My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Friday, September 02, 2005

When the Levee Breaks

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For anybody who was worried, Fats Domino has been found alive and safe. But the rest of the news is bad, as New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast has spiraled downwards into anarchy, violence and despair.

The death toll is unknown as decaying corpses are shoved aside by rescuers still trying to reach survivors stranded by floodwaters. Conditions are grim even for those who have managed to make it to shelter. For some reason the government had been unable to get food and water to refugees gathered at the Convention Center in downtown New Orleans by this morning. People are dying of heat stroke and dehydration as they wait in line for a seat on a bus out of town. Their bodies are left on the curb or tossed in dumpsters. In Gulfport, Mississippi, National Guard troops arrived with truckloads of water and MREs to find that no one was there to meet them and no system of distribution had been put in place. The situation is the same throughout the affected area - there is no plan in place, no one is in charge, there are not enough supplies, there is public disorder, hopelessness, desperation, death.

It's not as if the disaster comes as a complete surprise. People have been warning of the looming danger to New Orleans and the region for years. As Paul Krugman puts it in the New York Times:
Before 9/11 the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America: a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans. "The New Orleans hurricane scenario," The Houston Chronicle wrote in December 2001, "may be the deadliest of all." It described a potential catastrophe very much like the one now happening.

So why was nothing done about it? I'm not even talking about the long and expensive process of improving New Orleans' defenses against natural disaster. I'm just talking about putting in place a plan to deal with disaster, including a comprehensive evacuation plan to be put in place before the storm hit. It was clear by Thursday or Friday of last week that large-scale disaster was possible. Why wasn't the National Guard called up last week to assist in the evacuation? Not to mention that a third of the Louisiana Guard is in Iraq, along with much of their watercraft. Authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation of the area but did not organize transit for poor residents without cars. FEMA rejected a plan to buy a sizable piece of land and prepare for the construction of a tent city for refugees in just this sort of situation because, in the words of one administrator, "Americans don't live in tents."

Why is this happening? Because we have a government and ruling party that believe that a strong state is not necessary to provide support and assistance to the poor and disadvantaged. They believe that low taxes and less government "interference" will allow citizens to take care of their own needs. The whole idea is ridiculous. No individual can weather a storm of this magnitude alone. Societies overcome these traumatic events by banding together, working as a team, and organizing. Our leaders are not there to lower the state's "burden" on wealthy and privileged individuals. They are there to organize the resources of state and society to serve the public. That's their job. And they didn't do it.

But not only does our national "leadership" not take responsibility for their failure, they instead appear to blame the victims. Illinois' own Speaker Denny Hastert remarked to the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., that it makes no sense to rebuild New Orleans where it is. "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," he said. The Waterbury, Connecticut Republican-American goes further, suggesting that it's a waste of taxpayer money to rebuild a city below sea level. It's true that the sprawling of the American public accross former wetlands, into areas with no local water supply, and so on is inviting all sorts of evironment problems of potentially catastrophic proportions. But that's not what has happened in New Orleans, which has long been one of the jewels of American civilization, mired though it has been in recent decades in the poverty and abandonment that have afflicted many of our urban centers as wealth whites have moved away to avoid paying their taxes. And there's the true cause of the disaster - a nation which, once again, has refused to supply the basics of shelter, food, public health and safety to its poorest residents.

Music: When the Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin. "It's got what it takes to make a modern man leave his home . . . "
Mood: Angry

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