One year after Katrina

The Internet and other media are overflowing with first-anniversary reflections on Hurricane Katrina, and I really haven’t got much to say that I didn’t say at the time.

Despite the bravery and generosity of thousands of people, the intial response of the authorities (at all levels) was a disgrace. And the followup hasn’t generated much to take pride or comfort in, especially in the case of New Orleans.

I thought Andrew Sullivan was on target last year when he drew a direct connection between the Bush administration’s incompetence and failures in Iraq and its incompetence and failures in dealing with the hurricane. Not much change there either.

One year on, writes Jennifer Moses in The Washington Post:

All but a handful of public schools are shuttered; the hospitals are so badly crippled that in case of an emergency most people assume they’ll need to drive to Baton Rouge; the courts have gone from limping along to entirely dysfunctional; the electric grid is so fragile that regular power outages are a non-event; and in many parts of town, water lines still haven’t been laid. Firefighters: Who needs ’em? Police? Oh, well.

New Orleans has only about half of its pre-Katrina population. Undoubtedly some have made better lives for themselves elsewhere, and have no intention of returning. But just as surely, many others who would like to return have no place to go and can’t afford to rebuild.

There was much talk after Katrina of how the terrible scenes at the Superdome and the Convention Center had exposed some of America’s worst racial and (especially) class differences for all to see. Now, unfortunately: out of sight, out of mind.

Disasters like Katrina, for all the terrible suffering they cause, at least provide a chance to build something new and better. But New Orleans still has no agreed-on master plan. I’m no urban planner, but at the very least it seems that many of the most vulnerable, below-sea-level neighborhoods wiped out in the storm should not be rebuilt, and should be instead turned into green space. That doesn’t mean the residents of those neighborhoods (mostly black, poor and working-class) should be denied the opportunity to live in New Orleans. Where rebuilding is feasible, it should focus on creating mixed-race, mixed-class neighborhoods to replace the racial and economic ghettoes of old. (See David Broder’s Washington Post column about the mixed-income housing in Chicago that has replaced some worst high-rise ghettoes in the country.) Unfortunately a lot of fear has been generated by alleged plans to use Katrina’s aftermath to make New Orleans’s population whiter.

May we see better things in the coming year.