Tuesday's lead New York Times editorial, which cynically used what is now Hurricane Isaac to make pro-Democratic political hay, also displayed the paper's galling hypocrisy on emergency natural disaster spending: "The Storm, Again – As high winds approach the gulf coast, Republicans advocate a less prepared government." Perhaps they were reading old Times editorials on flood control, which questioned the wisdom of building levees in flood plains.
Tropical Storm Isaac is more than just a logistical inconvenience for Republicans gathered in Tampa: it is a powerful reminder both of Republican incompetence in handling Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, and the party’s no-less-disastrous plans to further cut emergency-related spending.
Between 2010 and 2012, House Republicans forced a reduction of 43 percent in the primary grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that pay for disaster preparedness. That is $1.8 billion that will not be available for evacuation equipment and supplies, communications gear that lets first responders speak to one another, and training exercises. (House Republicans tried to cut $354 million more in this year’s homeland security spending bill, but Democrats restored the money in a conference with the Senate.)
The New Orleans area, in particular, will rely this week on $14 billion in levee construction, pumps and other flood control structures built by the Army Corps of Engineers since Katrina. But the corps’s construction budget has been cut by 21 percent since 2009 because of Republican pressure, hitting flood prevention especially hard.
An outraged editorial in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on September 1, 2005 made the same points about inadequate levees:
While our attention must now be on the Gulf Coast's most immediate needs, the nation will soon ask why New Orleans's levees remained so inadequate. Publications from the local newspaper to National Geographic have fulminated about the bad state of flood protection in this beloved city, which is below sea level. Why were developers permitted to destroy wetlands and barrier islands that could have held back the hurricane's surge? Why was Congress, before it wandered off to vacation, engaged in slashing the budget for correcting some of the gaping holes in the area's flood protection?
Perhaps they were reading old New York Times editorials on flood control, which questioned the wisdom of building levees in flood plains (of which New Orleans, which is on average eight feet below sea level, certainly qualifies). Here's what the Times editorialized in July 1993 after flooding in the Midwest:
For the longer term, Washington and flood-prone areas must reconsider the pro's and con's of flood control projects and flood insurance. The billions of Federal dollars spent to construct dams and levees have doubtless prevented billions of dollars of damage to the areas they serve. But a dam or a levee in one place creates problems somewhere else. Also, by offering protection, they encourage people to live and work and develop farming in flood plains that are inherently risky. Budget constraints and environmental concerns have slowed new flood control projects in recent years. Congress should resist pressure to spend more now because of this year's floods; these projects need closer evaluation than they've gotten in the past. Flood plains are risky territory, as the Mississippi and its tributaries are proving again. Federal policy needs to control the risk, not just the rivers.