Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who has made a series of statements embracing white nationalism, on Thursday noted a contrast between the response of people in his state to spring flooding and the response of the residents of New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Speaking at a town hall in Charter Oak, Iowa, a city that is 99.4 percent white, according to census estimates, the nine-term congressman didn’t say what attributes explained the differing reactions. But racist tropes about African American dependence on the government echoed in the observations about New Orleans. The Crescent City maintains a black majority, though the community has shrunk since the disaster struck nearly 14 years ago.
"We go to a place like New Orleans, and everybody’s looking around saying, ‘Who’s going to help me? Who’s going to help me?’” King said, recounting what he said officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, had told him about the relief effort, in which he said he had participated. Yet, he was also one of 11 members of Congress to oppose a bill providing federal aid to Katrina victims in 2005.
In his home state, he said, residents looked after one another without government handouts. Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has declared a disaster in more than half of Iowa’s 99 counties because of severe flooding and is seeking a federal declaration that would free up funds from Washington.
“We go to a place like Iowa, and we go see, knock on the door at, say, I make up a name, John’s place, and say, ‘John, you got water in your basement, we can write you a check, we can help you,'" King said. “And John will say, ‘Well, wait a minute, let me get my boots. It’s Joe that needs help. Let’s go down to his place and help him.’”
King, who was stripped of his committee assignments in January over comments questioning whether the term “white supremacist” was offensive, said FEMA officials are “always gratified when they come and see how Iowans take care of each other.”
“We’re Iowans, and I’m always proud of our reaction to this,” he added, suggesting that his constituents displayed up-from-their-bootstraps grit in the face of environmental calamity, while the victims of Katrina — the deadliest storm to buffet the United States since the Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 — helplessly went in search of government assistance.
Katrina was responsible for an estimated 1,833 deaths, more than half of which were suffered by African Americans, according to data analysis by public health experts.
King then turned to discussing trade negotiations, which have major implications for his constituents. His district received more than $9 billion in federal farming subsidies between 1995 and 2017 — more than any other district in Iowa, which has received more subsidies than any other state in the nation.
An angry reaction met King’s remarks on Thursday.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, called the comments “disgusting and disheartening.”
Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), whose district includes most of New Orleans, said the comparison was further proof that King was a “white supremacist."
“When people show you who they are, believe them,” Richmond added.
The two men have clashed before over King’s use of New Orleans to draw unflattering comparisons. In 2017, while touting a measure that would have tracked offenses committed by immigrant children from “the most violent places in the world,” King said he was struck that the homicide rate in New Orleans was equivalent to that in certain Central American countries.
“It’s insensitive, and it’s nothing more than traditional white privilege of, ‘Let me criticize a minority city,’” Richmond said.
A spokesman for King, 69, didn’t return a request for comment.
Examples abound of King disparaging immigrants, minorities and women who undergo abortions, as well as taking up the cause of ethnic nationalism. Most recently, he shared a meme on Facebook suggesting that red states would win a civil war because they have “about 8 trillion bullets, while the other side doesn’t know which bathroom to use.” He has palled around with figures on Europe’s far-right fringes and retweeted a message from a self-described “Nazi sympathizer.”
King’s record of incendiary statements became so glaring in the weeks before the midterm elections last fall that a party often reluctant to police its own members virtually abandoned him.
The chairman of the House Republican campaign arm assailed his colleague for “white supremacy and hate,” saying the group would stay away from King’s reelection effort. He ended up narrowly beating back a challenge from a first-time Democratic candidate in his deep-red district.
In February, when he announced his intention to seek a 10th term next year, King appeared unbowed. “I have nothing to apologize for,” he said. Competition from Republican state Sen. Randy Feenstra is likely to present a more formidable challenge.
One prominent Republican who has not censured King is President Trump, who has also invoked Hurricane Katrina for his own political ends. Last year, the president pointed to the death toll in New Orleans to cast the relief effort in Puerto Rico in a more positive light. But vastly more people died as a result of Hurricane Maria’s devastation in the U.S. territory — nearly 3,000, according to a George Washington University report — than perished in New Orleans.
Critics of how the Trump administration dealt with that natural disaster argue that the response was tinged with racism. Those allegations recall the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, which exposed stark racial inequities.
Despite President George W. Bush’s statement in 2005 that “the storm didn’t discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort,” most of the people who languished in unbearable conditions in the city’s low-lying eastern areas were poor and black. An estimated 73 percent of those displaced by flooding or damage were black, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Of those who survived, many fled New Orleans the year after the storm, including more than 175,000 black residents, according to FiveThirtyEight. More than 75,000 never returned.
“No one is going to tell me it wasn’t a race issue,” an evacuee said in congressional testimony in December 2005.
Another victim said she blamed every level of government. “I blame local. I blame state. I blame federal,” she said.
City residents as a whole were more likely to acknowledge the contribution made by charities and religious organizations than by the federal and state governments, though most still said public assistant was at least somewhat helpful, according to a 2015 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Race remains a fault line in opinions about the storm and its aftermath. In 2015, a Louisiana State University survey found that 80 percent of white residents of New Orleans believed the state had “mostly recovered” from the destruction. Nearly 60 percent of black respondents said the opposite, believing that the state had “mostly not recovered.”
Most white residents said the city was better off than it was before the hurricane struck, while most black people said the opposite.
The deluge inundating the Midwest has already been blamed for three deaths. While scientists have not yet completed models assessing the contribution of planetary warming to the most recent outbreak of heavy rainfall, they do believe that climate change is intensifying extreme precipitation.
King is an outspoken climate skeptic. In 2010, he said at a town hall that climate science was the “modern version of the rain dance.”
But Iowa residents won’t need the help of ancient rituals to induce rain. They’re going to have plenty of it this spring.
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