Political Disaster

There is a strong undercurrent among the citizens of this country. A monster, really, lurking just below the surface, waiting for the right blow to the veneer of respectability, law, order, and routine that Americans have built around them to shatter our precious sense of security. I don’t think that we are unique in the world. But it must be truly frightening at times for the rest of the world to know that the citizens of the most rich and powerful country on the planet are being held together by a very thin coalition of local, state, and federal government that at times seems blindly unaware of threats to its own stability. America’s power unleashed is intimidating enough, but when large numbers of its individuals are seen struggling in a life or death free-for-all, the animalistic nature of such an event can seem like the unleashing of a marauding beast that our society works very hard to hide.

New Orleans teeters on the brink of becoming a feral city — a land of lawlessness, abandoned of civility, convenience, and utility. Were it not for the American military presence in the flooded streets of the city helping survivors (while fully loaded M-4s slung over shoulders help to make perfectly clear what will and will no longer be tolerated), New Orleans could have dropped completely over the precipice. Left to its own for another day, a national tragedy could have become a culturally defining moment of injustice, a once in a century locus whose flames could have spread outward all the way to the Potomac. It still might. There’s certainly enough blame to go around. The buck stops with President Bush and the rest of his administration. It continually amazes how bad they are at running this country. But they are just one of many factors that contributed to the demise of New Orleans. The hurricane can only take so much credit.

One of those factors is location. New Orleans’ position at the southern end of the vast Mississippi River flood plains is an ideal place for commerce, but the foundation of silt that is slowly compacting and causing the city to sink below the sea makes keeping the city afloat an engineering nightmare. New Orleans faces a dual flood threat, from the Mississippi river and from the Gulf of Mexico pushing Lake Pontchartrain into the city. Unfortunately, some of the solutions implemented in the past to prevent flooding all along the Mississippi, most especially the flood walls that line the banks of the river from the Dakotas to the parishes of Louisiana, contribute to the city’s slip. Yes, the land is prone to floods from the Mississippi, but with the flood walls built, silt deposited by flooding that would normally replenish the land shoots out into the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, the more rapid movement of the waters caused by the river’s man-made binding have all but destroyed barrier islands that protect the Gulf Coast, leaving New Orleans more susceptible to flooding from storm surges, which were the culprit in this disaster. More than once this week, talking heads and other experts have described a vicious catch-22 in New Orleans. Flood walls along the Mississippi mean less silt and less protection from the Gulf, the city sinks faster, requiring higher flood walls along both the river and the lake sides of the city, leading to deeper floods, and on and on and on.

But the city does need this vital infrastructure to survive. Unfortunately, the city has been shortchanged, by the inaction of others, by its own inaction, and by the realities of politics. The flood walls that so infamously gave way last week, letting the storm-swelled Lake Pontchartrain inundate the city, had been constructed forty years ago to withstand the force and effects of a category 3 hurricane. It was then surmised that such a storm would hit the city only once every two centuries. The logic that would allow a city protection only against a mid-range hurricane is akin to manufacturing a bullet proof vest with a hole directly over the heart under the reasoning that most people are not good shots.

The inadequate flood walls surrounding New Orleans are a problem inherited by every succeeding generation that inhabits the city until it is fixed. But the long-term thinking, planning, and execution required is hard to come by in America simply because of the way our democracy works. Short terms in office can often mean short careers in politics. Politicians who are constantly running for reelection must base their accomplishments on tangible results. A congressman, assemblyman, mayor, or governor who spent their term securing funding for a massive public works project like reinforced flood walls must rely on the imagination of their constituency when there is yet to be any concrete poured. Therefore, they may choose to spend their political capital instead on projects and policies that present the types of immediate results that help win elections. In addition, immediate threats garner immediate attention. Planning for far-off threats, even if the probability of such events occurring is 100%, fall victim to a pattern of procrastination and prioritization that is very difficult to break before it becomes too late. Democracy may be the best system we have, but taken together, the difficulty inherent in long-term planning and execution, and unwillingness to confront problems that may manifest themselves long after a politician’s career are over, may be the factors most directly responsible for the deaths of thousands in New Orleans.

The death toll for any hurricane in this country should be zero. We have centuries of experience with these storms, and technology has given us the means to anticipate their onslaught days ahead of time. No one should be left behind in the path of a hurricane, yet 100% evacuation is impossible. Some choose to stay behind out of misguided bravado or an unwillingness to leave their homes for unfamiliar surroundings. Others miss the call for evacuation or underestimate the damage a hurricane can bring. The desperately ill and injured in hospitals sometimes cannot be moved, and their attendants then have to stay behind as well to give care. Rescue workers have to be left behind in immediate danger to provide as much emergency help during and immediately after the storm as possible. Beyond that, there is not much other reason or excuse to hang around. Weathering a hurricane in home or shelter is not a good idea. Unfortunately, in New Orleans, a vast number of people had no choice. These were people who wanted to leave, but could not. Not because they were sick or uninformed, or even a little too emboldened. They had no means.

