Katrina Memories Give Republicans Reason to Worry

Posted September 1, 2008 at 5:04pm

What a difference three years have made in the federal government’s understanding of how to effectively, efficiently and compassionately deal with a natural disaster like a powerful hurricane hitting our nation’s shores.

[IMGCAP(1)]While the soap opera aspect of the Republican presidential campaign continues to unfold under the mainstream media radar, I’d rather spend my time and attention while I’m here at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., focusing on Hurricane Gustav, whose damaging winds and torrential rainfall are at this very moment wreaking havoc on 300 miles of New Orleans levees still under repair from three years ago.

The Republicans gathered here to nominate Arizona Sen. John McCain and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin appear hopeful that Hurricane Gustav will wash away our memories of how the Bush White House and Republican-run federal government mishandled Hurricane Katrina.

Three years ago, we as a nation sat transfixed in horror as we watched our fellow Americans either bake or drown while waiting to be rescued from rooftops and the hellholes that were the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. After three years, the images that once burned onto disbelieving retinas continue to sear our hearts and memory.

It is impossible to forget the horrors of that week and the pain and suffering of those left behind and forgotten. Nor should we forget. Americans were left to die. And we watched them being left to die. More than 1,600 folks did die. Dead from their government’s incompetence, they live on in our thoughts and prayers — and votes.

Ironically, almost three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall and displaced hundreds of thousand of Americans left scattered across the country, the nation is once again reminded that it matters who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. This time, the federal government is not outsourcing its responsibilities to the state and local government. This time, the executive branch has instructed the federal government to respond.

The 2008 Republican National Convention is still up in the air as organizers continue to scramble to pull together a truncated schedule that allows them to nominate their presidential and vice presidential candidates. The delegates and alternates who have gathered from across America are truly sympathetic to the plight of those who had to evacuate.

Yes, they are deeply concerned. Indeed, as I write this, they are looking for ways to help the GOP delegates from areas threatened by Hurricane Gustav get home safely to assess the damage and begin the repairing process.

No doubt McCain is painfully aware that all eyes will be on how his party and its leader will treat this latest attack on New Orleans and its Gulf Coast neighbors. No doubt he remembers where he was when Katrina hit landfall three years ago: in Arizona with President Bush celebrating his birthday. Like the president, who is holding fort in the emergency command centers in Texas, McCain is aware that the American people are watching. Pictures matter, but so do public policies.

We continue to lack public policies that will help people with houses damaged from Gustav (and Katrina and Rita, for that matter) repair their homes and rebuild their lives. Tens of thousands of Americans remain exiled from their homes.

I met one such survivor here at the Republican convention. She’s working as a top chef at one of the major hotels. Like me, she was born at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. When raging storm waters flooded her home, she fled to safety in St. Paul.

While watching the TV set near the hotel dining room with her, I watch as tears stream down her face. I promise her things will be better this time. I tell her the government will get everyone out safely and, later, help them get back home.

“I hope so,” she tells me. “I still am here and cannot go back.”

Aletha is not alone. So many thousands of people, including my own siblings, must answer many questions after this storm has passed. Can they go back and rebuild their lives? Can they afford to replace the roofs, windows and the other broken bits of their homes destroyed by Gustav? And what about the schools, the roads, the bridges and the hospitals? Will they also be rebuilt? When?

Soon, we can only hope. Just as we can only hope that the Republicans gathered here in Minnesota this week will not forget Gustav’s victims after they return home and it’s back to politics as usual.

McCain faces a unique challenge this week. He must not only distance himself from the uncompassionate and incompetent response of the Bush administration concerning Hurricane Katrina; he must also distance himself from his own hapless and heartless response.

After all, McCain voted against the emergency funding bill, including $28 billion for hurricane relief.

McCain voted against giving Katrina victims five months of Medicaid services.

He voted — twice — against establishing a commission to study the response to Hurricane Katrina.

And he opposed granting financial relief to families affected by Hurricane Katrina.

McCain talks about putting the country first. I support those who talk about putting the American people first.

How McCain reacts to and deals with these two latest events — Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Palin (the soap opera involving the politically naive rookie he chose to be his running mate) — will demonstrate to the American people the kind of judgment and leadership they can expect from him as president. Along with the rest of America, the good and beleaguered folks of the Gulf Coast states will be watching closely. And, come Election Day, they will not forget.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.