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July 7, 2006
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NOW Transcript - Show 227
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Transcript - July 7, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW...

Americans have a reputation for resilience in the face of disaster...but when does resilience become recklessness? A barrier island full of vacation homes in the Gulf of Mexico got slammed by hurricane Frederick in 1979; the place was socked again in 1997 by hurricane Danny; hurricane George, 1998; then it was Ivan, five years later. Each time, Federal money--that is, money from taxpayers--encouraged folks to rebuild on Dauphin Island, near Mobile, Alabama. We visited the place after Katrina destroyed much the island last year; and on a recent trip back we got a new look at the rebuilding for which you are paying.

BRANCACCIO: Dauphin Island today. It's been ten months since this beach community was thrashed by Katrina and scars remain. A drive to one tip of the island is still surreal. Some houses have left barely a trace.

But most of the islanders aren't giving up, the sun is out and the waves are inviting again, the vacationers are back, and signs of repair are everywhere.

Still, there's a lot to do

CONNOLLY: This is 2720 Bienville Boulevard, Dauphin Island, Alabama, and took about 4 and a half months to build, and uh one night to destroy it!

BRANCACCIO: Meet David and Vicky Connolly. Before Katrina they lived year round on the western edge of the island, the area hit hardest by the storm.

CONNOLLY: Everything goes in-- here's somebody's hammock, here. A washer. There's a washing machine here. A bicycle.

CONNOLLY: All this uh debris as you might want to call it over here, the washer the drier, that's from the five homes that were across the street and the storm surge just washed it underneath here.

BRANCACCIO: The Connollys say their house has never been wrecked like this before... but it has frequently been damaged by hurricanes...

That's because the west end of this island isn't much more than a sand bar sitting exposed in the Gulf of Mexico. And every time a storm comes through, a major part the reconstruction gets paid for by the Federal government.

But here's the public policy question:

At what point does the spiraling cost of helping islanders rebuild here outweigh their determination to stay put?

I first came to Dauphin Island in the days following Katrina to examine that question first hand. This was a place where homes weren't just broken...some were wiped completely off the face of the sand.

Before last year's big storm, there were over 900 homes on this stretch of the island. About 300 were damaged like the Connollys. And another 200 more vanished...leaving only their wooden pilings.

YOUNG: We should all be able to agree that building on a place that is so narrow and so low elevation just doesn't make sense.

BRANCACCIO: Rob Young is a scientist who studies coastal hazards. He has been surveying Dauphin Island for years...and after Katrina and he took us on an aerial tour of the wreckage.

YOUNG: But this section of shoreline right here, there should be no debate.

BRANCACCIO: Young says that Dauphin Island is doing what all barrier islands do naturally - they move

Here's a stretch of Dauphin Island two years ago seen through computer enhanced radar.

And then, right after Katrina hit.

YOUNG: It's important to keep in mind that more often than not, hurricanes like Katrina are not natural disasters. They're human disasters. And most of the damage comes because we've built in a place where we shouldn't be building.

BRANCACCIO: But all over America there's been a headlong rush toward the beach.

About 1.3 million Americans move to coastal communities each year, according to government figures. Think about that for a minute: that means that every single day, well over three thousand people are migrating to the coast.

And consider this: weather experts say big hurricanes are likely to start coming around a lot more often.

Dennis Miletti is one of America's top disaster prevention experts. He says the coastal building boom is putting lots of people right in harms way... and says the consequence will be terrible costs both in lives and in money.

MILETTI: It's unheard of that a natural disaster would cost several hundred billion dollars. You go back ten years it was unheard of that a natural disaster would cost $40 billion. You can go back ten years prior to that and the increase in the scope and size of these events are increasing geometrically.

BRANCACCIO: After seeing the scope of the repairs needed on Dauphin Island, I went to the town hall and I asked Mayor Jeff Collier about the wisdom of rebuilding.

COLLIER: I don't know what the final answer is. From a local standpoint, from our standpoint here on Dauphin Island, we intend at this point to make the island whole again.

BRANCACCIO: But making this island 'whole' again has already cost taxpayers a lot of money...when hurricane Frederick knocked out the old bridge to the island in 1979, it cost $32 million dollars to build this splendid new one. After hurricane George in 2000, the feds paid most of the bill for a million dollar sand wall to protect houses on the beach. It got washed away by hurricane Ivan a few years later.

