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At a time when most Americans were worrying about the fate of hurricane victims and mounting massive efforts to help them, many Democrats chose to use the tragedy for political attacks against the Bush administration. This is no time for mean-spirited political attacks; it is a time for the nation to follow Houston’s example and pull together.
When the nation was struck with the shock of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, citizens and politicians united with a patriotic surge we had not seen since World War II. That clearly is the approach we should be taking as the nation prepares for the biggest rebuilding project in our history.
Finger-pointing has become a new national sport among Democrats in Washington along with some of the media and officials in Louisiana. One has to wonder whether blatant partisanship will never end.
A major exception to the political battering ram attacks is Republican Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi who says, “We don’t want whiners. We need dedicated workers. There have been some problems, but the federal government has been a good partner, and we look for that to continue.”
Clearly there have been tragic errors, and President Bush, in Truman style, has accepted responsibility for his staff. One of the major errors was in appointing Michael Brown, an unqualified political hack, to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The president remedied that quickly, but the damage has been done.
The partisan attacks were led by the Democratic National Committee and echoed in the Senate and House. One of the most outrageous attacks came from the Congressional Black Caucus and the ever-present Rev. Jessie Jackson. They implied that because of the black population in New Orleans, no one really cared. Does anyone really believe that color brought neglect from the administration in a time of disaster? That is an insult to the heroic search and rescue teams who accomplished near miracles with their rescues.
There still are many questions to be answered as to why an empty train was allowed to leave New Orleans, and where were drivers for available buses, but those are among questions congress will ask when it holds hearings.
As the president has admitted, the federal government was disorganized and slow in its initial reactions, but Louisiana officials also made major mistakes.
That now is old news, and the need is to look ahead with vision. Any time the president of the United States appears on the scene, it is a major distraction, but Bush apparently feels that the massive catastrophe deserves hands-on leadership, and he has been on the scene almost as often as he is in the White House. The early preparations and precautions taken to react to Hurricane Rita reflect the lessons learned in the aftermath of Katrina. Local, state and federal officials performed well as did the effective Texas citizens. If there was less partisanship, Bush, the military forces, Texas officials, and the volunteers would be getting praise for their life-saving efforts. Instead, the national media portrays the president’s role as one concerned with his ratings in the polls.
As Gov. Barbour says, the need is for “workers, not whiners.”
During a telephone interview, Barbour praised his Mississippi constituents for “their spirit in helping each other.”
“Towns have been wiped out, infrastructures devastated, hundreds killed, and the economy has been brought to a standstill,” Barbour says.
New Orleans has had great destruction and hundreds have lost their lives, their livelihood and their homes, but the losses in less publicized areas such as Biloxi also have been devastating.
In Mississippi alone, 17,000 jobs have been lost in the casino-tourist industry. That’s big in a small, poor state. Plans already are under way to rebuild quickly, but it will take time.
Barbour believes that the rebuilding process must involve everyone from the citizen to the state and county governments to the White House.
“My capitol, Jackson, may set standards, but it should not be telling its citizens how to rebuild their neighborhoods and towns,” Barbour says.
The rebuilding of the Gulf Coast will be a greater job than battening down for the terrifying attack of unbelievably strong hurricanes. The region has lost many of its charming, historic homes, but it is apparent it will retain its southern culture and customs.
Federal and insurance money will be essential, but “bigger and better,” implies good planning and the most massive building projects ever undertaken. It will place a strain on building materials and skilled workmen throughout the country. Thousands of workers with few skills will have an opportunity to be retrained to meet new demands. There will be a gap between cleanup and startup.
Even the political makeup of the involved states may change as some refugees decide not to go back to their old homes and as many newcomers arrive to fill the job opportunities created by the massive rebuilding project.
The Gulf Coast poses mammoth problems, but rebuilding provides tremendous opportunities if it is done skillfully. Strong, positive leadership is needed.
The success or failure may depend on bipartisanship. It used to be said that partisanship stops at the water’s edge. Now, it should stop at the Gulf’s edge.
Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow at AEI.
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