Quakerism, Community, and Katrina

I am compelled to speak to the meaning of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It warns: discard the "ownership society"—the on-your-own-society—work toward a sharing, caring society. Quaker faith and Quaker practice know the strength and vitality of community, equality, simplicity, and respect for environments. Such values should be, and sometimes are, embodied in representative and responsive government. They are basic to security and nonviolent conflict resolution.

But Katrina revealed a twofold tale of our impoverishment. It exposed the poverty of power when leadership fails to act in the public interest; compassion must be underpinned by the will to serve. And it bared the longtime denial of equal opportunity to humane living for all our people.

The people of the Gulf suffer more than necessary because they—like millions of other people in the United States—have had their lives degraded by continuous government budget cuts. They were vulnerable because of policy failures: to reduce poverty, now growing again; poor emergency planning and resource development, despite years of warning; and environmental impoverishment from lax regulation to protect coastal wetlands. The question now is whether these damaging wrongs will be made right.

All major policies that sustain people who cannot work or find jobs that pay more than poverty wages have been steadily underfunded in recent years and are to be cut further. These include income support, food, health coverage, and housing.

The emergency planning setup had been changed in unprecedented ways, especially since the September 11 terrorist attacks could be used as justification.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, praised in the 1990s, was enveloped in the huge, 23-agency Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and headed by a political appointee instead of an experienced professional. It became vulnerable to program cuts, and, under DHS-imposed work rules, staff are moved from one agency to another, diluting expertise. Many tasks are outsourced to commercial firms, making DHS oversight and coordination difficult at best.

Another agency for public health and safety, the Public Health Service, had its Preparedness Office moved under DHS, becoming similarly compromised. Other pieces of the network, which are supposed to support state and local health counterparts—the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—had large budget cuts annually, shrinking efforts in disease prevention, environmental monitoring, and regulatory enforcement.

Recent reports found that preparedness financing will be $100 billion short of meeting needed improvements, including workforce expertise and a comprehensive national information network for communication and coordination among local, state, and federal efforts.

Information prior to Katrina was clear, presciently summarized in May 2005 by an investigative reporter, Chris Mooney, in "Thinking about Big Hurricanes," American Project online edition, on May 23, 2005, reviewing government and academic reports:

A slow-moving Category 4 or 5 [170 miles/hour] hurricane . . . could generate a 20-foot surge that would easily overwhelm the levees of New Orleans. . . . The geographical bowl of the city would fill up with the waters of the lake, leaving those unable to evacuate with little option but to cluster on rooftops. . . . The water itself would become a festering stew of sewage, gasoline, refinery chemicals, and debris. . . . New Orleans could furnish perhaps the largest natural catastrophe ever experienced on U.S. soil.

The Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana’s Congressional delegation sought billions to shore up the levees and revive the coastal wetlands. But the George W. Bush administration had cut funding 80 percent by 2004.

The risks from poverty and poor preparedness were multiplied by the decline in environmental protection. The EPA, subjected to White House pressure, redefined regulatory terms such that "wetlands"—which were not to be used for economic development—became open to commercial purposes in the Gulf, weakening the shoreline buffer against storm surges. In line with the administration’s policy to lighten government regulation of business, it focused on rewriting rules protecting drinking water and air, and as widely known, on global climate change.

Katrina, followed by Rita, revealed another aspect of climate change that policymakers are not acknowledging. The evacuees leaving Houston during Rita were caught in gridlock on the expressways because there were too many vehicles. People in New Orleans were caught in town because they had no cars. What they shared with everyone in the United States is a dependence on cars—the mark of "freedom" to move "whenever and wherever." That devotion adds to our oil dependence, which makes a large contribution to imprisoning the world’s population under a thickening blanket of water-warming greenhouse gases, intensifying hurricanes.

The Republican Party’s Study Committee proposed to cut billions more from the 2005-2006 budget to pay Katrina’s costs. These cuts involve the services and protections that were already deficient and helped create the vulnerabilities of New Orleans and the coastal poor, including health and education programs, water quality, wastewater infrastructure, and energy conservation; high speed rail development and new public transit; and neighborhood and minority business development, legal services for the poor, and local emergency worker grants.

Our leaders’ allegiance has been to "free market" solutions to public issues. Let Quakers speak now to restore funds to reduce poverty; to rebuild adequate emergency and public health capacity; and to enable tools to protect environments, moving toward a new energy future of new transportation options, linking small and large cities, energy-efficiency technologies and buildings, new energy sources, and good jobs filled by re-educated workers.

Where would the money come from? Through asking more from those who have gained most; to invest in a renewed direction toward equity, freedom from oil dependence, and development of means that can prevent and resolve deadly conflict. The new emergency and other needed investments must not again be paid for by cuts in programs for poor and other vulnerable people in future budget deficits wrought by unfair tax policy and wars.

Nancy Milio

Nancy Milio is professor emeritus of Health Policy at University of North Carolina and a member of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Meeting.