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Iraq Mess Adds to the Problem
Published on Thursday, September 1, 2005 by the New York Daily News
Iraq Mess Adds to the Problem
by Juan Gonzalez
 
The battlefields of Iraq seem far removed from the awesome devastation and near-biblical floods unleashed on New Orleans and the rest of the Mississippi Delta by Hurricane Katrina.

But these two tragedies are more closely connected than most of us realize.

Some 7,000 soldiers from the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard are stationed in Iraq. They include more than 3,000 members of the 256th Brigade Combat Team, a unit based in and around New Orleans.

Those soldiers, who represent 40% of Mississippi's and 35% ofLouisiana's regular Guard strength, were forced to watch helplessly from their barracks in Iraq the past few days as the hurricane swept through their neighborhoods and threatened their families.

Quite simply, the two states hardest hit by this storm were handicapped from the start by not having enough Guard units and military equipment like trucks, Humvees and helicopters on the ground to handle the crisis.

"As much as we need them in Iraq, we also need them at home," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) warned on CNN just before the hurricane hit Monday.

Yet not until yesterday did President Bush finally take decisive action to provide military reinforcements from other parts of the country or even from regular Army bases in those states.

By then, one of our greatest cities was under water and being evacuated; tens of thousands of its poorest residents were stranded and facing catastrophe; millions were without power, and looters had already waded off with all that could be taken.

"People are hurting and people are being vandalized," said an editorial plea posted yesterday on the Web site of The Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss. "Yet where is the National Guard, why hasn't every able-bodied member of the armed forces in south Mississippi been pressed into service?"

Except for the floods, the posthurricane destruction and near-anarchy in New Orleans resembled those heartbreaking scenes of the chaos in Baghdad after "liberation."

Those floods are yet another tragedy that the Bush administration will have to explain. They are in no small way connected to the curse that Iraq has become for our nation.

Sure, no one could have prevented a powerful hurricane from hitting the Mississippi Delta. But federal and local government leaders all knew that a direct hit on New Orleans from such a storm could mean catastrophe.

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans published numerous articles during the past two years warning that the city and federal officials weren't prepared.

The newspaper's articles also revealed that Bush was making huge cuts to an Army Corps of Engineers project meant to shore up the levees and pumping stations that protect Delta residents from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi.

That project, known as the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, has been in effect since 1995. But spending on it has been reduced substantially since 2000.

"It appears the money has been moved into the President's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price that we pay," the emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, La., told The Times-Picayune in June 2004. "Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished."

Earlier this year, Bush, this President who is spending more than $1 billion a week on this mess in Iraq, proposed less than $11 million in new funding for Louisiana's flood control project. The Army Corps of Engineers wanted at least $62 million.

Among the items the White House cut from that flood control budget was money to study how New Orleans could cope with a Category 5 hurricane.

Well, the entire country learned how this week. We'll all be paying for that terrible lesson for decades to come.

© 2005 New York Daily News

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