US Feature: How Bush’s Iraq War Helped Hurricane Katrina Devastate New Orleans

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PHOTO: President Bush to Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, September 2, 2005 — “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Two months later, Brown left his post.


Paul A. Kramer writes for Slate:


Something about walking naked through the ruins of St. Bernard Parish at 2 in the morning helped Tech Sgt. Mickey Giovingo leave Iraq. Since returning from war, he had slept in his car in the driveway of his smashed, cream-colored ranch house, in his uniform—the only clothing he had. He remembers sitting out there at night, thinking, “There are more noises at night in the desert than here.” He was hyper-vigilant, startling at the smallest sounds. Sometimes, he went out on patrol. He’d hear a car pull up and head over to confront the driver; copper thieves were ransacking abandoned houses, tearing out their plumbing. He says he never threatened them but told the invaders to leave or he’d call the police. He always took along the gun he’d bought as soon as he arrived home, tucked behind his back. “A combat-mode kind of thing,” he said. One night, the isolation felt unbearable, and he had an idea. He took off his clothes, put on his tennis shoes, and went out into the devastation. He’d been subject to military discipline for months. He’d lost everything. Walking up the street stripped bare, he at last felt under his own command. When else could he do this without getting thrown in jail? “It was freeing,” he said.

Giovingo deployed to Iraq on Aug. 29, 2005, the same day Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. Raised in midcity, he had a gift for electronics and had entered the Air Guard’s engineering and installation unit, wiring military facilities in Louisiana and then in the Middle East. He had been in Al-Udeid, Qatar, the night the storm neared shore. He flew to a base in Kirkuk the next morning. Over the next awful days, he and other guardsmen from the Gulf Coast kept close to the projection TVs in the dining hall. They saw the storm strike and the levees crumble and listened to reports of looting and chaos.

“I knew my house was gone,” he recalled. Giovingo had served as the Guard’s liaison to St. Bernard and knew its telecom system well; communication lines out of the parish had gone silent. It took him nearly a month, jockeying with others for internet time, to confirm that his family was safe. Meanwhile, he continued the dangerous work of laying cable along a trench in the base’s airstrip with his team. “You’re worried about rockets and mortars coming in … ” he said, “and then at night, you’re like, ‘What am I going to do when I get back?’ ”

Giovingo faced a hard choice. The soldiers of the 256th, an infantry brigade of the Louisiana National Guard, had been scheduled to rotate out at the end of September, and the guard decided to speed them home, to reunite them with their families and allow them to be on hand for recovery work. Giovingo was part of a separate unit, but the guard found seats for him and four members of his team on the return flight. He asked his colleagues if they should take the offer; his colleagues deferred to him. He decided to stay. He was committed to finishing what he’d started, and he’d need combat pay—$225 extra per month—to help him rebuild in New Orleans. His sister told him about a Federal Emergency Management Agency aid program, and he got through to the agency despite his tight phone time allotment. You’re deployed? Not eligible. “How far do I have to deploy, I mean evacuate, to get money?” he asked himself. “I felt like I was in no-man’s land and forgotten.”

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A Louisiana National Guardsman sits with head in hands during a briefing about redeployment from Iraq to New Orleans, September 7, 2005 (Anja Niedringhaus/Reuters)

Ignoring The Warnings

Wars and storms have a way of getting ensnared. Nobody knew this better than the National Guard. It had long held a portfolio of tasks crammed with unlike things: storms, protests, fires, uprisings, wars. At the start of the Iraq war, the Defense Department had mobilized guard forces on a scale not seen since World War II. “The day of [the] National Guard standing back and concerning itself with riots and natural disasters is a thing of the past,” said Brig. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, adjutant general of the New Jersey Guard, a month prior to the invasion. As of September 2005, about 175,000 National Guardsmen had been called to active duty, about 40 percent of the guard’s total forces; they made up about 15 percent of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their mission took its toll at home. Guardsmen anticipated six-month stints—maybe a year—but sometimes found their missions drawn out further, in a few cases as long as 20 months. Spc. John Blanchett of the Illinois Guard told a reporter his platoon had been about to return home after a 447-day deployment when the Pentagon decided abruptly, at midnight on Easter Sunday, to keep them in-country. Most of their belongings had already been shipped home. “Don’t get me wrong,” Blanchett said, “we’re all doing our job for the country. We’re just tired as hell.”

Administration officials offered assurances that the wars were not impairing Americans’ safety. To the contrary, they were the only way to protect the country. “We’re taking the fight to the terrorists abroad so we don’t have to face them here at home,” declared President Bush. The idea of overseas war as the guarantor of security at home sidestepped the question of trade-offs between a nation’s wars and its welfare, but it was logical-sounding, and comforting, to many at the time.

Even so, a year into the Iraq war, guard leaders and governors across the political spectrum were warning that state guard units had been dangerously thinned out by overseas deployment. Officials feared being “caught short-handed if an emergency flares up,” according to the Associated Press. The bland bureaucratese of an April 2004 report by the General Accounting Office did not hide harsh conclusions: Overseas missions were draining the guard of its troops, particularly in expert specialties. Fifteen states had 40 percent or more of their Army National Guard soldiers mobilized or deployed, and some as many as one-third of their Air National Guard units. With 59 percent of its guard alerted, mobilized, or deployed, hurricane-prone Louisiana had the third-highest rate in the country. Personnel transfers could build up numbers, but only 68 percent of the guard’s required service members were qualified in the specialties to which they were assigned. Absent equipment also posed intractable problems. The guard had already transferred materiel from domestic units to underequipped units being sent to Iraq. Mississippi’s 223rd Engineer Battalion, for example, tasked with repairing hurricane damage, returned home from Iraq, but its equipment stayed abroad, inherited by newly arriving troops. Only five of its 26 helicopters remained in the state for rescue, relief, and security operations.

The guard’s answer was to share resources. Through interstate arrangements called emergency management assistance compacts, state governments asked one another for aid. But lengthy deployments strained the system in ways that officials did not always acknowledge. Brig. Gen. Frank Grass, deputy director of the Army National Guard, assured journalist Tom Ricks that if Montana were short on helicopters during a crisis, it could borrow from Wyoming or other states “with just a phone call or two.” Ricks checked with Wyoming’s guard and learned that four of its eight Black Hawks were overseas.

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