This was awful.

A series of overwhelmingly callous remarks from GOP politicos started only three days after the levee failures (before we even left).  The series kicked off when Dennis Hastert, then the Speaker of the U.S. House, famously remarked, “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.”  He was quick to add that it “makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that’s seven feet under sea level.”

That very condescending and ugly column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (on a separate page of this blog) came less than 4 weeks after the catastrophe.

The following June, Idaho Gov. Jim Risch had this to say to the British Guardian.

Here in Idaho, we couldn’t understand how people could sit around on the kerbs waiting for the federal government to come and do something. We had a dam break in 1976, but we didn’t whine about it. We got out our backhoes and we rebuilt the roads and replanted the fields and got on with our lives. That’s the culture here. Not waiting for the federal government to bring you drinking water. In Idaho there would have been entrepreneurs selling the drinking water.

Remarkably enough after four years, the article is still out there:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/jun/03/usa.oliverburkeman

He has no concept of scale

A bad flood happened in Idaho when the Teton Dam failed.  Still, the flooding of New Orleans was several orders of magnitude worse.  I sent this to Boise’s daily newspaper, The Idaho Statesman:

To the editors,

Gov. Risch’s ignorance of conditions in the aftermath of Katrina is matched only by his smugness. His comments to the British Guardian reveal callous disregard for human suffering and ignorance of the scale of the disaster inflicted on southeast Louisiana.

Suppose 80% of Boise sat under water for two weeks. Suppose the Boise metropolitan area lacked running water and electricity for weeks. Suppose thousands of residents had to be airlifted from their rooftops. Does Gov. Risch honestly believe there would be street vendors in Boise selling drinking water in those conditions?

Roughly 25,000 fled following the Teton Dam failure. Forty times that – about a million people – were forced to flee metro New Orleans. Tens of thousands are still unable to return.

In Idaho, 14 people died in the 1976 flood. Over 100 times that many died in the flood in New Orleans. Bodies are still being found; hundreds are still missing. A quarter of a million homes were destroyed last August. Over half of those were in New Orleans alone.

Idaho was lucky not to experience the crushing loss and suffering New Orleans is enduring. Too bad your governor lacks the grace to appreciate your good fortune.

Not confident that Gov. Risch would see the letter, even if the Boise newspaper ran it, I wrote a slightly longer version to the governor himself:

Gov. Risch,

Your ignorance of conditions in the metro New Orleans area in the aftermath of Katrina is matched only by your smugness. Your comments to the British Guardian reveal your callous disregard for human suffering and your ignorance of the scale of the disaster inflicted on us.

Suppose that 80% of Boise sat under water for two weeks, and about a third for longer than that, and a small historic neighborhood then re-flooded within weeks after the first waters subsided. Suppose that all of the Boise metropolitan area was without running water or electricity for weeks on end. Suppose that thousands of Boise residents had to be airlifted from their rooftops. Do you really believe there would be vendors on the streets of Boise selling drinking water in those conditions?

The 25,000 people who had to flee their homes following the 1976 Teton Dam failure were very fortunate by comparison to the catastrophe in New Orleans. Forty times as many – over a million individuals – were forced to flee the N.O. metro area. Nine months after the disaster you so cavalierly dismiss, hundreds of thousands – two-thirds of New Orleans’ population as of last summer – either remain unable to return to their homes or are unlikely to do so.

Try to imagine what life in Boise would be become if:

(1) two-thirds of the population left all at once,

(2) those who left took scarce little but the clothes on their backs,

(3) everything they left behind, plus their houses themselves, instantly turned into trash,

(4) all the municipal infrastructure – water, gas, electricity, post offices, the telephone network, traffic signals, street lights, waste treatment plants, public busses, schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, and more – was wrecked at the same time,

(5) all businesses large and small are forced to close for at least a month then only able to reopen (and resume tax payments to the city of Boise and state of Idaho, thus providing much needed cash flow to rebuild Boise’s municipal infrastructure) very slowly since many are extensively damaged and thousands of small family businesses – service, trade, restaurants, shops, theatres, groceries, malls, small manufacturing, printing, everything – are completely destroyed.

Now, try to imagine how life in Boise would be if large swaths of residential areas supporting tens of thousands of business and professional class families, in addition to much-publicized poverty-stricken areas, remained in this condition months later. Now try to imagine the betrayal and anger you feel when you learn that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the devastation of Boise. Try to imagine – or come to New Orleans and see for yourself what it’s like here before shooting your mouth off about how the good people of Idaho would handle this.

Idaho is indeed fortunate that only 14 people died in the Teton Dam flood. Over 100 times as many – at latest count almost 1,600 people – died in the flood resulting from the failure of the levees in New Orleans. Bodies are still being found in flooded out homes nine months after the disaster; hundreds of people are still missing and not likely ever to be found. A quarter of a million homes in Mississippi and southeast Louisiana were destroyed last August. Over half of those were in New Orleans alone. And make no mistake, Mr. Governor, by its own admission, bad design and poor construction by the Corps of Engineers led to the destruction of New Orleans.

You are extraordinarily lucky not to have had to bear the weight of the crushing loss and suffering we are enduring. Too bad you lack the grace to appreciate your good fortune.

Sincerely yours,

I wrote a third version of this, which I submitted for Newsweek’s “My Turn” column.  I don’t recall an acknowledgement from Newsweek.