Making Disasters Worse

It is important to be responsible in discussing the aftermath of what seems to be developing into the worst, most destructive national disaster in this nation’s history. There is a human tendency to fix blame, and in the political arena to fix blame on one’s political opponents, even if it takes a lot of stretching. So the background for this week’s column must be that Hurricane Katrina (such a friendly-sounding name) was a phenomenon of nature, not of human beings. Hurricanes have occurred before – in 1900 a Category 4 almost wiped out the Texas port town of Galveston, killing 6,000 people – and they will occur again, with or without global warming.

Blaming the Bush administration or Mississippi Governor (and former GOP national chairman) Haley Barbour for alleged indifference to global warming, leading to more ferocious hurricanes, as some have tried to do, is a lot more than a bit of a stretch. Another allegation from environmentalists, however, that certain kinds of development have led to shrinking of the barrier islands that had previously provided some protection from the fiercest hurricanes, and that the levees themselves prevent the kind of occasional flooding that would deposit more sediments in the ocean and mitigate some of the fierceness of hurricanes, has some justification.

The fact that the federal government provides subsidized coastal flood insurance encourages people to build and rebuild in areas that are inherently subject to flooding and, in a world without such subsidies , probably wouldn’t be built. Not building in such places would allow natural forces to operate – but in saying that it is important to remember that natural forces include the occasional flood and hurricane.

There are at least two ways that the Iraq war will make recovery from this disaster more difficult than it had to be.

The first is fairly obvious. There are some 3,800 National Guard troops from Mississippi and 3,000 from Louisiana serving in Iraq. The National Guard is normally mobilized to help out when natural disasters strike. About 60 percent of the usual complements in Louisiana and Mississippi will be available, but the states have requested forces from eight other states. Joseph Allbaugh, President Bush’s close friend and his first director of FEMA, may say (as he has), that "If anyone is telling you that Iraq is getting in the way, well, that’s hogwash." But he is being disingenuous. Of course Iraq is getting in the way – perhaps not in a decisive way, but in a measurable way. Cleanup would simply be less of a chore of those 6,800 National Guard personnel were available here at home.

The second reason has to do with federal spending priorities in the recent past. It turns out that after a massive rainstorm and flood in 1995, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA. According to this story in Editor & Publisher, over 10 years it had spent some $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations. But in 2003, with the Army Corps and local officials figuring some $250 million more was needed to finish the job, the funds dried up. The Corps never hid the fact that demands in Iraq constituted the main reason, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the paper with the best name in the country, IMHO, had run about nine stories on the way the Iraq war had dried up flood-control money.

There is a case to be made that the levees make flood problems worse, and that "improving" them is a waste of money. And I would be the first to point out the shortsightedness of relying on the federal government for essentially local projects. Of course it’s difficult to divert local money from graft and rewarding political allies, and federal money is touted as “free” money by local officials all over the country. But “free” federal money comes with seen and unseen strings, and it is subject the vagaries of changing priorities in Washington.

All that said, the levees are there, and the 500,000 inhabitants of New Orleans depended on them. And there is at least some rationale for giving the Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over inland waterways that are not confined to a single state and are best handled when viewed as part of a larger system. And handling inland waterways is something the federal government has done – sometimes well, more often poorly – for so long it’s become something of a tradition. I don’t know if the failure of the feds to carry through on New Orleans levees will occasion a serious rethinking of this sometimes lackadaisical habit of expecting the feds to fix whatever seems to need handling.

It’s difficult to describe just how sad all those pictures of New Orleans devastated, not so much by the hurricanes as by the failure of the levees, makes me. I haven’t been to New Orleans for about 10 years, but I fell in love with the place – the fact that I like jazz of the kind played at Preservation Hall might have something to do with it – when I first visited in 1968 or so. Although the climate is truly deplorable – I remember an August so hot and sticky you couldn’t walk three steps without having your shirt drenched in sweat – the people were laid-back and welcoming, and I saw less evidence of overt racial problems than in some other southern cities. Of course the government is corrupt and a good bit of the atmosphere is sleazy, but that’s part of New Orleans’ unique charm.

I don’t know if the city will ever come back to what it was. Yes, they can rebuild, but a new New Orleans would lack much of the attraction the old New Orleans had. The very oldness, the sense of continuity and history that helped to make New Orleans so curiously charming, could well be gone.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).