To critics like Tulane University's Oliver Houck, every time the Federal Government agrees to help rebuild a place like Dauphin Island.. It is encouraging developers and property owners to take ever greater risks...

HOUCK: The closer to the coast, the more money you get. You get Federal Bridges, Federal Highways, public sewage treatment, water lines. I mean, these are huge incentives. You'd be a fool not to build on the beach.

BRANCACCIO: A lot of the money that goes to fixing what this hurricane damaged is taxpayer money from all over the country. Is it unreasonable for taxpayers in places very far away from here to-- to wonder if that's money well spent?

COLLIER: Well, I think in one respect it is. You know, we could say the same thing about earthquakes in California or snowstorms in the Midwest or, you know, you name it. We all have to live with and within mother nature. As long as I'm the mayor of this community and as long as we have-- we are eligible to receive those type of funds to assist with our community, I'm not too proud to take it.

BRANCACCIO: It has been ten months since I spoke with Mayor Collier, and it's clear that those funds have been flowing to his community. For starters:

Fixing the roads and public utilities, according to the associated press, an estimated $9 million.

To Houck, it's only a matter of time before American taxpayers get tired of seeing their money going to shovel the same beach year after year...

HOUCK: I mean, this is welfare for the basically, second home recreational homes, condos on the beach. And that ain't ordinary Americans.

BRANCACCIO: But those are fighting words to local councilwoman Mary Thompson.

THOMPSON: the press seems to beat us over the head every chance they get, so you know, we need help, I mean it's quite obvious our livelihood is at stake here...

BRANCACCIO: Thompson argues that a lot of residents on Dauphin Island are not fancy rich people - they're middle class folks who need the revenue those beach houses generate.

THOMPSON: we are a tourist island, that's how we get our money, but the people who live on the island are the people who were born here and who are going to die here they don't have any intention of moving. And a lot of them make their livelihood with, you know with fishing and so forth and they've been here forever.

CONNOLLY: I think it's because I live here and I get very emotional about Dauphin Island, because I love it here. But I-- I just-- I don't seem to understand the-- the hate relationship that people off the island have with the island.

BRANCACCIO: What people off the island don't understand, says David Connolly, is that islanders put more money back into the system than most folks...

CONNOLLY: We pay out here, the taxes on our homes out here are very high, and so there's money flowing from this island in taxes of all kinds, they all flow into the state and the county coffers as well as into the local coffers, so it's not as if we're getting a free lunch out here. We're paying for this.

BRANCACCIO: But critics of coastal development argue that the cost of rebuilding far exceeds those tax revenues. For instance, let's talk about all that sand that got pushed around by Katrina. Before the storm, the Connelly's house was just a short distance from the water. But Katrina took what used to be their neighbor's beach and dumped it in their backyard.

CONNOLLY: I have no problem myself if they want to move the sand it's not on my property, back across, because that's where it came from.

BRANCACCIO: The town wants to move the whole beach back where it was before. But that's not going to be cheap. First of all, it's full of debris and has to get cleaned. Another wrinkle: that new beach has become home to a group of protected birds known as piping plovers, so now environmental concerns have to be addressed as well.

Even if they can move the beach back, residents are leery of rebuilding unless their homes get more protection from the sea. So the government is going help them to build another sand wall. The cost? At least four million dollars. Add that to the tab, and the bill for patching up the island could run $15, maybe $20 million.

CONNOLLY: $20 million dollars to our government is a drop in the bucket. The amount of fraud from FEMA was in the billions. I do not understand what the problem is with that very small tiny amount of money when you take that into perspective from the amount of money that government is wasting.

BRANCACCIO: It is fair to say the good citizens of Dauphin Island are not on their own going to drown a Federal budget already swimming in an ocean of red ink.

But this island represents just a tiny example of an entire national system in disarray.

The largest single cost to taxpayers after a storm isn't fixing bridges or building sand walls--- it's a program run by FEMA called the national flood insurance program.

The NFIP, as it's called, sells flood insurance to people with property prone to rising water. Not many private insurers want to get involved in that level of the government stepped in. When those folks get flooded, the feds pay a big chunk of the tab. In this very real way, the Federal government is shielding people from the full risk of living in some of the most exposed places in the country...places like Dauphin Island.

