Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Values and Priorities

Grand oratory and eloquent paeans to the American character notwithstanding, if you want to know what a government stands for, follow the money. Governments cost money- lots and lots of money. Even under the most Grover Norquist-esque, small enough to drown in a bathtub, that which governs best governs least scenario, the federal government will raise and spend trillions of dollars every year.

If the pool of money were absolutely limitless, no politician would ever say no to any program of even arguable merit. Feed the poor? Absolutely. Missile defense? Of course. Healthcare? Yup. Bigger prisons? Check.

We simply can't do that, however. Trillions of dollars is still limited- enormous, but finite. We have to pick and choose what we fund and how much we fund it. The fight over the relative amount is the stuff of politics- while no Republican wants children to starve and no Democrat want to dismantle the military, they might disagree as to how much a program deserves. A government's funding priorities reflect its values.

The current administration made a conscious choice to fund Iraq and defund levee repair and construction. Now we have no choice but to spend billions more to rebuild a city older by far than the country itself. We could have. But we didn't.

Those are Bush priorities- Bush values.

While Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the President was in Arizona, giving a speech to a pre-screened group of seniors (i.e. Republicans) or strumming a guitar. While the Mississippi surged over its earthen walls, ill suited to the task, Condoleeza was in New York, paying more for a pair of Ferragamos than I've paid for of the cars I've owned. While the Mayor and Governor made the best of their situations, the former head of the agency ultimately responsible for the relief effort drafted a memo calling it a "near catastrophe." And if Newsweek is to be believed, the President hadn't even watched a news story on the disaster until after it was already done.

The reality, say several aides who did not wish to be quoted because it might displease the president, did not really sink in until Thursday night. Some White House staffers were watching the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific reports coming out of New Orleans. Counselor Bartlett made up a DVD of the newscasts so Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the next morning on Air Force One.

How this could be—how the president of the United States could have even less "situational awareness," as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace.

A national disgrace, indeed.

Friday, September 09, 2005

"It's not like this was a surprise."

My contempt for this administration is complete. If they were merely incompetent, I could overlook it if I thought that they were above reproach. If they were merely corrupt, I could stand it so long as things got done right. Unfortunately, the Bush White House is both the most incompetent and corrupt gang of thugs to rule this, the greatest nation in history, since Teapot Dome.

FACT: The President declared a Federal disaster two full days before Katrina made landfall. This officially put the Feds in charge, and authorized FEMA to move "resources and equipment" (meaning anything from food and water, to manpower, to helicopters) to New Orleans. It also officially put state and local people in a subordinate position.

So when the shit hit the fan, where were the Feds? Not there. Nor would they be there for several more days. As the city descended into chaos, as the waters swelled over the earthen berms which even CNN knew couldn't last, as a once great and unique city became little more than an open air morgue, a fetid, stinking cesspool, they did nothing.

It's not like they didn't have fair warning. "We were briefing them way before landfall," [National Hurricane Center Director Dr. Max] Mayfield said. "It’s not like this was a surprise. We had in the advisories that the levee could be topped."

"It's not like this was a surprise."

Of course, they really couldn't do anything. Heading up the Federal response was a man with a trumped up, if not altogether fabricated resume, who has never held a position of greater responsibility than director of judges for the International Arabian Horse Association. "Brownie" got this job the old fashioned way- cronyism. He was good buddies with his predecessor, Joe Allbaugh, who was himself Bush's campaign manager for Governor of Texas.

Brown did nothing until after the storm had already hit.

Mr. President- don't appoint your buddies (or your buddies' buddies) to an office which requires experienced and professional leadership. The dead and the homeless deserved better.

UPDATE- Turns out I might have been right. Not being a scientist, my earlier post linking Katrina to global warming was little more than one (comparatively well informed) man's analysis of climatological trends. Turns out that a climatologist from MIT has come to the same conclusion and will publish a paper in the journal Nature making that argument.

Nature is a peer reviewed, widely respected scientific journal. Watch it get dismissed as junk science.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

In a related story, journalists have started asking tough questions

Poor Scott McClellan. He's got to be the guy standing up on the podium, shoveling the shit we have taken to calling "information." For far too long, the press has taken what he has had to offer, without much analysis or thought. Softball after softball- and then a wiffle ball or two from the gay prostitute in the back of the room.

The press have gotten their testes back.

Q Well, let's talk about it. Are you saying the President is -- are you saying that the President is confident that his administration is prepared to adequately, confidently secure the American people in the event of a terrorist attack of a level that we have not seen? And based on what does he have that confidence?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, and that's what he made clear earlier today, that obviously we want to look and learn lessons from a major catastrophe of this nature.

Q Yes, but you're telling us today there will be time for that somewhere down the road. Well, what if it happens tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: We can engage in this blame-gaming going on and I think that's what you're getting --

Q No, no. That's a talking point, Scott, and I think most people who are watching this --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, that's a fact. I mean, some are wanting to engage in that, and we're going to remain focused --

Q I'm asking a direct question. Is he confident --

MR. McCLELLAN: We're going to remain focused on the people.

Q -- that he can secure the American people in the event of a major terrorist attack?

MR. McCLELLAN: We are securing the American people by staying on the offensive abroad and working to spread freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

Q That's a talking point. That's a talking point.

Republicans are in trouble for 2006. It seems that the best we can hope from them in incompetence. At worst, they give us cronyism and corruption. Kick 'em out in 2006. All of them, en masse.

