The Long View 2005-09-03: The Katrina Disaster: Reality, Myth, and Future


John's prediction about the consequences of Hurricane Katrina didn't really pan out.

We may expect, though, that people will demand larger, more effective government, and that they will insist on paying for it now.
This will mean a larger standing military, if not necessarily a draft. It will mean that the federal government will embrace the goal of universal health insurance. It will mean that the federal government will regain control of the borders, without a guest-worker program. It will mean many other things, good and bad. What previously was politically impossible will become mandatory.

These things remain the subject of partisan politics, without a grand national consensus like that behind the New Deal.

The Katrina Disaster: Reality, Myth, and Future

Prescience is cheap, so here’s five-cent’s worth from Science Daily in 2000:

By the year 2100, the city of New Orleans may be extinct, submerged in water. A future akin to the fabled sunken city of Atlantis? Yes, according to Dr. Chip Groat, Director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Washington, D.C., "With the projected rate of subsidence (the natural sinking of land), wetland loss, and sea level rise," he said, "New Orleans will likely be on the verge of extinction by this time next century."

I came across that quote while using Google to see how often in recent days New Orleans had been compared to Atlantis: 359 times in news outlets, as of this morning. In any case, the analogy isn’t really apt. The site of the city will not be forgotten, and indeed the commercial and the tourist districts will be restored in fairly short order. The French Quarter, for instance, is above sea level, and suffered little from the flood. No doubt that’s how it got to be a historic district; it’s in a part of the city that escaped inundations long enough to develop some history. It’s another question whether it makes sense to restore the whole city on anything like its pre-Katrina plan.

There is an old formula about New Orleans: an inevitable city on an impossible site. The site is not strictly impossible, but it is enormously expensive to secure; it was enormously expensive even when, as everyone knew, it was not secure enough. Plan A would be to Spend Whatever It Takes to rebuild the whole city. Plan B would be to secure only the high ground in the city; which is also, not coincidentally, where the wealthier neighborhoods are. In effect, this Newer Orleans would be a Disneyfied memorial to its former self. Imagine Williamsburg, Virginia, but with better food.

* * *

Evils must come, Jesus tells us, but woe to the man through whom they come. In that spirit, a national lynch mob has formed to find a suitable scapegoat.

There is, of course, Mayor Ray Nagin, who has reacted so badly to his sudden transformation into the Mayor of Atlantis (360 times). We should cut the man some slack. His unprecedented order on Sunday to evacuate the city saved tens of thousands of lives. On Monday, when Katrina had declined from a category 5 to a category 4 storm and had veered slightly to the east, it looked as if he had overreacted.

Once the levees broke, however, pretty much everything that he did has been disheartening. It is as if, on 911, Rudolph Giuliani had fled to Albany (the capital of New York State) and railed against the failure of the federal government to keep order in the city he had just abandoned. Of course, the New Orleans Chief of Police seems to have been even worse. The governor of Louisiana is a nice lady with a philosophical disposition. She may even be doing sterling job of disaster administration, but she is not doing the essential thing: appearing to be in charge, even if all the phones on her desk are dead and she has no idea how much of the state government survived 50 miles south of her office.

Part of the reason that George Bush is president is that his brother, Governor Jeb of Florida, proved very adept at doing exactly that when hurricanes struck. Jeb became a sort of television anchorman. Looking worried and disheveled, he appeared repeatedly on television to issue warnings, advice, or just new information. Actually, recovery was slow and aid was not especially well organized, but the state’s chief executive was seen to be competent and engaged. Floridians in 2004 thought: if this is how the Bushes manage things, then we can trust George with another four years in Washington.

Alas for George Bush today. The governments of Mississippi and Alabama are not doing as badly as that of Louisiana, but no Jeb or Rudolph Giuliani has arisen in the Katrina Zone. (Those who say that Giuliani himself should take charge of recovery in New Orleans shoot wide of the mark: Giuliani was effective in New York in September of 2001 because of local knowledge, especially knowledge of the local media: he would be a fish out of water in the flooded city.) President Bush has made repeated appearances on television since the scope of the disaster became clear. He has toured the area. Far from turning himself into a national anchorman for this event, however, he has, at least so far, succeeded only in linking his name to an awesome failure of government.

* * *

There are ironies here. Disaster relief is one of the functions of government for which Bush’s corporate style of governance works very well. He is good at this kind of thing. He declared the area around the mouth of the Mississippi a federal disaster area before the hurricane struck, thereby allowing preparations to begin early. He urged Mayor Nagin over the phone to issue the evacuation order. He has succeeded in energizing the federal government: even the great jellyfish that is the Department of Homeland Security has stopped worrying about suicide bombers for a few days. We may regret that, but it’s a wonder that the department can be directed to a new task at all.

