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Iraq 100, Louisiana 8

In April 2004, some of the best minds who were supposed to be studying and improving Lousiana's damaged wetlands instead found themselves in the Persian Gulf -- restoring the Iraqi marshes.
 
 
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Is it possible to actually quantify how screwed up the priorities of the Bush cabal in Washington have been? Usually not. But when it comes to the issue of wetlands -- the natural buffer that could have protected New Orleans against a deadly storm surge liked the one that essentially wiped out the city last week -- the answer is "yes."

In 2004 -- at a time when George W. Bush was running for re-election and presumably courting votes in Louisiana, a potential swing state -- the White House proposed spending a whopping 12 1/3 times as much taxpayer money restoring wetlands in southern Iraq as he planned to spend on the same task in the Mississippi Delta.

Before Congress intervened, the Bush administration asked for $100 million to restore the Iraqi marshlands, drained and destroyed by Saddam Hussein, to its status as -- according to legend -- the Biblical "Garden of Eden."

The proposed funding that year for the Louisiana wetlands, heavily damaged by overdevelopment, was just $8 million. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city once buffered by those disappearing wetlands is now Hell on Earth.

Even though the Iraq wetlands project didn't get the federal dollars, it did get the next best thing: American know-how. And so some of the best minds who were supposed to be studying and improving Lousiana's environment instead found themselves in the Persian Gulf. This is from an April 24, 2004, article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Corps officials involved in restoring Louisiana's wetlands also have been sent to assist those fighting in and rebuilding Iraq, including oversight of a similar wetlands restoration project there, he said. Ed Theriot, a Vicksburg-based engineer who had directed the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study, was sent to Iraq four months ago to oversee the restoration of the "Garden of Eden" wetlands at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that were destroyed by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s.

While Theriot was pulled away from his work in the New Orleans area, his work in Baghdad was deemed highly successful.

Despite a balking Congress, the Bush administration seemed determined to fund the Iraqi marsh project -- pardon the awful pun -- come hell or high water, even if foreign allies had to pay for it. USA Today reported:

The United States, Italy, Canada and others are offering aid to Iraq for marshland restoration. They also are offering expertise to maximize the chances of successfully returning the marshlands to their previous state. U.S. officials estimate that 25% to 35% of the marshes can be restored in two to three years.

In his $20.3 billion request for rebuilding Iraq, President Bush asked for $100 million to restore the marshes, but Congress cut it entirely, along with some other programs. Officials remain confident, however, that they can transfer the money from elsewhere to pay for the restoration.

"We need to restore the marshes," says Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Indeed, the project did eventually get major funding from Japan -- roughly $11 million -- and from Italy, some $1.3 million. Nothing wrong with that, although it does seem ironic in the wake of Bush's refusal to accept foreign aid last week to help out folks in Louisiana.

For years, federal officials have been warned that the lost of wetlands had made New Orleans more vulnerable to a hurricane than when Betsy struck the region in 1965.

Sidney Coffee, executive assistant to the governor for coastal activities, said about 1,900 square miles of wetlands have disappeared from the area since the 1930s, and the receding continues at a rate of about 24 square miles per year. The erosion has a direct impact on New Orleans' ability to absorb the blow of a storm like Katrina, she said. For every 2.7 miles of wetlands, storm surges are reduced by about 1 foot, she said.

Now, it's fair to note that even a massive influx of federal dollars in fiscal 2005 would not have brought back the wetlands in time for Katrina, a supposed once-in-a-lifetime event. Nor are we denying that the destruction of the Iraqi marches was a global environmental travesty. But once again, it's the priorities that show how screwed up the Bush administration truly is. Clearly, the White House had no concept of fiscal constraint when it came to throwing literally tens of millions of dollars at any problem in Iraq, 7,000 miles away. Apparently that's easy to do when you have $192 billion -- and counting -- to burn.

It was only here in America, on domestic programs, that the budget bean counters held sway. And now New Orleans -- a beloved American city that once truly was a garden of earthly delights -- has become a living hell.

Will Bunch is a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and author of the blog Attytood.