Hurricane Gustav blew into the Gulf Coast on Labor Day weekend, almost three years to the day that Katrina brought its misery to New Orleans, carrying powerful memories of how thoroughly our federal government had abdicated its responsibility to protect and aid the people of the Gulf Coast.
Like the ghosts that populate folktales, Gustav grabbed our attention by first scaring the dickens out of us, then reminding us of unfinished business — in this case, the unhealed wounds of Katrina’s aftermath. For starters, the national debate over the purpose of the U.S. presidency and the priorities set by the Bush administration — already at the center of the presidential election campaign — pivoted back to the haunting images of New Orleans in September 2005. People without food or drinkable water or an escape route, waiting for the emergency assistance from FEMA that didn’t come in time. Americans left to die in a city where the poor and the powerless had been living too close to the edge long before the levees broke.
Gustav got John McCain to suspend his partisan rhetoric and part of the GOP convention in St. Paul, as he sought to distance himself from Bush’s mistakes by voicing deep concern for the storm’s victims and exhorting the American people to help those displaced by the storm. But canceling convention theatrics and advising supporters to “take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats” doesn’t signal that McCain and his compatriots have moved away from their political philosophy, which views government with suspicion and federal spending on domestic problems with disdain.
What’s in our leaders’ heads is far more important than what’s on them. And so far, McCain’s offered no evidence that his approach to federal programs would produce an outcome less frightening than the one we’re seeing three years after Katrina. How is it possible that FEMA still uses a post-disaster housing strategy dependent on trailers and housing vouchers, despite the disastrous consequences of this Band-Aid mentality in the Gulf? What a nightmare.
In his nomination acceptance speech in Denver, Barack Obama deconstructed what eight years of George W. Bush’s “ownership society” outlook has meant for the American people: “…what it really means is, you’re on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps — even if you don’t have boots.”
Gustav prompted the evacuation of New Orleans, turning the still-battered city into a temporary ghost town as local and national officials tried to show what they’d learned from Katrina. Meanwhile, there’s mounting evidence that the ownership society has spawned genuine 21st-century ghost towns across the land.
The ongoing foreclosure and credit crises have created escalating numbers of abandoned partially built developments and empty houses in established communities. The specter of ghost towns and shuttered homes in the midst of an affordable housing crisis is a haunting reminder of what happens when government retreats from regulation and turns a deaf ear to those in need.
Being on our own has brought Americans to a truly scary place. But the nightmarish lack of national leadership could soon end: Up from the grass roots have come innovative, visionary, yet practical ideas for fixing what ails the country.
Can the next president open his mind to citizens’ call for a more effective relationship with their government? Now, of all times, the candidates need to listen to these proposals that arise from the people’s progressive spirit as if the fate of the nation depended upon setting the right federal priorities and moving forward on them with alacrity. Because it does.