. But these were the days of government regulation, and government ordered an end to the shell game. Then came deregulation and the siphoning restarted with a vengeance. Busy shuffling loot from pocket to pocket, Entergy had neither the concern nor funds to harden their system against a hurricane. But from the looks of it, and my own review of their accounts, their plan in case of the long-expected flood came down to “turn off the lights and declare their subsidiary bankrupt,” which they did three weeks after the hurricane. Negligent damage liabilities and rebuilding obligations were thrown into the Dumpster of the bankruptcy courts, and the holding company walked away. But don’t worry, Entergy the holding company is doing quite well, posting a big 24% leap in earnings for the third quarter, a profit it attributes to “weather.” So who’s to blame for losing New Orleans?
That’s easy. It was Franklin Roosevelt. New Orleans was the victim of the New Deal, according to New York Times columnist John Tierney, in “Losing that New Deal Religion.” The free market flat-worlder’s argument goes like this: The idea that government’s job is to protect you is gone with the wind, drowned in the Mississippi. Government’s the problem, and the solution is… Wal-Mart. Turn FEMA into WEMA, the “Wal-Mart Emergency Management Agency.” That’s a quote. Let the market do it, let the market save us. Louisiana’s Republican Senator David Vitter was so excited by the idea of selling off the government, “privatizing,” that he introduced a bill at high tide to do just that, “privatize” emergency planning. But Senator Vitter, didn’t Joe Allbaugh tell you? New Orleans hurricane planning was privatized.
You should remember Allbaugh from Chapter 4: The Con. It was Allbaugh, as Governor George Bush’s Chief of Staff who, in 1997, handled the Governor’s personal emergency: His office allegedly called the Texas Air Guard to let them know that Karen Hughes would be dropping by to “make sure there’s nothing in there [Bush’s war file] that’ll embarrass the Governor.” Under Bill Clinton, the Emergency Management Agency was run by emergency managers. That was the dull way to do it.
In 2001, Bush made Joe Allbaugh FEMA’s chief and the two of them converted the agency into something more exciting, a front-line command center in the War on Terror, dissolving the agency into the Department of Homeland Security. And that’s when the unexciting emergency planning work was put up for sale. (Allbaugh quit in 2003 and turned the Wal-Marted FEMA over to his old college roommate, Michael Brown, an executive with the Arabian Horse Association.) It wasn’t in the Times, but a year before the hurricane, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA signed a half-million-dollar contract with a private operator to write up “a catastrophic hurricane disaster plan for the City of New Orleans,” says the press release. Their plan was innovative. We know it was innovative because the work was handed to a company called “Innovative Emergency Management.” Innovative Emergency Management, said a company release, had “teamed” with expert James Lee Witt, the renowned Clinton FEMA chief, which was good news for New Orleans. The bad news was, it wasn’t true. Witt, despite IEM’s press release, said he was not part of the Innovative “team.”
No matter. Innovative Emergency Management’s founder, president and CEO, Madhu Beriwal, I believe, owns an umbrella and she’s an exceptionally experienced donor to the Republican party. She has more campaign committee citations, including donations to Senator Vitter, than evacuation plans to her name. Maybe she has extraordinary credentials for saving a city from flood, but when we called seeking her experience and credentials, we got nothing.
IEM’s press release, besides the fib about Witt, made this utterly truthful point: Given this area’s vulnerability and elevation…a plan that facilitates a rapid and effective hurricane response is critical. Amen to that.
So I called IEM in Baton Rouge to see their critical and innovative plan that was supposed to be complete well before Katrina’s landfall. The Wal-Mart of disaster prep couldn’t get me a copy. In fact, they couldn’t say if they had it. Nor if the City of New Orleans had it. Or if Senator Vitter or anyone had it or if it existed.
Could they tell me the name of someone at FEMA who had the evacuation plan? They hesitated, so I prompted, “Well, who do you call if there’s an emergency?” The question stumped them. And it stumped FEMA, which wouldn’t provide me a copy. The problem, I was informed, was that they couldn’t confirm it existed.
There is nothing new under the sun. A Republican president going for the photo op as the Mississippi rolls over New Orleans. It was 1927, and President Calvin Coolidge sent Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, “a little fat man with a notebook in his hand,” who mugged for the cameras and promised to build the city a wall of protection. They had their photos taken. Then they left to play golf with Ken Lay or, rather, the Ken Lay railroad baron equivalent of his day.
In 1927, the Democratic Party had died and was awaiting burial. As depression approached, the coma-Dems, like Franklin Roosevelt, called for, of all things, balancing the budget.
Then, as the Mississippi waters rose, one politician, the state’s electricity regulator, stood up on the back of a flatbed truck rigged with loudspeakers, and said, roughly, “Listen up! They’re lying! The President’s lying! The rich fat jackals that are drowning you will do it again and again and again. They lead you into imperialist wars for profit, they take away your schools and your hope, and when you complain, they blame Blacks and Jews and immigrants. Then they drown your kids. I say, Kick’m in the ass and take your share of the wealth you created.” Huey Long was our Hugo Chávez, and he laid out a plan: a progressive income tax, real money for education, public works to rebuild Louisiana and America, Social Security old age pensions, veterans’ benefits, regulation of the big utility holding companies, an end to what he called, “rich men’s wars,” and an end to the financial royalism of the One Percent.
He even had the audacity to suggest that the poor’s votes should count, calling for the end to the poll tax four decades before Martin Luther King succeeded in ending it. Long recorded his motto as a musical anthem: “Everyman a King.”
The waters receded, the anger did not, and, in 1928, Huey “Kingfish” Long was elected Governor of Louisiana. At the time, Louisiana schools were free, but not the textbooks. The elite liked it that way, but Long didn’t. To pay for the books, the Kingfish levied a special tax on Big Oil. But the oil companies refused to pay for the textbooks. Governor Long then ordered the National Guard to seize the oil fields in the Delta.
It was Huey Long who established the principle that a government of the people must protect the people, school them, build the infrastructure, regulate industry and share the nation’s wealth-and that meant facing down “the concentrations of monopoly power” of the corporate aristocracy-“the thieves of Wall Street,” as he called them.
In other words, Huey Long founded the modern Democratic Party. FDR and the party establishment, scared witless of Long’s ineluctable march to the White House, adopted his program, albeit diluted, called it the New Deal and later the New Frontier and the Great Society. America and the party prospered. What happened to the Kingfish? As with Chávez, the oil industry and local oligarchs had few options for responding to Governor Long’s populist appeal and the success of his egalitarian economic program. On September 8, 1935, Huey Long, by then a U.S. Senator, was shot dead. He was 42.
And now is the moment, as it was in ’27.