President Bush’s Misplaced Priorities and New Orleans Firefighters

April 11, 2008

President Bush Suspends Troop Withdrawal from IraqIt was more of the same from President Bush yesterday, as he spoke at the White House about the Iraq War and accepted General David H. Petraeus’ recommendation to suspend a U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq. Bush said that Petraus would have “all the time he needs,” until next January to consolidate what the administration views as economic, political and security gains (where?) in Iraq. Bush envisions U.S. troops assuming a “supporting role” in the war-torn country. “To ease the burden on our troops and their families,” Bush also reduced troop deployment length from 15 months to 12 months, effective for troops deploying as of 1 August.

As usual, Bush persisted in inflaming the situation describing Iraq as “the convergence point” for two terrorist threats against the U.S: al-Qaeda and Iran. He said that U.S. troops would continue to pursue al-Qaeda in Iraq and alluded to his long-held dream of invading Iran. In warning that Iran must stop arming, funding and training extremists in Iraq, he said: “If Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests, our troops and our Iraqi partners.”

President Bush Pledges Help in 2005 at Jackson Square, New Orleans After Hurricane Katrina StrikesAs we move inexorably towards the one trillion dollar mark for the cost of the war in Iraq and as Bush left for a long weekend at his Crawford, Texas ranch, we wondered if he might like to swing by New Orleans again. Since Hurricane Katrina struck more than two years ago, not one fire house has been rebuilt; 22 of the city’s 33 fire stations were damaged or destroyed in the storm. At least nine need to be rebuilt. See an interactive map showing the fire houses in need of repair.


In his Jackson Square speech of 15 September 15, 2005, as CNN reported, Bush said: “Many first responders were victims themselves — wounded healers, with a sense of duty greater than their own suffering. When I met Steve Scott of the Biloxi Fire Department, he and his colleagues were conducting a house-to-house search for survivors. Steve told me this: ‘I lost my house, and I lost my cars, but I still got my family, and I still got my spirit.’…To every person who has served and sacrificed in this emergency, I offer the gratitude of our country. And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.”

New Orleans Fire Department District Chief Timothy McConnell, Standing on a Slab Where Firehouse No. 22 Was LocatedHere’s New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD) District Chief Timothy McConnell, standing on the slab of what once was Firehouse No. 22 in the 4th District, in October 2007. The 4th District fire station is still based in a FEMA trailer at the corner of N. Claiborne and Caffin Dr. in the Lower 9th Ward. And we all know how healthy FEMA trailers are. McConnell told CNN: “It’s frustrating to firefighters, and certainly taking its toll on morale. The fire gear they all wear is light sensitive, and is supposed to be stored in a dark locker to make sure the uniforms remain as fire resistant as possible. In a trailer, that just doesn’t happen.” Fire response times are down, too, posing a safety hazard for citizens. As McConnell explained, “The time it takes you to lock up a trailer, to get from there and get on the…[fire truck], all that delays response time just a little bit.”

The Fourth District Fire Station's Home in a FEMA Trailer Since September 2005

So, let’s see…We can spend over $2.4 billion a week “rebuilding” Iraq, but we can’t rebuild fire stations in New Orleans?

Actor Denis Leary, of the Leary Firefighters FoundationHelp has come, instead, from the kindness of strangers. Actor Denis Leary, who portrays a firefighter on the Rescue Me TV show, formed the The Leary Firefighters Foundation in 2000 in response to a Worcester, Massachusetts fire in an abandoned warehouse in his hometown. More than 75 firefighters worked what’s been called “the perfect fire.” Six of them perished, including Jerry Lucey, who was Denis’ first cousin, and Lt. Tommy Spencer, a childhood playmate and high school classmate.


2008 Poster for the Leary Foundation's Bash for New York's Bravest CelebrationThe Leary Foundation has provided millions of dollars in equipment and training support to firefighters. After 9/11, the foundation created The Fund for New York’s Bravest to raise money for families of the 343 fallen firefighters. Relying on his entertainment industry connections, Leary created The BASH for New York’s Bravest, which is now an annual star-studded fundraiser. After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA estimated that it would cost millions of dollars and take 10 years to repair and replace the damaged New Orleans fire stations. Last year, a member of the New York District Council of Carpenters, Jerry Cremins, was in New Orleans to pick up his son at Loyola University. He couldn’t believe what he saw. As he told CNN: “It doesn’t translate that well on TV. . .It was astounding to me that they haven’t been helped out — that local governments and municipalities haven’t held up their obligations. That is basically when citizens have to step in and get the job done.”

Deciding he was just the man to help, Cremins contacted the Leary Foundation. Soon, union volunteers and NOFD firefighters were working together. So far, five fire stations have been rebuilt by the volunteers, with two more scheduled to be finished this spring. Cremins himself has made nine trips to the Big Easy, on his own dime and own time. Leary says he got involved because “I gave up on ever hoping that politicians in this country — local, state or federal — would step in to help these guys.” Leary says that some of the firefighters have told him almost-unbelievable stories of bureaucratic red tape and heartlessness. One firefighter spoke of a fire house that had three feet of water in it; he told Leary that when FEMA inspected the fire station, they told the fire department that they’d pay for the hinge on this door below the water line, but the two hinges above the water line they weren’t going to pay for.”

Ed Blakely, in Charge of New Orleans Recovery EffortsEdward Blakely, who’s in charge of New Orleans recovery efforts, said he appreciates the Leary Foundation’s work but, due to spiralling crime rates in town, the city has focused on rebuilding police headquarters instead. While not complaining, firefighters like to note that not a single firefighter abandoned a post during Hurricane Katrina — unlike many NOPD officers who bailed.

And this is the problem, Mr. President. Simply put, we’re on to you. Not that many people care anymore about the Iraq war and your personal feelings about Iran. While banks receive multi-billion dollar bail-outs and war costs are expected to bleed us white to the tune of at least $3 trillion, millions of Americans are losing their homes to foreclosure. We care about foreclosures and the high cost of gasoline and the escalating cost of food and the economic recession. We care about jobs. We loathe outsourcing. /We want health insurance, considered a basic human right in most countries.

You had two golden moments, in which you could have shone and gone down as a defining President: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. It’s clear that you’ve squandered both seminal moments in American history.

Donate to the Leary Foundation’s efforts to rebuild New Orleans fire stations.

Read more firefighting news, about a historic school fire which changed how fire safety exits are built.

Photo credit: Jennifer Zdon / Times-Picayune, Mario Anzuoni and Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Copyright ©2008

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