After hurricane Ivan in 2004, the NFIP already paid out $15 million to Dauphin Island residents. Claims from Katrina were nearly three times as high...$44 million across the island. Nationwide, claims have capsized the program, the bill to July 7, 2006, a staggering $22 billion dollars.

But the NFIP didn't have anywhere near to this kind of cash on hand, and so guess who bails out the program when its losses are greater than its income? For the most part, it's the taxpayer.

Oliver Houck says that system is clearly broken. To him, the fix is obvious.

HOUCK: I mean, there just ought not to be flood insurance within a mile of the beach anywhere on any coast. You build, you eat it. You wanna take the risk? Take it.

BRANCACCIO: Since the flood insurance program became insolvent a national debate has begun about the way the government pays to rebuild after disasters. Congressmen Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Michael Oxley of Ohio proposed a bipartisan bill to reform the program.

But that plan faced resistance from the real estate lobby- who said it would hurt home sales. Last week a watered down version passed the house.

On Dauphin Island, hurricanes are back in season. And the running total for repairs from the last one? $57 million and counting...before another storm hits, the Connollys are eager to move out of their temporary trailer.

CONNOLLY: Our priorities are: get out of the trailer, get into a house, and then come back and decide about - with the money we've got left, what to do with this. Like everything else that's been said before, money.

BRANCACCIO: When does activism and exercising the freedom of speech cross the line and become terrorism? And what if the activist is a Muslim leader here in the United States? There are new developments in a story we first reported in the inaugural broadcast of our program, back in January 2002. It's about Fawaz Damra who was, back then, Imam of a mosque near Cleveland, Ohio. Now, more than four years later the man is in jail and people are still asking whether Fawaz Damra is a man of peace or a man of terror.

BRANCACCIO: For much of the past fifteen years, Imam Fawaz Damra tended to the spiritual needs of some 5,000 Muslims at the Islamic center of Cleveland. Here in Ohio-- home to a large Arab American community -- he was widely regarded as a Muslim leader who embraced moderation and inter-faith tolerance.

Werner Lange is a minister who worked closely with the imam.

LANGE: He has pioneered like no one else I know of, certainly within the Muslim community, building bridges -- interfaith bridges -- between his community and the Christian community and the Jewish community.

BRANCACCIO: But after the terrorists struck on September 11, the people of Cleveland began to see Fawaz Damra through a different lens.

TV STATION: "The head of the local mosque is caught in controversy because of something caught on videotape..."

BRANCACCIO: A few weeks after the attacks, a television station in Cleveland aired this video tape. At this Cleveland event recorded back in 1991, Damra delivered a message of hatred and violence toward Jews. Listen:

TRANSLATION: "Directing all rifles at the first and last enemies of the Islamic nation and that is the sons of monkeys and pigs...the Jews."

BRANCACCIO: The imam appeared on our program amid the controversy in January 2002. Damra recanted the statements and apologized.

DAMRA: Was I right when I made those statements? Absolutely not. The tape shows an angry man who is frustrated because of what's happening in his homeland.

BRANCACCIO: Damra came here from a Palestinian village in the West Bank, a territory occupied by Israel. He says when he arrived in America he was full of rage at what he saw was the hardship inflicted on his people by the Israeli government.

DAMRA: Anybody who knows the situation there would expect somebody who's coming from a ghetto in a Palestinian city have no contact whatsoever with people of different faith, knowing, seeing the humanity in people of different faith, be it Jews or Christians or others -- somebody who was living in isolation; somebody who is coming new to this country wanting to express his anger.

Nevertheless, I think those statements are indefensible, and I regret saying what I said in that tape because that is not what my faith teaches me, not what civilized society stands for.

BRANCACCIO: But as Damra's story played out in the Cleveland press, his apology and his track record didn't satisfy some local religious leaders.

CHALKER: The vehemence and anger of his statements, the choice of his words that he uses are just so strident and vicious that it's difficult to imagine that just completely evaporates.

BRANCACCIO: And government prosecutors saw more than anger in those tapes. They saw evidence that he was fundraising for an extremist group called the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

TRANSLATION: Donate to the Islamic Jihad. . . $500. Who would add $500, who would add $500?

