Jeff Johnson | Senior Staff Writer | Friday, September 9, 2005
About 100 supporters of the liberal political group descended on Pennsylvania Avenue and spent most of their time blaming the president for the allegedly slow local, state and federal response in New Orleans; and, indirectly, for the failure of the city's levees.
One woman who stopped to show her support for President Bush received a loud and emotional rebuke from a MoveOn.org protester.
New Orleans residents Iona Renfroe, Michelle Augillard and Christine Mayfield recounted their stories of surviving the storm and the described the lack of assistance they received in the aftermath. Each criticized the federal government without addressing accusations of early failures by local and state officials.
Renfroe, a New Orleans attorney, claimed that there has been "absolutely no response by the federal government ... absolutely nothing has been done."
According to the Department of Homeland Security, as of Tuesday, the federal rescue effort involved more than 71,000 personnel and has resulted in more than 45,000 rescues, including 23,000 by the U.S. Coast Guard. Approximately 273,000 citizens had been evacuated and two-thirds of them are still being housed in 550 federally-organized shelters around the country. Federal authorities had gathered and distributed 11.3 million military "Meals Ready to Eat" and 18 million liters of drinking water.
Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org Political Action, also focused his criticism on the Bush administration, calling the federal response to Hurricane Katrina "a national disgrace.
"What looks like incompetence by the president and his appointees is actually something worse," Matzzie claimed. "This is what government looks like when it is in the hands of people who don't believe in government, who want to privatize, who want to cut back and reduce the ability of the government to serve its people."
Mattzie also blasted President Bush for comments suggesting that state and local officials share in the responsibility of preparing for and responding to natural disasters.
"He and his team don't want an effective government that can protect people who work hard and pay taxes," Matzzie continued. "Instead, they want to give huge tax breaks to wealthy Americans. The result is that there is no effort left, or there is no ability left for the government to respond to the needs of its citizens, especially in times of crisis."
MoveOn.org protester clashes with Bush supporter
Clarice McMillan, of Alexandria, Va., was standing about 25 feet behind the MoveOn.org protesters holding a small, hand-written sign that read, "Support the president and love the people." She had been there for only a few minutes when she was confronted by a screaming MoveOn.org supporter.
"Damn you! Supporting the president's great, but supporting the people and the Constitution is more important," the unidentified woman screamed at McMillan. "The Constitution and the babies who died is [sic] more important than any president and you know that in your heart."
Another MoveOn.org supporter pulled the now crying woman away, telling her, "Don't make this the event." Other protesters criticized members of the media for videotaping the confrontation and interviewing McMillan, who said she understood the verbal assault.
"Well, she was upset. She was just upset. It's okay, I can understand that people get emotional," McMillan said. "I want the people to get help, but I don't think this is the time for blame and criticism or the time for MoveOn.org to take advantage of this."
MoveOn.org supporters continued to heckle members of the press and interrupt McMillan as she explained why she lodged her one-woman counter-protest.
"I think we all need to be supporting our president. Not only our president, but the other people who work for him," she said. "He's not the only one in the government to be blamed for anything ... just to blame one person, to me, that isn't right.
"I support the president," McMillan concluded. "I don't say that he does everything right, but nobody does, you know?"
MoveOn.org claims contradicted by federal spending records
Speaking with Cybercast News Service after the event, Matzzie implied that cuts by the Bush administration might have been responsible for the breaching of New Orleans levees.
"The administration, OMB (Office of Management and Budget) cut out of the budget, what was it, $71 million in funding for the levee upgrades in Louisiana. OMB is a function of the White House, the OMB director reports to the White House," Matzzie said. "And, that money could have been used to upgrade the levees."
But records Cybercast News Service obtained from the U.S. Senate's Energy and Water Development Subcommittee paint a different picture. According to an analysis of funding for Corps of Engineers projects from fiscal years 2001 through 2005, Louisiana was the top recipient of funding in the country, getting $1.9 billion of the Corps' $22.9 billion budget.
The three Corps flood control projects surrounding New Orleans received a total of $391 million in direct funding during that five-year period.
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), believes there was more than enough money to correct any deficiencies in the levee system, even without funding the Corps of Engineers. But, in his opinion, much of the money was wasted.
"Like all the other appropriations bills Energy and Water has been filled with pork," Schatz complained. "It's the nature of the problem in Washington that members of Congress like spending money, especially on pork-barrel projects, and that means that significant national priorities are ignored."
CAGW identified nearly $631 million in what it considers pork-barrel projects just in the 2005 Energy and Water Appropriations Act. The group's 2005 "Pig Book" details millions of dollars for such projects that went to Louisiana following the efforts of the state's congressional delegation, especially Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and former Republican U.S. Rep. and current Sen. David Vitter.
"$43,813,000 for projects in the state of Senate appropriator Mary Landrieu and the district of House appropriator David Vitter, including: $11,450,000 for the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway ($9,000,000 for construction and $2,450,000 for operation and maintenance," CAGW states.
The group also notes that on Jan. 9, 2000, the Washington Post said the waterway "still carries less than 0.1 percent of the commercial traffic on America's government-run river transport system - even though it receives a remarkable 3.4 percent of the system's federal funds."
The list of projects CAGW considered wasteful also included $2,000,000 for a "sugar-based ethanol bio-refinery" at Louisiana State University; and $500,000 for "alternative fuel plant construction" in Livingston Parish.
Schatz said he isn't sure if the death and destruction caused by Katrina will cause members of Congress to "wake up and smell the coffee you can't drink in New Orleans anymore.
"It is just outrageous," Schatz concluded, "and I don't know [that it's] shocking enough to members that they will actually forego some of their local projects."
CAGW is asking members of Congress to sign a pledge not to add extraneous funding to federal relief bills for hurricane victims. Four members of Congress had signed the document as of Thursday. Another eight had expressed their intent to take the pledge, but had not yet returned a signed copy to the CAGW offices.
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