Biden made it very clear that he understands where things are in New Orleans today, lamenting houses that are “still literally in the streets” in the Lower Ninth Ward (which isn’t quite true, but I would call houses on top of houses and motorboats in yards close enough!). His family has close ties to Hurricane Katrina, giving him a special understanding of the issue’s importance and magnitude. His daughter graduated from Tulane a few years ago, and helped relocate thousands of storm refugees. One son led a National Guard unit in Gulfport and Pass Christian, Mississippi after Katrina, and the other son went to Thibodeaux immediately after the storm to help with relief efforts.
The Senator demonstrated an excellent grasp of the Gulf Coast big picture. The problem with recovery, he said, is not a lack of federal funding. The problem is bureaucracy, which he called “a rat’s nest.” The money has been allocated, but it isn’t getting to its ultimate destination. I was thrilled to hear him say this – that’s EXACTLY the problem with most Katrina recovery, particularly with the Road Home program.
The Senator had plenty of criticism for local leaders and politicians, including Democrats. The local officials aren’t cooperating with the state or the feds, and the feds aren’t cooperating with the state, he said. As President, he would cut aside the red tape to make sure money reached its destination, and he would tell Mayor Nagin to come up with an actual plan for rebuilding the city (as opposed to the farce that is UNOP), or he would revoke the federal grants. “We need to force decisions!” Biden said. Obviously, Nagin wouldn’t risk losing the money – if faced with that threat, things would get real better, real fast.
Biden brought up the city’s exploding crime, something he’s familiar with as Chairman of a Senate subcommittee on crime. He lamented the pre-storm corruption in the NOPD (which exists post-storm, as well), and said the Bush administration has drastically cut funding for local police departments (he had a figure, but I’ve forgotten it). These funding cuts affected New Orleans, and Biden implied that he would again make law enforcement a budget priority. This makes sense – he was the author of 1994’s Violent Crime Control Act, which put thousands of cops on the street.
The Senator did admit that he is unfamiliar with specific recovery bills currently winding their way through Congress, and with the specific program failures (like FEMA policies or Road Home). I can’t say I blame him – he’s the leader in the fight against Bush’s Iraq troop surge, so he’s a little preoccupied with other issues. I appreciate, however, his willingness to say “I don’t know.” Politicians who will actually choke those words out are a rare and wonderful breed. His honesty was refreshing, as was his grasp of the overall situation and problem and his specific proposals (red tape, crime). Answers like that on this and many other issues are the reason I’m supporting Joe Biden’s candidacy for President in 2008. Yes, he lacked a few specifics and it's outside of his Committee assignments, and yes, I wish he'd make it a higher profile issue on the campaign trail and his website. That's why I don't give him a full A, but an A-/B+ is still a darn good grade.
(UPDATE 3-17: Senator Biden gave a speech to a fire fighters' union this month that touched on a lot of topics, most importantly his long-standing support for fire fighters, police officers, and first responders. Around 30 minutes into the speech, he talks about fire fighters in the wake of Katrina - over 1000 firehalls blown away by the storm, most not yet rebuilt. Watch it here.)