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Hurricane season in the United States officially begins today, and NOAA is predicting a very active season again this year.  How are things going in the Gulf Coast region — in New Orleans and all over the coastline of Louisiana, along the coastline in Mississippi, in Alabama, in Georgia, in Texas?  Slowly, at best.

And if this is the best we can do for our fellow Americans in need, what in the hell are we going to do if there is a catastrophic chemical, biological or nuclear attack on a packed urban environment?  With the national guard and reserves stretched thin to breaking by the war of choice in Iraq, what sort of planning — if any — has been done for contingencies if we have weather emergencies, fires and/or terrorist or other attacks all at one time?

Feeling any safer?  Me neither.

Scout Prime has been doing some exceptional reporting on this issue from the time the hurricane hit.  She’s really poured her heart into this issue, which you can see a glimpse of in this YouTube video of her last visit to NOLA.  (This is set to Nanci Griffith singing "From a Distance" — a favorite of mine that Bette Midler also did a few years back — and I wanted to give everyone a tissue alert; it’s a weeper.)

Scout has a report this morning on TPM Cafe that is a must read:

George Bush has stressed the role of volunteers in rebuilding New Orleans. He visited volunteers at various rebuilding sites in New Orleans on April 27 as part of promoting National Volunteer Week. At the time he stated, "If you are interested in helping the victims of Katrina, interested in helping them get back on their feet, come on down here."

Don’t pack your bags though. FEMA has announced that on June 1 it will be closing the last 4 camps that house and feed volunteers coming to Louisiana to aid in recovery. The move will likely shut down the volunteer work Bush was promoting.

Helpful, no? First Lady Laura Bush was in the region yesterday, touting preservation of older, historical buildings — but no word on how that’s going to be accomplished given that New Orleans is sinking even faster and where the levee rebuilding is controversial at best, at this point

Eugene Robinson of the WaPo had some thoughts on that earlier in the week, and the NYTimes also had an in-depth look at the levee question and storm-modelling that gives an exceptional scientific overview on hurricane prediction and modelling for damage questions.  Great stuff.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office put together a comprehensive look at where things stand today, and it isn’t pretty: (PDF)

– Up to $1 billion dollars in waste and fraud for housing contractors and payments made by the government, mainly to contractors from outside the Gulf Region.

– The SBA has rejected more than 60% of small business loan applications in the wake of Katrina. Of those that have been approved, only 4% of funds have been disbursed to small business owners at this point. (Oh yeah, I got yer business friendly environment here. What was that Republican talking point that small business is the backbone of American jobs and communities?)

– Less than 2% of all Federal aid that has gone to the Gulf Coast has been used for education expenditures.

– The Rubber Stamp Republican Congress still refuses to ease Medicare restrictions for children in the Gulf Coast region, despite the fact that there is a substantial health care crisis for children in the region, stemming from infections and other issues arising from prolonged exposure to pathogens from flood waters, stress, and other factors.  (1/3 of all children living in FEMA trailer parks have been found to have a chronic illness.)

– 40,000 families are still waiting for some sort of housing assistance, meanwhile there are 10,000 FEMA trailers still parked in the mud, just sitting there unused.

– Contractors with a political connection to the Bush Administration were paid up to 15 times the actual cost of jobs contracted.

And the list goes on and on. Read the report and see if you aren’t appalled that this is going on right here in the United States. These are Americans.

There are real people, who work hard, try to play by the rules, and just want to put their lives back together caught in this endless morass of paperwork and exhaustion and loss of jobs and worry about their kids and this seemingly never-ending nightmare.  I keep going back to an e-mail that I received from a regular reader:

…Well, six months ago, I hit the road trying to get my family out of the way of a big storm. Ended up 400 miles away from new orleans. My oldest son and I came back a couple of weeks later ready to try to start putting things back together and build. It was like running into a brick wall.

For the past six months, I’ve been banging my head against this wall, yelling and screaming..and it hurts.

