Post-Katrina observations

The magnitude of the catastrophe is still much too big to get my head around, but here are a few preliminary observations about Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath:

–There is no doubt that the initial response by authorities was a terrible and deadly failure. When the time comes for a reasonably dispassionate assessment, I’m sure there will be enough blame to go around at all levels– local, state and federal. I’ll just point out that there were numerous instances of top federal officials speaking as if they had no idea what was actually happening (or not happening) on the ground. As recently as Thursday, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff was suggesting that reports of thousands stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center without food or water were a “rumor.”

–While New Orleans had a reputation as an easy-going and fun-loving city, the events of the past week reminded everyone that it is also home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of urban poor people. In fact they may have reminded some that there actually are large numbers of urban poor people in the US. And for obvious reasons poor people tend to fare much worse than rich people in natural disasters.

Whatever plans existed for evacuating New Orleans seemed to be based on the assumption that anyone who wanted to get out could simply jump in a car or on a bus and escape in time. To put it generously, this was a terrible failure of imagination.

Race and (especially) class still matter in this country, as we are reminded rudely by events of this nature. The Houston Chronicle reported one ugly example of class privilege:

Meanwhile, at the Superdome, which has become an emblem of the post-hurricane problems bedeviling New Orleans, thousands of evacuees queued up Friday for buses to Texas.

At one point, they were asked to wait as 700 guests and staff at the adjoining Hyatt Regency hotel moved to the front of the line. That led to grumbling from the crowd, which had spent five days in the hot building with little food.

“How does this work?” exclaimed Howard Blue, 22. “They (are) clean, they are dry, they get out ahead of us?”

–I hope I don’t come across as a New Age Luddite if I point out that trying to hold back the forces of nature is often a futile exercise, and sometimes it makes more sense to (literally) go with the flow.

As Ellen Ruppel Shell wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post:

Floods are part of the natural ebb and flow of life in lowland Louisiana, and, left to their own devices, flood waters can actually do good. They carry silt from the Mississippi River that replenishes the delta and keeps the coastland above the water line, creating a gradual buffer from the sea. But we have short-circuited this natural process by constructing hundreds of miles of levees along the river and channeling the rushing water into the Gulf of Mexico, where essential sediment is dumped. As a result, the lowlands are sinking into the Gulf at a rate of 25 square miles each year. And as illustrated so disastrously last week, levees are not indestructible. Indeed, the higher and more strongly built they are, the greater the dangers when they are breached.
There is a more reasonable path. The Dutch, after a long, romantic history of battling back the sea, have in the past few years come to a sort of truce with a force they now acknowledge they cannot control. This is not to suggest that the Dutch are suddenly yanking their fingers out of the nation’s massive dike system, but they are, as they put it, “making room for water,” banning new building on flood plains and preserving essential wetlands. The British, too, are adopting this holistic approach, replacing expensive and unsustainable “high walls” engineered to keep everything dry, with green space placed between houses and the river, and tiered flood defense systems that encourage the water to rise predictably, in steps. The goal is not to keep every drop of water behind a barrier, but to work with the flow, softening it from a seething torrent to manageable rivulets.

–Despite the efforts of some to suggest otherwise, we should not have to choose between Baghdad and New Orleans. The events of the past week on the Gulf Coast do not, in retrospect, make Saddam Hussein’s regime any less horrific or dangerous. Our commitment to reconstruction and democratization in Iraq and Afghanistan must remain firm.

For those of us on the pro-liberation Left, this will be especially difficult. It’s hard to argue with Andrew Sullivan when he writes:

I have no confidence in this administration to deal with the kind of calamities that 9/11 proved we may have to deal with. After four years, they are still incompetent, unprepared, unable to have made the real changes that we need to have made. In the case of New Orleans, criminally negligent. People have died because of their inability to plan, to spend wisely, to set real priorities, to respond quickly. That goes for New Orleans. And it also applies to Iraq.

Our task in both cases is to be relentlessly critical of the administration’s incompetence and mismanagement while supporting the larger objectives of helping those who are suffering (on the Gulf Coast) and those trying to build whole new societies (in Iraq and Afghanistan).

We need to perform the difficult intellectual task of being angry at Bush while being even angrier at those who are seeking– violently or otherwise– to undermine the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

We can start by denouncing those who try to draw a direct connection between New Orleans and Fallujah. The contempt for America and Americans suggested by this blogger, for example, is revolting.

–We can’t do enough to honor and thank the thousands of people who have risked their lives and health to rescue the victims of Katrina, and the tens of thousands of others who have opened their hearts in big ways and small. After seeing how members of the armed forces helped save and protect lives on the Gulf Coast this past week– when they were finally deployed in large numbers– maybe the more thoughtful segment of the antiwar movement will reconsider its anti-military recruitment campaign.

If anything good comes of this calamity, it may be a realization that– despite the “everyone for himself” ethos that has become fashionable in some circles– we are in fact all in this (i.e., life) together.

(I’ll reopen the comments for this post, but I will be ruthless about deleting offensive and off-topic comments, and about banning those who cause repeated problems.)

Update: Reader Charles Martin points to a City of New Orleans evacuation plan, which states that “Transportation will be provided to those persons requiring public transportation from the area.” Obviously we need to know why there was such a terrible gap between what was on paper and what actually happened.

I’ll repeat: there is obviously enough blame to go around at all levels. But I fear partisanship is (as usual) clouding peoples’ judgment. Can any Bush partisan imagine defending a similar federal response to such a disaster during a Clinton administration? Wouldn’t some Democrats be less forgiving of the state and local response if the governor and mayor were Republicans?

Further update: The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on July 24:

City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans’ poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you’re on your own.
Their message will be distributed on hundreds of DVDs across the city. The DVDs’ basic get-out-of-town message applies to all audiences, but it is especially targeted to scores of churches and other groups heavily concentrated in Central City and other vulnerable, low-income neighborhoods, said the Rev. Marshall Truehill, head of Total Community Action.

“The primary message is that each person is primarily responsible for themselves, for their own family and friends,” Truehill said. (Hat tip: Jim Monk in the comments.)

The nation’s economy will be hard-hit by the effects of Katrina, but I expect buck-passing and blame-shifting will be growth industries in the weeks ahead.