FROM KATRINA TO 9-11. It seems I've returned from New Orleans just in time to be called, in the tradition of Nazi sympathizers, an appeaser to the evil forces in the world. This campaign on the part of the Bush administration -- to tar critics of the Iraq War with a brush worthy of the abdicating Duke of Windsor -- builds each day as the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaches in this midterm election year.

Lurching from memories of one catastrophe to the next, I asked myself, now, what do these two events have in common? Why, it's the contractors, silly.

While in New Orleans, I heard locals and workers grousing about the alleged fleecing of the American people by Phillips & Jordan, Inc., which was awarded a debris-removal contract, under a no-bid program, by the Army Corps of Engineers. As it turns out, Phillips & Jordan is doing little, if any, of the work itself, and has instead farmed it out to four subcontractors for significantly less than the prime contractor has received. As reported on August 20 by Matt Crenson of the Associated Press:

So far the government has spent $3.6 billion, a figure that might have been smaller had the contracts for debris removal been subject to competitive bidding.

Working through the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA gave each of four companies contracts worth up to $500 million to clear debris. This spring government inspectors reported that the companies � AshBritt of Pompano Beach, Fla., Phillips and Jordan of Knoxville, Tenn., Ceres Environmental Services of Brooklyn Park, Minn., and ECC Operating Services of Burlingame, Calif. � charged the government as much as four to six times what they paid the subcontractors who actually did the work.

What does this have to do with 9-11? Phillips & Jordan was also awarded a contract for debris removal at Ground Zero. Yesterday, New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center released a report detailing an alarming level of respiratory disease among former debris-removal and recovery workers at the World Trade Center site, most of whom performed their duties without appropriate safety gear.

Does any of this add up to an election issue?

--Adele M. Stan