Saturday, Aug. 29, marked the four-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that claimed the lives of 1,836 people while displacing 1 million more. Americans watched tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents pack into the Superdome without enough food, water, or space as President Bush went aboutcelebrating friends' birthdays and relaxing on vacation. While Americans initiallyrushed to provide donations and volunteer assistance, Gulf Coast residents are now worried that the country has forgotten about them. Last week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote an editorial titled, "We're counting on you, Mr. President," imploring President Obama to follow through on his promises to rebuild the region. "There's no substitute for you, as president, seeing our recovery and its halting progress with your own eyes, for taking time to walk in our shoes," wrote the editors. "So we ask you to bring your considerable intellect, your problem-solving ability, your influence to bear. When a president pays attention, so does the nation." Obama devoted this week's radio address to the Katrina anniversary, pointing out that 11 members of his Cabinet have already visited the Gulf Coast, and he plans to visit by the end of the year. "No more turf wars -- all of us need to move forward together, because there is much more work to be done," said Obama.
PROGRESS ON HOUSING: Providing housing for the thousands of Gulf Coast residents who remain displaced is one of the toughest challenges facing the region. There has been some progress. The "number of households receiving mail is now more than three-fourths of the pre-Katrina figures," and long-stalled projects are finally "getting back on track." But approximately 9,000 families are still receiving temporary help with rent, 2,100 are living in trailers or mobile homes, and 11,000 people are homeless. "As much as people nationwide are tired of hearing about Katrina, you see people who are still hurting," notes Charmel Gaulden, executive director of the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center in Mississippi. Congress has "appropriated $19.7 billion in Community Development Block Grants to help with recovery efforts, mostly for housing." But disputes between federal and state agencies have delayed the payments, underscoring Obama's observation that "turf wars" have been standing in the way of progress. When Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan visited the region in March, he said he was "disturbed" at how little progress had been made. HUD also "plans to give Gulf Coast states $80 million for rental assistance vouchers," and the federal government "extended the deadline for the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which provides temporary rental assistance to hurricane victims." Housing advocates have criticized Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R) for using millions in the block grants on projects other than housing, such as the move to expand the Port of Gulfport.
LOOKING TOWARD THE 2010 CENSUS: The recession has hit the Gulf Coastparticularly hard, with unemployment soaring over 11 percent in some areas of southern Mississippi. Funds from the Recovery Act have been particularly important to the region. In a recent interview, Vice President Joseph Biden said that he hasn't "met a single governor, including the governor of Louisiana, who hasn't been appreciative in talking to me about the stimulus act, that they would not have been able to make it, etc." But Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) were two of the most outspoken voices against the stimulus. Even now, Jindal continues to slam the "wasteful" spending of the legislation while at the same time going around the state and spending the federal government's money -- and taking credit for the progress. Barbour wanted to reject stimulus dollars for Mississippi -- including $50 million in unemployment benefits for part-time workers -- but the state legislature passed a bill circumventing Barbour. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-LA), who represents New Orleans, also voted against the recovery package, arguing that it was slated to create fewer jobs in his district than any other in the country. But "so far, in stimulus money sent directly to parishes, Orleans has received $372 per capita, putting it fourth in the state." The initial inaccurate estimate was based on the region's storm-depleted population, underscoring the importance of the 2010 census for the region. Civil rights groups are urging census officials "not to overlook displaced hurricane victims when they conduct their 2010 count," which could deprive the Gulf Coast of much-needed federal funding and block grants. Republican officials in the region are also against counting undocumented immigrants, even though Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute in Mississippi, says they "may be the very thing that saves the Coast."
THE DANGERS OF GLOBAL BOILING: Projects to protect the region from future Katrinas continue to lag. A recent investigation by the federal Office of Special Counsel found that "flood-control pumps installed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina don't protect the city adequately and the Army Corps of Engineers could have saved $430 million in replacement costs by purchasing proven equipment." Unfortunately, many leaders still seem stuck to the idea that the disaster was just a fluke and refuse to support efforts to mitigate global warming. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology climatologist Kerry Emanuel has stated that he would be "surprised" if global warming hadn't been "a big factor" in intensifying Katrina's destructive power. Using his model of tropical storm potential intensity, Emanuel found that Katrina would have beensignificantly weaker 25 years earlier. Brice Lalonde, France's chief climate negotiator, has even cited Katrina as a reason why policymakers and the American public need to pay attention to climate change. Unfortunately, before becoming governor of Mississippi, Barbour was one of Washington's most well-connected and powerful lobbyists, notorious for influence peddling for tobacco and big energy companies, and he continues to oppose clean energy policieswhile in office.
