Local News

John Edwards Plans Relief Effort While Talking Up Poverty Center

Posted September 7, 2005 7:42 a.m. EDT

— President Bush's leadership during Hurricane Katrina was "slow" and "indecisive," former vice presidential candidate John Edwards said Wednesday in joining the critics who have panned the federal government's response to the devastating storm.

Edwards, a former North Carolina senator considered a possible presidential candidate for 2008, also questioned the qualifications of Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"His performance has been sorely lacking," Edwards told reporters after an event at a new poverty research center he leads. "On paper, he doesn't appear to have the experience and the expertise to do this job."

Brown has received the brunt of the criticism directed at the federal government's handling of the Gulf Coast flooding, mostly from Democrats. Edwards called for a nonpartisan approach to expand relief efforts, but also took some jabs at Brown's boss.

"This is about presidential leadership," Edwards said. "It's not about bureaucrats or their organizations. What do we do and how do we respond in a serious and decisive way when America's hit with such a disaster."

Edwards agreed Wednesday that an independent commission should examine what went wrong, once the short-term recovery needs are met.

Speaking earlier to more than 200 students, staff and visitors at UNC, Edwards said the destruction caused by Katrina in New Orleans accentuates the differences between those who fled the city and those who lacked the means to do so.

"We see a harsher example of the two different Americas," said Edwards, repeating a familiar theme from his presidential campaign. "We see the poor and the working class of New Orleans who don't own a car who couldn't evacuate ... We see the suffering."

New Orleans native Gail Agrawal, the interim dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law school where Edward's center is based, said income means everything in the city.

"Your income and your family's wealth determines whether you live on higher or lower ground in a city that's below sea level," said Agrawal, whose home was flooded during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. "Your income and your wealth determine whether your house floods."

This time, Edwards said, the pain of what he called "living on a razor blade" will be more widespread.

"Every single resident of New Orleans will suffer, regardless of their race, their status, their wealth," he said. "This will be a lot longer experience for all of them."

Edwards said he hoped the tragedy will raise awareness about the working poor and their struggles. People who struggle with poverty don't need a hurricane to disrupt their lives, he said. All it takes is a sick child or broken-down car.

The poverty center will examine ways to reduce the number of people in poverty, which grew by 1.1 million during 2004 to 37 million, an increase for the fourth year in a row, Edwards said. Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the states most harmed by Katrina, have poverty rates among the nation's highest.

"Our job is to study the problem and come with real and practical solutions," Edwards said.