That being said, the mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, has been riding a mighty high horse this past week, attacking federal disaster response while conveniently forgetting his own administration’s scatterbrained preparations. The call for evacuation was given too close to the hurricane’s landfall. Even a day earlier could have saved lives, allowing some of those who lacked the means to leave the possibility of another 24 hours to make some sort of arrangement.

The most blatant lack of foresight on the part of city officials was the lack of a plan to evacuate these 100,000 or so people. There were some vague mutterings about a “Good Samaritan evacuation,” where those with vehicles who were leaving the city would give lifts to stranded residents. Americans may have an overdeveloped sense of their generosity, but who could honestly have expected 20% of the city to be able to hitchhike their way out of danger? In other words, the city did have a plan, and it was “every man for himself.” Hundreds of municipal vehicles, school buses and city buses, lay idle as 80% of the city’s population that could, fled. The rest were urged to make their way to the Superdome or the city’s convention center for shelter, where a new kind of hell was awaiting.

The mayor said an 80% evacuation was “unprecedented,” implying he expected more people to possibly appear at the Superdome and convention center shelters. Yet when these people arrived, they were confronted with the stark reality that other than providing a shaky roof over their heads, the city of New Orleans and state of Louisiana provided virtually no other necessity for surviving the uncertain times after the storm had gone.

Inadequate food, inadequate water, inadequate sanitary facilities, inadequate medical care, almost as if they felt the shelters couldn’t possibly be needed for longer than a few hours. Many the flood didn’t kill were killed by this insurmountable incompetence.

But New Orleans is a big city, and as such, is not flush with funds. Once again, political reality has reared its ugly head. Money for necessary items to care for those cast about by the storm were hard to come by, for the state or the city. Maintaining emergency stores is costly, and can seem like a wasted expense when a long period of time has elapsed without much need for them. But inevitability is once again the key. When, not if. To fail to plan for the inevitable is to fail completely.

In this disaster, the Bush administration has shown that it still deserves no confidence from the American people. The war in Iraq has played a significant role in the initial failure of disaster relief. The National Guards of the Gulf Coast states have been gutted, with one-third or more of their personnel overseas. One of the primary functions of the Guard is disaster relief in their home states. Having Guard troops from southern Atlantic and Gulf Coast states rotate overseas in the middle of hurricane season, when those states are at their most vulnerable, is foolish. This lack of available personnel caused a delay in response to the disaster areas that cost lives.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response was tepid, at best. In the face of an immense hurricane bearing down on the continental United States, it now appears there was little preparation before landfall. Having the people and materiel on hand before a hurricane hits the coast is essential for quick relief. Their slow response cost yet more lives.

In the wider executive branch as a whole, there have been inklings the last few days that a contributing factor in the overall response was a lack of leadership. No one could decide who was in charge. The president certainly wasn’t, as he continued his rest in Texas while the hurricane was pounding the Gulf of Mexico. The next day, he managed to make his way to a fundraiser in California when the walls came down in New Orleans before he decided to cut his summer break short and head back to Washington.

In this type of environment, where even the top of the administration is unable to grasp the significance of what is happening on the ground, is it any surprise that the federal government’s initial response to this disaster was feeble? It took an outcry from public and media that was impossible to ignore to shock our leaders into action. It took scenes of floating bodies among the destruction and abandoned corpses in the shelters for them to recognize they had a serious situation on their hands. They had to be lambasted over the airwaves by public officials who were culpable in their own right for leaving their people in a danger zone, completely reliant on federal help, for the trucks with supplies to get rolling. They had to watch one of the great cities of this country descend into lawless chaos to realize that maybe this wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill calamity down in the Big Easy.

In the end, though, it was the commonality among the victims that was the greatest tragedy of the past week. The citizens plucked from rooftops, crowded into the Superdome, floating in the floodwaters, were largely poor and black. The great legislative battles of the civil rights movement are now decades past, yet poverty in inner cities remains an affliction borne disproportionately by African Americans. Relegated to second-class status by entrenched American racism and disdain for the less fortunate left the residents of New Orleans’ low-lying ghettoes without a reasonable expectation they would be helped. They were surrounded by inadequate flood walls, lived in a city too poor itself to help, lacked the transportation means to leave when needed, and flew below the notice of most people because of their desperate means and the color of their skin. Add to this a conservative ideology pervading government these days that precludes spending on the poor because of their supposed lack of moral worth, and it truly was inevitable that they would have their lives swallowed whole not by an unstoppable wall of water, but by an unstoppable wall of privation.