TORTURE -- CHENEY ENDORSES CIA INTERROGATORS GOING 'BEYOND THE SPECIFIC LEGAL AUTHORIZATION': The recently released 2004 CIA Inspector General's report on the Bush administration's interrogation policies revealed a program that was poorly supervised and resulted in "unauthorized, improvised, inhumane and undocumented" tactics. This unauthorized coercion included menacing "a detainee with a handgun and a power drill," staging a mock execution, threatening to kill a detainee's children and aggressive waterboarding. Yesterday on Fox News Sunday, Vice President Cheney said that he had no problem with these interrogation tactics -- even though they went "beyond the specific legal authorization." In fact, Cheney said these tactics were crucial in keeping the United States safe. "[M]y sort of overwhelming view is that the enhanced interrogation techniques were absolutely essential in saving thousands of American lives, in preventing further attacks against the United States," he said. But there have been no documents supporting Cheney's claim that torture was essential to saving American lives. Even CIA memos from 2004 and 2005, which Cheney claimed would back him up, have been released and have no evidence linking torture to valuable intelligence. In fact, these memos show that "non-abusive techniques actually helped elicit some of the most important information." Cheney also called the investigation a "political act" and added that his cooperation would "depend on the circumstances."
Labor Department records show that "more than $3.1 billion in stimulus money for state unemployment insurance programs is sitting in a federal trust fund because 23 states haven't expanded their jobless benefits." Eleven states have declined to change their systems to qualify "for about $1.7 billion in stimulus funding." Roughly 350,000 Americans won't receive benefits because of inaction.
On CNN yesterday, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said that she "would tend not to" support a health care reform bill with a public insurance option. She also said "it would be very difficult" for her to support a bill that allowed taxpayer-funded abortions, though she acknowledged that "general insurance policies now -- subsidized through the government by the tax code -- allow women to make those choices right now."
In an interview with ABC, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge asserted that, though he was worried politics may have been influencing the raising of terror alert levels, he did not believe it was the determining factor. He added that he agrees with Vice President Cheney that there should be no investigation into possible criminal conduct by the CIA, saying that it would be "criminal" to do so.
Vice President Cheney said he pushed for a military strike against Iran in the waning days of the Bush administration. "I was probably a bigger advocate of military action than any of my colleagues," Cheney told Fox News Sunday.
Wall Street banks are fighting to protect one of their "richest fiefdoms, the $592 trillion over-the-counter derivatives market." The five biggest banks stand to make more than $35 billion this year trading unregulated derivatives contracts. "At stake is how much of that business they and other dealers will be able to keep."
A New York Times analysis has found that nearly a year after the bailout of the nation's biggest banks, "taxpayers have begun seeing profits from the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid that many critics thought might never be seen again." However, the government still faces huge losses from bailing out AIG, General Motors, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.
Few federal officials have reported their contacts with lobbyists trying to influence how the government spends funds from the $787 billion Recovery Act, as President Obama had ordered. Since February, federal agencies have disclosed 197 contacts, but only eight have been reported in August. The Pentagon has reported one contact, while the Department of Homeland Security has reported none.
A new Congressional Budget Office report says that Medicare beneficiaries "would save money" on prescription drugs "as a result of health legislation moving through the House." Though beneficiaries "would often have to pay higher premiums for prescription drug coverage," their "spending on prescription drugs apart from those premiums would fall, on average, as would their overall prescription drug spending."
The Obama administration has put together a "list of about 50 measurements to gauge progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan." The results will be presented to Congress by Sept. 24 after "lawmakers set that deadline in the spring as a condition for approving additional war funding."
And finally: Former Bush adviser Karl Rove went back to Utah for his 40th high school reunion this weekend. "The girls look awfully good," he told the local Fox affiliate TV station. When asked to describe "the teenage Karl Rove," he replied, "Nerd. ... Completely. Pocket protector, briefcase, hush puppies when they weren't cool, about 5'10," high squeaky voice. Weird."