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Windfall: How Conservatives, Contractors, and Developers Cashed In on Katrina

The grim pictures from the Superdome had barely faded from your TV screen when the Bush administration and its allies set to work redefining the meaning of the hurricane. A timeline of how disaster became opportunity.

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

In those first emotional days after Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast, widespread predictions of a political sea change arrived from liberal and even some conservative commentators. "Americans are ready to fix their restless gaze on enduring problems of poverty, race, and class that have escaped their attention," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter wrote in a September 2005 cover story. Some went so far as to forecast the dawn of a new America, one stunned out of both complacency and conservatism by the images of suffering on the Gulf Coast. Katrina, one commentator suggested, would permanently "redefine the political landscape."

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But within just a few weeks of the hurricane, something had changed in the press coverage and the public response: As the floodwaters receded, so, too, did the powerful images—the portraits of racially segregated suffering, of death by poverty. America's—even liberal America's—focus appeared to be moving away from the experiences of Katrina victims and the deep, systemic problems they revealed. In the end, the leap from pathos to policy was never made. Instead, a narrower lens was focused on the foibles of the Bush administration—for instance, its hiring of a political crony, Michael Brown, to head FEMA (and, later, Brown's infamous emails about wardrobe choices and dinner plans as New Orleans residents were literally drowning in their homes). Democrats were quick to attack President Bush, but when it came to advancing meaningful policy changes, they came up short on momentum.

It quickly became clear that the public "meaning" of Katrina, which had initially seemed so obvious to so many, was actually up for grabs—and so, too, was its impact on U.S. politics.

In the coming weeks and months, conservatives hit their stride. The Bush administration, with the help of its friends in the Washington establishment and elsewhere, turned the disaster in New Orleans from a crisis into an opportunity—a chance to extend, rather than repeal, the conservative revolution that had begun 25 years earlier. The campaign to accomplish this apparent political paradox would operate on many levels and with astonishing success. While the country was absorbed by watching the president try to stuff an uncooperative political rabbit back into his hat, the real tricks were taking place offstage.

  • The PR campaign. This began with a carefully constructed plan—engineered, to no one's surprise, by Karl Rove—to shift blame away from the White House, accompanied by promises of "investigations," and followed by a highly stage-managed expression of conservative compassion by Bush.
  • The advancement of conservative social policies, including an overhaul of the federal budget. Despite some haggling among conservatives, Bush's pledge to help the victims from Katrina would be used to justify a series of cuts that had always been favored by the right—robbing the poor to give (for a little while) to the poor.
  • The remaking of New Orleans. A variety of carefully planned "rebuilding" strategies, along with a selective apportionment of resources, would effectively clear out many of the city's poor African Americans to make way for a richer, whiter simulacrum of the Big Easy.
  • A free-for-all for corporate contractors. There were billions of dollars to be made on the reconstruction of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, a good share of it awarded to companies with political connections, and a fair portion of that lost to greed, waste, incompetence, and fraud.

The following timeline tracks developments in these four areas, focusing on the disaster that followed the disaster, when the tragedy and travesty of what happened on the Gulf Coast was turned into an opportunity to advance political and policy goals and increase private profits. In most cases, the groundwork for this was laid within the first hundred days.

September 2

September 4

  • The New York Times reports on a White House plan—hatched days earlier while the hurricane's victims were still stranded and dying—to "contain the political damage" from the Bush administration's failure to respond promptly and decisively to Hurricane Katrina. Managed by Karl Rove and White House counselor Dan Bartlett, the strategies for this PR campaign include dodging questions, obfuscating facts, and redirecting blame to state and local authorities.

September 5

  • Facing falling poll numbers after ignoring or downplaying the magnitude of the Gulf Coast crisis for a week after the storm, the president makes a second trip to Louisiana. On this visit, unlike the first, there are no jokes about his drinking days in the Big Easy, although he still follows a carefully planned itinerary that circumvents the worst-hit areas and puts him in contact with only "friendly audiences." Meanwhile, after touring the Houston Astrodome, where many Katrina evacuees have taken refuge, Barbara Bush suggests that the accommodations are "working very well for them" since "so many of the people in the arena here…were "underprivileged anyway."

September 6

  • At a press conference, surrounded by cabinet members, the president is asked whether he intends to fire any of the members of his administration responsible for the botched rescue effort. Bush replies that he intends "to lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong." He decries "the blame game," but makes veiled references to problems with "the state government and the local government"—per the administration's previously outlined damage-control strategy. Fast Forward: Prepared by White House Homeland Security Advisor (and controversial political climber) Frances Fragos Townsend and released in February 2006, the report is a study in the selective use of facts. At one point, for example, Townsend quotes an assessment that "the President…took extraordinary steps prior to landfall." A look at the footnotes to the report shows the source of the quote to be a speech made by none other than Townsend herself.
  • The Katrina disaster becomes an enormous boon to contractors with friends in high places. One of the first to swing into action is Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root, which begins work repairing Gulf Coast Naval and Marine facilities under a pre-existing arrangement with the Department of Defense. Fast Forward: By the end of the year, KBR has secured contracts worth nearly $170 million. It can't have hurt that KBR had retained the services of former FEMA director (and Bush crony) Joseph Allbaugh, who had registered as a lobbyist for the company six months prior to Katrina. Allbaugh also lobbied on behalf of the Shaw Group, which is owned by the chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party. Shaw received two $100 million no-bid contracts shortly after Katrina.
  • As the White House PR campaign gathers momentum, conservatives launch their own campaign to control the ideological and policy implications of Katrina. Figures like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly rush to blame the disaster on the welfare state. In the right-wing weekly Human Events, Jack Kemp describes the disaster not as a tragedy exacerbated by government failures, but rather as "a golden opportunity" to implement "government policies that facilitate and empower the private sector and private citizens." A week later he warns, "We shouldn't be bamboozled by the left's exploiting of Katrina to lobby for bigger, more centralized government."

September 7

  • Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (who'd recently remarked of New Orleans that "a lot of that place could be bulldozed") announce the formation of a House-Senate "Hurricane Katrina Joint Review Committee." The announcement comes at a gathering attended only by Republicans, after a Republican planning session. Democrats boycott the committee, since Republicans would outnumber them in accordance with their ratios in Congress. They call instead for a 9/11 Commission-style independent investigation.

September 8

  • Congress approves a second White House request for Katrina relief spending, bringing the total to $62.3 billion. Members of Congress and watchdog groups immediately raise questions about the procurement process for Katrina-related contracts, including insufficient oversight and lack of competitive bidding.
  • By executive order, the president suspends the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay the regional prevailing wage, in areas hit by Katrina. The move is attacked by organized labor and praised by anti-government conservatives.
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