BRANCACCIO: Damra denies he raised money to support terrorism.

DAMRA: I never raised money to any terrorist organization. I never raised money to any organization that is listed in the United States as organizations support terrorism. Back then, ten years ago, I raised money to the Palestinians, orphans and to the Palestinians whose homes were damaged and destroyed.

BRANCACCIO: Now it's true that fifteen years ago -- in 1991 -- the year the tape was recorded, neither Islamic Jihad nor Hamas were officially classified by the state department as terrorist organizations. Damra says, if that had been the case, he would have never supported them.

DAMRA: Any organization that's suspected of supporting terrorism, I always speak against this type of organization. So anybody who suggests otherwise, he does not know me.

BRANCACCIO: But consider Damra's ties to this mosque in Brooklyn, New York where several of the men responsible for the 1993 world trade center bombing worshiped. Fawaz Damra was the spiritual leader at the al-Farooq mosque, and that's where he met the men later convicted in the 1993 bombing. They were raising money for a group that said it was supporting relief efforts in Afghanistan.

DAMRA: I found out this money is not being given to the people of Afghanistan but rather is being abused and misused here in America. So I alarm the board of the mosque and the community that your money is not being directed what it is intended for. These guys were very strong and very influential and they start mobilizing the community against me and finally threw me out of the mosque.

BRANCACCIO: Damra was ousted in 1991. And he ended up on a list of people whom Federal prosecutors called "unindicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators in the '93 world trade center bombing."

DAMRA: So they did call and name over 170 or 60 individuals, mainly people who happened to be in the mosque, and imams who basically knew these individuals. And I sat with them for a couple of hours and explained to them what is my role as an imam, a religious leader there.

BRANCACCIO: Damra was never charged with any wrongdoing in that case, but that video tape of a radical Damra raised the interest of Federal investigators once again.

Apparently the feds had been monitoring Damra for years. Some of his phone conversations had been tapped. And in January 2004, they searched his house and arrested him.

Five months later, Federal prosecutors indicted Damra on charges that centered on his immigration status.

At that time, Damra was an American citizen. To apply for citizenship, he filled out a long naturalization form. In Damra's 1994 form, he checked off no in response to a question on whether he had ever persecuted anyone because of their race or religion. That's how prosecutors got him.

They alleged that he repeatedly lied about his affiliation with groups that persecuted Jews. Prosecutors urged a five-year sentence, arguing that Damra had quote "acted in furtherance of a terroristic action." But in the end, a judge handed him a light sentence of two months in prison.

So who is the real Fawaz Damra? Is he the man who advocates hate and violence and who our government alleges supported terrorism? Or is it possible that he is the transformed and repentant man he claims to be?

LANGE: We all make mistakes, sometimes very stupid mistakes. I know what he has done. I know what he has said for some ten years. This was highly uncharacteristic. Obviously there has been some type of transformation that has taken place within his life.

BRANCACCIO: Others in the community are not so sure. Martin Plax is former director of the American Jewish committee in Cleveland.

PLAX: What bothers me about the thing to this day is that he was basically raising money for murder.

BRANCACCIO: Back in 2002, Damra was weary of the close scrutiny he felt all Muslims nationwide had been receiving since 9/11.

DAMRA: These allegations come at a time that makes one wonder what is the motive behind bringing these allegations at this time when the Muslim community is becoming a target of hate and suspicion and fear.

BRANCACCIO: The government rounded up 1,200 Arab and South Asian men in the U.S. shortly after 9/11 -- many of whom were detained without legal counsel. And the justice department brought in tens of thousands more in a "special registration" program where men who came from countries such as Egypt and Lebanon were fingerprinted, photographed and questioned.

As for Fawaz Damra, his troubles continue. The judge revoked his citizenship and ordered him back to jail. Since last November, he has been sitting in a county lock-up near Detroit waiting to be deported. His wife - a naturalized citizen - and his three American born daughters say they will follow him wherever he's sent.

To this day, Fawaz Damra maintains his innocence and says he opposes terrorism of any kind.

DAMRA: Terrorism is terrorism whether it is carried out by an individual or a state, and therefore it is wrong. Again and again, any time civilians are killed, it's wrong.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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