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The Post-Hurricane Speech Bush Won't Deliver
Published on Tuesday, September 6, 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle
The Post-Hurricane Speech Bush Won't Deliver
by Robert Rivkin
 

In his weekly radio address to the nation Saturday, President George W. Bush attempted to sanitize the blistering criticism from virtually all shades of the political spectrum that his administration had received for its handling of the tragic (and partly avoidable) Hurricane Katrina calamity. Words like "death," "chaos," "anarchy," "squalor," "incompetence" and "national disgrace" -- among the most descriptive and emotive ones uttered last week by thousands of people -- were omitted from the president's speech. So, I am offering here a straightforward address to the nation that President Bush could give next Saturday. This speech might restore his credibility as a leader:

My fellow Americans: First, I want to apologize to you, and particularly to the citizens of Mississippi and Louisiana, for my administration's failure to prepare for Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I apologize for our excruciating slowness in getting life-supporting essentials -- food, clean water and medicine -- to the flood victims in New Orleans. Sadly, I realize that the federal government's inexcusable delay of at least two days in providing these essential items caused many unnecessary deaths, and unnecessarily prolonged the agony for thousands of mostly poor, black citizens of the United States, who were barely surviving in disgusting conditions. For that I am truly sorry.

I confess that last week, I tried to excuse our neglect by claiming that "I didn't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." Also, I'm aware that my Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, has claimed that this was an "ultra-catastrophe" (a hurricane plus a flood) and that nobody could have reasonably predicted that both would happen at the same time. Our comments were wrong -- and actually misleading. My administration will no longer try to shift blame to others, nor to an "uncooperative" Mother Nature. Years ago, experts tried to warn the Army Corps of Engineers that a category 4 or 5 hurricane would likely overwhelm the levees and flood most of New Orleans. These reports were also widely published in newspapers and magazines. The Corps dismissed these experts' warnings as overblown.

What happened late last month was almost exactly what the scientists had predicted. The result was that by Sept. 2, when life-sustaining aid and National Guard units finally began to arrive, many people -- mainly the elderly and seriously ill -- had perished. This did not have to happen.

We must now look to the future. So far as I am aware, nobody in the federal government has leveled with you yet about the enormity of the tasks that confront us as a nation. I want to do that now. We must not only repair the physical damage to the Mississippi coast and New Orleans. We have a moral obligation to the hundreds of thousands of surviving victims of this mammoth calamity to restore a sense of normalcy to their lives. Let me tell you right now that the losses resulting from this national nightmare will almost certainly total half a trillion dollars in the next five or six years. Maybe more. Included in that number are the costs not only of rebuilding, but of relocating hundreds of thousands of people, not in temporary shelters like the Astrodome, but in homes -- at least for the medium term -- by which I mean six months to three years.

It is the federal government's obligation to find housing quickly for the evacuees, so that their continued suffering -- being forced to live communally in sports stadiums -- is not prolonged. It must be done so they can have privacy. So they can have dignity. So they can have hope for the future.

Therefore, I am instructing the Secretary of Defense to provide a list of domestic military bases where empty and underutilized barracks, apartments and houses are located. For those evacuees who want to be housed in federal military housing, we will also provide educational facilities, medical care and the possibility of finding new jobs. For others, we will provide funds to help integrate these American citizens into other communities throughout the country. The federal government will also provide jobs for those evacuees who want to work on rebuilding their own communities in New Orleans and Mississippi.

Insurance companies, private industry, charitable and religious organizations will of course all pitch in to help make life livable again for our fellow citizens. But they cannot provide the guidance, the infrastructure and the financial muscle. In a crisis as huge as this one, that is the obligation of the government -- any government. Therefore, I am submitting legislation to Congress to make this happen. It will be expensive. It will necessitate an increase in the tax burden, especially for those Americans who are better off than others. But, in the long run, it will be worth it by enhancing cohesiveness, equality and justice in our society. And it will enhance our prosperity as well.

I realize that I am urging a new approach toward disaster relief. I realize that this noble project may not generate as many profits for private contractors that earlier projects have done. I realize this approach may surprise and disappoint some who, like myself, have long embraced the concept of "the less government, the better." Philosophically, it still appeals to me. But we must be pragmatic. Monumental catastrophes require extraordinary flexibility. Fixed ideological positions must be abandoned. We are a country in crisis. We need to pull together. We cannot neglect those most desperately in need. Everyone needs to share the burdens.

For those who may find this new approach difficult -- get used to it.

Thank you, and God bless America.

Copyright 2005 San Francisco Chronicle

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