Probably it is not true that the deployment of a third of the Louisiana National Guard to Iraq has significantly degraded its ability, and the ability of the Guard from other states, to deal effectively with the crisis so far. That’s not to say that the deployments had no effect, and that there may not be more severe effects in the future. I suspect, though I don’t know, that the problem is the sustainability of the relief effort.

Certainly it is not true that the recent cuts in the budget for work on the levee system can be blamed for the New Orleans flood. The 17th Street Canal, whose breech did the worst damage, was a part of the system which the Army Corps of engineers believed to be sound; the money removed from the budget would not have prevented this flood. More money might well have prevented a future flood, of course, if the city’s luck had held through the Katrina event. Still, if a prospective benefit is in the future, one is always tempted to leave the cost to the future, too. It was just dumb luck that the canal wall broke on George Bush’s watch. He may yet come through this with a measure of personal credit. However, I suspect that the vision we have been granted of a world without government will go far toward ending the suspicion of activist government that began with the Republican victories in Congress in 1994.

* * *

To what shall we compare New Orleans in the days after the canal broke? Certainly not to Florida during the administration of News Anchor Jeb. Certainly not to Manhattan after 911: in the latter case, you could walk from the site of the disaster to places were drinkable water was on tap and the lights were still on. To Haiti, perhaps, except that, in Haiti, people generally don’t shoot at hospital helicopters. Odd as it may seem, and without wishing to give aid and comfort to the people who want to blame Katrina on the Iraq War, the best analogy really is to Baghdad in the spring of 2003. In both cases, the state disintegrated. As soon as that was apparent, a predatory and dysfunctional underclass began to loot the place to the ground.

New Orleans dry was not like the flooded version. In this, perhaps, the city differed from Baghdad, where all that was necessary for chaos was for the cops to go off duty. New Orleans’ nasty underclass was normally restrained by the police; by middle-class conventions; for that matter, by the respectable lower class. Most of the people who did not follow the evacuation order were hardly members of the pathological dregs of society; they were just too poor or too stubborn to leave. (Some people not-at-all destitute remained in favored spots with generators and shot guns.) Nonetheless, the flooded city exploded, or boiled, because so much of the non-toxic part of society had evaporated and gone north to Baton Rouge and Memphis.

Is there a racial issue in the fall of New Orleans? Well, yes, but not in the way one might suppose. If you want to see callous indifference to human life, look east from New Orleans to Mississippi, with its the zoning codes that required that casinos be put on barges, or which allowed a flood plain to be covered with defenseless summer-bungalow housing. The problem is that America has been willing to tolerate the sort of underclass, both helpless and dangerous, that simmered under the crust of New Orleans society. America made the same calculation about that underclass as about the levees that protect New Orleans. Yes, if there is a breach, there will be chaos; but at any given time, there probably won’t be a breach, so we can put off the fixing the problem today. When a breach occurs, though, the result is catastrophe.

* * *

Katrina was a greater blow to American prestige than a massive and successful terrorist attack would be. America’s reputation for logistical competence has been gravely undermined. That is a more serious matter than the increased doubts about America’s compassion. Many people around the world are unshakably convinced that America is callous, but even anti-Americans thought that we could move stuff. It is not relevant that the Katrina Zone is the size of a European country, or that, in retrospect, we may see that the emergency services and military relief were delivered with miraculous efficiency. The federal government in particular now seems ineffective and unpopular. This comes on top of the continuing war in Iraq. That, too, may in retrospect appear low-cost and highly effective, but such an assessment in the future does not change the fact that America is widely seen as losing. The new feature is that America is now seen as losing at home and abroad.

That sentiment is close to becoming the domestic consensus, too. That is exactly what happened during the Hoover Administration, when the federal government seemed incapable of keeping the farmers on the land, or the banks open, or even of accurately estimating the number of unemployed, much less of reducing unemployment. Lots of things happened then; we can be certain only that history will not repeat itself exactly. We may expect, though, that people will demand larger, more effective government, and that they will insist on paying for it now.

This will mean a larger standing military, if not necessarily a draft. It will mean that the federal government will embrace the goal of universal health insurance. It will mean that the federal government will regain control of the borders, without a guest-worker program. It will mean many other things, good and bad. What previously was politically impossible will become mandatory.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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