It’s been two years since Hurricane Katrina struck the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and still, with all the destruction to area, all the “White House has offered is an inadequate trickle of billion-dollar Band-aids and placebo directives.” Are we surprised? No. Are we appalled? Very.
Historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in the WaPo on Sunday:
Over the past two years since Hurricane Katrina, I’ve seen waves of hardworking volunteers from nonprofits, faith-based groups and college campuses descend on New Orleans, full of compassion and hope.
They arrive in the city’s Ninth Ward to painstakingly gut houses one by one. Their jaws drop as they wander around afflicted zones, gazing at the towering mounds of debris and uprooted infrastructure.
After weeks of grueling labor, they realize that they are running in place, toiling in a surreal vacuum.
Two full years after the hurricane, the Big Easy is barely limping along, unable to make truly meaningful reconstruction progress. The most important issues concerning the city’s long-term survival are still up in the air. Why is no Herculean clean-up effort underway? Why hasn’t President Bush named a high-profile czar such as Colin Powell or James Baker to oversee the ongoing disaster? Where is the U.S. government’s participation in the rebuilding?
And why are volunteers practically the only ones working to reconstruct homes in communities that may never again have sewage service, garbage collection or electricity?
Eventually, the volunteers’ altruism turns to bewilderment and finally to outrage. They’ve been hoodwinked. The stalled recovery can’t be blamed on bureaucratic inertia or red tape alone. Many volunteers come to understand what I’ve concluded is the heartless reality: The Bush administration actually wants these neighborhoods below sea level to die on the vine.
These days a stiff Caribbean breeze causes residents to jerk into a high-alert state of anxiety. Still unfinished is the overhaul of what some call the “Lego levees,” the notoriously flawed 350-mile “flood protection system” that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers starting building in 1965.
The Corps has been busy fixing the three principal holes that opened in August 2005. Its hard work has, in fact, paid a partial dividend. A decent defensive floodwall is now on the east side of the Industrial Canal, attempting to protect the Lower Ninth Ward.
Unfortunately, that is where the upbeat news nosedives. The federal government has refused to shut the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet canal that helped cause the Katrina “funnel effect” flooding two years ago. In addition, entire neglected neighborhoods still have no adequate flood control.
The answer to New Orleans’s levee woes is painfully obvious: money and willpower. Common sense dictates that the endangered areas — if repopulated (and that is a big if) — demand levees that can sustain Category 5 storms. It’s a national obligation. Entire blocks are moldering away while the federal government lifts only a cursory hand to reverse the desultory trend.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest misperceptions the American public harbors is that Katrina was a week-long catastrophe. In truth, it’s better to view it as an era. Remember, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s lasted eight or nine years. We’re still in the middle of the Katrina saga.
Brinkley also points out that “New Orleans appears to be largely abandoned by the Department of Homeland Security, except for its safeguarding of the Port Authority (port traffic is at 90 percent of pre-Katrina numbers) and tourist districts above sea level, such as the French Quarter and Uptown.”
These areas are kept alive largely by the wild success of Harrah’s casino and a steady flow of undaunted conventioneers.
The brutal Galveston Hurricane of 1900 may be a historical guide to the administration’s thinking. Most survivors of that deadly Texas storm moved to higher land. Administration policies seem to tacitly encourage those who live below sea level in New Orleans to relocate permanently, to leave the dangerous water’s edge for more prosperous inland cities such as Shreveport or Baton Rouge.
After the 1900 hurricane, in fact, Galveston, which had been a large, thriving port, was essentially abandoned for Houston, transforming that then-sleepy backwater into the financial center for the entire Gulf South. Galveston devolved into a smallish port-tourist center, one easy to evacuate when hurricanes rear their ugly heads.
To be fair, Bush’s apparent post-Katrina inaction policy makes some cold, pragmatic sense. If the U.S. government is not going to rebuild the levees to survive a Category 5 storm — to be finished at the earliest in 2015 and at an estimated cost of $40 billion, far eclipsing the extravagant bill for the entire Interstate Highway System — then options are limited.
But what makes the current inaction plan so infuriating is that it’s deceptive, offering up this open-armed spin to storm victims: “Come back to New Orleans.” Why can’t Bush look his fellow citizens in the eye and tell them what seems to be the ugly truth? That as long as he’s commander in chief, there won’t be an entirely reconstructed levee system.
Doug Brinkley, of course knows the answer to his rhetorical question above, ” Why can’t Bush look his fellow citizens in the eye and tell them what seems to be the ugly truth?” Because, Bush can’t tell the truth about anything. he lied to take us to war in Iraq. He lies about the state of the economy. He’s lied about domestic wiretapping. He lies and lies and lies. “As long as he’s commander in chief,” sadly the “levee system” in New orleans isn’t the only broken ting in this country that won’t get fixed. Doesn’t make it right. But it’s the truth that we all know.
Thanks to Doug Brinkley for shining the light on the “Reckless Abandonment” in the wake of Katrina. Brinkley says at the end of his piece:
How we deal with New Orleans’s future will tell us a lot about our nation’s future. In 2008 it should really be an up or down vote. Category 5 levees or not? An independent FEMA or a FEMA still ensconced in Homeland Security? Do we pour $40 billion into grandiose Louisiana engineering projects or do we instead put up “no trespassing” signs in the areas below sea level? All are hard choices with various merits and pains.
The important thing, however, is for America to decide whether the current policy of inaction is really the way we want to deal with the worst natural disaster in our history.
It’s time to vote for a change in ’08. Pick your favorite in the primaries and then we’ll go from there. We can’t afford to not put a Democrat in the White House.