Here’s a lovely quote from Tuesday’s Rush Limbaugh radio show:
LIMBAUGH: “Does anybody know how much it cost to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina? Anybody have the number? Snerdley, they have started it. I have been to New Orleans. They have started rebuilding. It’s got to be several hundred billion, right? Has to be. I have been to New Orleans. They have started rebuilding. Don’t start getting snarky on me like that. When are they going to start rebuilding? They have.”
Many times over the past six years I’ve claimed that no one understands New Orleans worse than Rush Limbaugh. I suppose that’s a rather charitable way of saying he’s a useless tool. Yet I’m continually shocked to find others in the Greater New Orleans area who treat “El Rushbo” as an indispensable source of wisdom rather than as an entertaining blowhard. A local radio station even named itself after this clown. But Rush’s latest buffoonery is worth a rebuttal because it promotes a particularly dangerous myth (which has been dutifully cultivated over the years by conservative interests). Through clever association, the myth links the rebuilding of New Orleans to “costs” ranging from 100 to 300 BILLION dollars.
Whenever President Bush was asked about New Orleans’ recovery after Katrina and the Federal Flood, he would relentlessly cite the cleanup and recovery costs for the ENTIRE Gulf Coast after the historic 2005 hurricane season. Over the months and years after the devastation from Katrina and then Rita, the figure escalated from around $80 billion to nearly $150 billion. Bush always made sure to cite the highest possible figure to the national media, and avoided breaking down expenditures by region, or differentiating between short-term emergency appropriations and long-term rebuilding funds. Inflating the recovery cost had a calculated effect. Anyone in the country reading the morning paper would see the word “New Orleans” next to a number like “$120 billion,” and their first thought would be, “Wow, that’s a lot of money.”
Bush and the conservative echo chamber repeated this talking point with discipline for years, and succeeded in widely misleading the rest of the country about the true level of New Orleans’ recovery funding.
This Da Po blog post from 2007 remains vitally important, as it documents a rare time when the “100+ billion to New Orleans” myth got totally, officially busted. In a Congressional hearing that year, Sen. Mary Landrieu prodded the Director of Strategic Issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office into admitting that, of the $110 billion that had (then) gone to the Gulf Coast, “not much more than 16 billion has gone to the long term recovery” projects. Recovery Czar Donald Powell confirmed this, agreeing that the overwhelming majority of funds to the region were for short-term emergency assistance: tarps, trailers, debris removal, debit cards, subcontractor overhead… etc. Infuriatingly, flood insurance payouts were also lumped into the mix, as if insurance benefits were a charitable donation and not a contractual obligation between the government and policyholders. (I realize that the rates for coastal areas were subsidized, but still…). Naturally, repairs to the failed federal floodwalls that drowned the city in the first place were viewed as part of the total “cost” to “rebuild.”
Yes, the “$16 billion” figure has risen since 2007 but, again, this would be for the entire Gulf Coast, not just New Orleans. More importantly, every little bit of extra long-term recovery funding for Louisiana and New Orleans always became a struggle in Congress. Worse, little of these recovery moneys ever trickled down to the neediest areas. For example, as The Lens reported, of the $7.8 billion that went to Louisiana under President Bush’s much ballyhooed GO Zone lending program, only 3 percent went to projects in New Orleans while over 50 percent went to oil, gas and chemical companies throughout the state.
So Limbaugh’s “several hundred billion” to rebuild New Orleans is not even a gross exaggeration — it’s just wildly wrong. And it’s a dangerous notion because Louisiana still needs tens of billions to restore its vanishing coast. If a fair slice of the country thinks New Orleans has really received hundreds of billions, they’ll probably be reluctant to fund a major coastal restoration initiative. A few weeks after Katrina, Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter proposed a $250 billion plan to rebuild the entire state, including funds for Category 5 flood protection and wetlands restoration. They nearly got laughed out of the Senate. Today, those projects are still far-flung dreams, yet we have national pundits saying that the New Orleans’ recovery has already cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
Our need for wetlands restoration and Cat 5 hurricane protection isn’t a laughing matter. And, in this case, neither is Rush Limbaugh’s clownish ignorance.