The National Flood Insurance Program run by FEMA (pardon me while I scream) has sent my claim back to the adjustor twice for revisions that have no effect on the settlement amount and they still can’t tell me when I can expect a settlement of my claim. This was insurance that I paid for. I applied for disaster assistance and was promptly buried in paperwork, and now FEMA has sent me a letter telling me I was ineligible for diasater help because I have insurance. Meanwhile, my homeowner’s insurance, who wanted to use their own structural engineer instead of one of the two local engineers that I recommended, has finally agreed that my house leans due to wind rack from the hurricane winds. That only took them five months to figure out. Of course, it only took me and my neighbors about five minutes.

Now it’s just a question of how long it’s going to take to figure out how much this is all going to cost to remedy and how long it’s going to take for them to actually get the settlement check in the mail (if the mail is still working).

I also put in an application for an SBA Personal Disaster Loan. They finally sent someone to look at my house a month ago (that only took five months). The SBA field representative said he would have his report in within a couple of a days and a loan officer from the SBA would contact me within two weeks. After two weeks I called and I was told that a loan officer had not yet been assigned to my case. When I complained, they put my case on some type of "accelerated program", but I still don’t have a loan officer and was told that the reason for this was that they had to put so many people on the accelerated program that it slowed them down (*grin*)….

I weep for these folks, but more than that, I’m angry.  Here’s another perspective from a Mississipian

As far as the eye can see … busted chairs; tables; washing machines; toilets; kitchen sinks; broken ceiling fans; smashed dishes; children’s toys; water-soaked, blurry, family photo albums; shoes of all kinds; torn, mud-splattered sheets; pillows; bloated mattresses; lamps; boards; cement blocks; and so much more, buried in mud, impaled in bushes, stuck in trees, scattered across miles and miles of landscape, lost to the wind and heat and mildew, and the inevitable march of decay. Fields of debris faded into shades of gray, leached of color. I see four wooden crosses nailed to a gate, the house down the lane a pile of rubble.

I see a small child, a little girl of maybe 4 years, sitting on a box in front of her family’s FEMA trailer, staring at nothing. I hear no neighbors talking over back fences, no neighbors, period, no children’s laughter or play, anywhere, no sounds of anything save the distant hum of a chainsaw or a truck engine straining to haul off broken pieces of what was once someone’s house. Otherwise, it is quiet. A place of broken dreams, missing friends, lost homes, lost lives.

It’s not just NOLA that is suffering: the rest of the Gulf Coast isn’t faring a whole lot better in terms of reconstruction efforts and federal assistance.  If this is the best we can do with a hurricane, what in the hell are we going to do with a catastrophic biological, chemical or nuclear attack?

Sure, there is a personal responsibility component to all of this:  you get your family out when there is a hurricane coming to the extent that you can do so.  You make a decision to try and live somewhere safe, rather than putting your family in harm’s way to the extent that you can do so.  You plan ahead with supplies and try to have an emergency escape plan, just in case, to the extent that you can do so.  Most families do that — including the family that did everything right and is still struggling to stay on their feet in the New Orleans area that I linked to above.

I don’t expect the Federal government (nor the state or local governments for that matter) to step in and make life perfect.  But if they make promises, they ought to be expected to live up to them.

Everyone who thinks the Bush Administration has lived up to its end of the deal and kept all its promises, give a shout out.  *crickets chirping* 

(The book cover featured as the illustration is for a book written by Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose, entitled "1 Dead in the Attic," and is a compilation of columns describing life in post-Katrina New Orleans.  Thanks to reader lb0313 for bringing this to my attention — it’s an amazing read.)

UPDATE:  For some practical information on disaster preparedness, check out this series of diaries on DKos by Alphageek.  Great round-up of information and tips and all things preparation.  Please take some time to read this and think about it — this information could save your life and that of your family in an emergency.  Important stuff.