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28.8.06

State, local politicians helped cause, made worse disaster

Hurricane Katrina roared ashore a year ago, landing but a glancing blow on the New Orleans metropolitan area, but that was enough to overtop and to cave in levees, flooding 80 percent of the city (and practically all of St. Bernard Parish). And what have we learned in this past year about who or what was most responsible for the destruction visited and lives lost, and how to move forward? In order of culpability:

#1: Inseparably, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Orleans Levee District. The ACE did as well as could be expected in the implementation phase, with whatever shortcomings appearing there because of difficult circumstances to foresee (for example, designs and technology from a half century ago being made to work in the present). But it fell down dramatically in the supervisory phase, letting flaws creep in, allowing some contractors to do substandard work and not keeping a close eye on the OLD which paid scant attention to flood protection. In recent years, the OLD has been more interested in building marinas and bringing in gambling facilities while reducing levee responsibility to ridiculous drive-by inspections that smacked more of an excuse to entertain than perform any serious maintenance. Had the ACE kept a tight watch on contractors and a secure leash on the OLD, or the OLD had actually done what it should have, the breaches and overtopping may not have happened at all.

#2: Gov. Kathleen Blanco and her predecessors. Among other things, Blanco delayed federal troop assistance out of fear she would not receive proper political credit, remained paralyzed in leadership in the first couple of days of the tragedy, and even could not perform the proper procedures as governor to facilitate the recovery effort – even though only a year earlier an exercise was run simulating such a catastrophe and real-life Hurricane Ivan had presented the same threat. Since then, she has been incredibly slow to respond (Mississippi, by contrast, had its basic procedures by the beginning of October, before Blanco even had put together a group to coordinate any recovery effort), in part because of her lack of awareness and of her desire to put political expediency ahead of practical effect. Blanco bears some of the blame for the OLD’s underperformance, since she appoints some of its members, as did her predecessors.


#3: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, city government officials, and their predecessors. New Orleans had a totally inadequate plan for dealing with this kind of emergency, something which should have been addressed by Nagin in his three years in office prior to the storm. His predecessors, however, should have done the same. In the initial days of the crisis, he joined Blanco with indecisive leadership. Further, the city kept putting people on the OLD unserious about flood protection. And they still keep flailing around in their inability to create easily-understood standards for people trying to make decisions about whether to rebuild on flooded property.

#4: Sen. Mary Landrieu, Rep. William Jefferson, and those before them. Landrieu, as did the recently-departed John Breaux, never took flood protection seriously in her nearly ten years in office prior to the disaster. Instead, she steered money that could have been used for flood protection to dubious projects more on the basis of politics than need. Jefferson was pretty much AWOL throughout his 15 years prior on the issue, spending the days before the storm apparently setting up a politically corrupt deal, and immediately afterwards wasting rescuer resources trying to retrieve evidence before legal authorities could.

#5 Political liberalism. Liberalism carries as an article of faith that it is the anointed in government, not individual people themselves, who best know what is good for each individual. It counsels that so long as the “winners” of “life’s lottery,” as they conceptualize the free market can be forced to redistribute their ill-gotten gains in a “fair” manner, that government will take care of the vast majority, victimized as it is by all sorts of ills institutionalized into society by those “winners.” This sheer nonsense unfortunately gained huge currency in New Orleans and enough in Louisiana and Washington that it created a mentality among many before and after the storm hit that individuals were not really responsible for their own fates and safety, but that government would take care of them. Such an attitude caused needless suffering.

#6 Government in general. This suffering was compounded because people do not understand that government, at all levels, is an extremely inefficient enterprise usually more concerned with trying to create equity where inequality is deemed to exist and effective rather than efficient service. This makes it particularly ill-equipped to respond to disasters, which require very quick action that rips away the security blanket of bureaucratic rules and regulations that, in times of crisis, only slow things down. The natural wastefulness of government becomes even more compounded under these conditions. (Particularly lamentable has been some of the above-named entities trying to foist blame on the federal government for exactly this inherent characteristic of government in general, which means its performance in general can be improved only at the margins, rather than their accepting responsibility for their own shortcomings which produced far more devastating effects than did an inefficient federal response.)

Reviewing this list, it becomes clear where we need to go to reduce the chances of a catastrophe like this from reoccurring: clean house of these kinds of politicians, concentrate on better oversight, and, most simply, learn the lessons of not what to do or to expect from the above.

1 comment:

Nick said...

I touched on some of the same things on my post today. The political past of Louisiana and its leaders certainly aided in our state being in complete shambles after Katrina and Rita. Especially career politican families like the Longs, Edwards, Tauzins and Landrieus. Yet, the voters keep electing them. And thanks to the Landrieus and Longs, generations of welfare recipients who knew nothing other than holding their hand out for the government were caught not knowing how to help themselves.