And a quick follow-up on my essay about Katrina. It was cited in Blogcritics, and I got dissed.

CThomasEsq of DeToqueville Blvd muses about "Root Causes" for the disaster on the Gulf, laying the blame squarely on ordinary drivers (you and me) for contributing to global warming. Oh, yeah, and President Bush for not signing the Kyoto Accords.

Okay, that does it! It must be true, -I- caused Hurricane Katrina. I mean, what is it, a giant moving mass of hot air? I rest my case.

He chides me and others for trying to find the reasons for the disaster at a time when there is still so much to do in terms of immediate relief. Fair enough- but you can support the people on the ground while still piecing the puzzle together. Things do not happen without a reason. Hurricanes do not form over Greenland (yet)- the Earth is getting warmer, and hurricanes requires warm water to form. If there is a better explantion, please call me on it.

And as if to prove my point, Tropical Storm Ophelia is floating off the Florida coast. Ophelia is the fifteenth named storm of this season, not counting the unnamed tropical depressions. 2005 is now the seventh most active hurricane season since records began being kept.

Statistical peak of the season will be Saturday.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Root Causes

What happened in New Orleans this week is a sad and terrible reminder that we- humanity, all of us- are a fragile lot, capable of great things and yet also powerless to stand down the force of nature. It really was only a matter of time- a city built on a muddy delta below sea level, protected by earthen berms and levees cannot survive forever. New Orleanians will rebuild, no doubt, but their city will never be the same.

Destruction of this magnitude baffles the mind. Philosophers and theologians have struggled with the question of bad things happening to good people, and we have few good answers. The more religious among us will simply shrug their shoulders and say it was God's will- and who are we to question Him? Some so-called Christians have begun to attribute the disaster to an Old Testament style God, smiting the sinful. Blame the victims, for they have brought it on themselves.

The victim never deserves the blame. Never.

Which is not to say that we are totally blameless. Hurricanes require a specific set of conditions to form, the most important of which is warm water. A simple rainstorm, occurring over the warm seas, draws up the warmth. The heat energy is released through condensation (which also transforms the vapor into liquid water). From Wikipedia-

Structurally, a tropical cyclone is a large, rotating system of clouds, wind and thunderstorm activity. The primary energy source of a tropical cyclone is the release of the heat of condensation from water vapor condensing at high altitudes. Because of this, a tropical cyclone can be thought of as a giant vertical heat engine.

The requisite heat usually takes some time to develop, which is why peak hurricane season in the northern hemisphere Atlantic, is late August to early September. To generate the necessary ocean temperatures, it takes nearly the entire summer to warm the ocean. Imagine trying to heat a bowl of water using only a 100-watt light bulb placed overhead. It will happen, of course, though not very soon. Now repeat that experiment with the ocean and the sun. This is why the ocean is warmer in October than in July, despite the (usually) much cooler air temperatures- a lot of water to heat, a lot of water to cool.

Which brings me to my point. The earth is getting progressively warmer- that is beyond dispute- and while some scientists have expressed skepticism as to the cause, the vast majority of climatologists attribute the warming to human causes, most notably the greenhouse effect.

As the mean temperatures have risen, so too have the frequency and intensity of hurricanes. In the simple terms of storms per season, six of the ten most active North Atlantic hurricane season have occurred within the last ten years (1995, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2004). So far, the 2005 season is up to twelve named storms (Tropical Storm Lee floundering in the ocean) and a new tropical depression forming as I write this. The season will continue until November 30. Two more named storms and 2005 will tie for tenth.

Moreover, consider this. Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Florida on August 24, 1992. Katrina made landfall on August 25, 2005. These storms are statistically similar in almost every way- strength, duration, damage. This is not unexpected, given that they formed in roughly the same region at roughly the same time. There is one crucial difference- Andrew was the first storm of the season, Katrina is the eleventh (and the third major hurricane) of this season.

As to intensity, consider that a particularly devastating storm usually has its name retired, so that its historical significance can be noted. These storms killed the most people and caused the most damage. In the 1950's, only ten storms had their names retired. In the 60's, eleven hurricanes were retired. In the 70's, the number was eight and in the 80's it was only seven. In the 1990's, fifteen hurricanes had their names retired, as many as in the previous two full decades.

So far in the 2000's, the number is thirteen, and that doesn't count the hurricanes from the current storm season, of which Katrina will definitely be retired, and Dennis and Emily are also likely contenders for retirement.

I am no treehugger. I do not weep for spotted owls. I do not drive a Prius. I am, however, someone who prides himself on his intellect and rationality. I follow the evidence where it leads me, and the evidence is clear. The Earth is getting warmer and it is exacting a terrible toll.

Our "leaders," however, doubt the evidence. The Kyoto Protocol is "not based on science," says one American negotiator. The President dismissed a report released by his own EPA on the subject, and routinely ignores the scientists who shout to their countrymen, chained to the walls of Plato's cave, that it is real and that we can do something about it.

The President alone is not at fault, though. We share a fair bit of the blame. I count myself, with my 50 mile drive to work each day. I could be driving a Prius or I could take the train, and although my Honda CR-V could be much worse in the fuel consumption department, I know it could be much better.

Instead, we merrily drive bigger and bigger cars that burn more gas. We move farther and farther away from the places where we work. We supersize it, we medicate it, and complain about it- but we don't change it. Because that would meaning changing ourselves.

And that, we are simply not willing to do.