Saturday, September 10, 2005

Katrina-Part II: The Politics

I've tried very hard to look objectively at the New Orleans situation, and I'm ready to admit I really can't. Too much history and experience is intricately involved in the situation for me to block it out and just look at the bare facts. In so admitting, however, I don't offer an apology, because the history and experience to which I refer is directly pertinent to the situation at hand. I'll try to keep this post organized, but there is so much floating around the MSM and the blogosphere that categorization of the issues is nigh unto impossible.

Point 1: Racism
There has been much said regarding the fact that most of New Orleans' residents seen on television and in print media were black. Immediately there were cries of "racism" leveled at the Bush administration. This is an unfortunate, but not unforseeable, development. The "projects" in New Orleans were built in a particularly low-lying part of the city. That facet lays at the feet of state and local government, those entities being responsible for the zoning and contstruction that brought that scenario about. Further, two programs have come into play here that perhaps will be scrutinized in the future. The first is the practice of building "projects" at all. The second is entrenching people in poverty by giving hand-outs instead of legitimate assistance. These two policies conspire to complete the cycle of poverty, in both concentrating poor people in communities where they're tucked out of sight, and removing any impetus for upward mobility and escape from the cycle. To suggest that relief was slow because the people in distress were black and poor is absurd. To question why the bulk of the people in need of rescue were poor and black, however, is quite appropriate. Much has been made of Mayor Nagin's failure to implement standing plans to evacuate the poor and infirm by making use of city resources. I personally think he stands responsible for that inaction. I think the more pertinent question, however, is why such a huge population of poor existed in such an affluent city. Had the programs instituted to ease poverty been achieving only marginal results, there wouldn't have been the incredible numbers of people still in the "projects," without means or ability to get out of the area. Perhaps (and I know I'm hoping against hope here) a re-evaluation of how our government on all levels deals with the poor will come from this disaster. What we've done for the past half-century isn't working.

Point 2: The Federal Response
Bush is the new Hitler. I don't say that as a slight upon the man, because I think he's done a pretty good job, overall. I say it from the standpoint that for one segment of American (and international) society, he embodies everything they hate. As such, he can do nothing right, in their eyes. Had he run rough-shod over Louisiana's Democratic Governor (who happens to be female, to boot), and over New Orleans' Democratic Mayor (a black man), he would have been lambasted for exercising dictatorial powers, doing great violence to the constitution. The end would have never justified the means. I sincerely doubt that he would have received praise from some had he stood on the shores of Grand Isle and made Katrina dissipate at his command. As it stands, he utilized the proper chain of command in both Louisiana and Mississippi. Where then, is the difference in observed outcome? I dare say the differences in side-by-side comparisons of what happened in the two states point to a single undeniable conclusion: the failures were at a lower level than federal. Both states are incredibly poor (Mississippi ranks 50th, Louisiana ranks 49th), both states were hit incredibly hard by the storm, and both states received the same treatment from FEMA. The difference happened somewhere else. Governor Barbour shined; Governor Blanco stalled. While the Mississippi National Guard headed out from Camp Shelby, chainsawing and clearing their way to the coast as soon as the winds subsided a bit, what was the Louisiana National Guard doing? That's a function of state-level leadership, not federal.

Point 3: The Environment
I hesitate to go here, because I haven't the time to link to all the information I want to cite. As a result, I'll keep things very brief here, just giving my overall take. I hope to return to this with a full complement of data at a later date, but I know better than to count on it. Global warming has been cited as a major cause for the recent increase in number and intensity of hurricanes. This is a disingenuous approach, because it requires that solid scientific research be mated to theoretical results. In other words, while there has been an observable trend towards a warmer earth, the results of that are highly debatable, and the minute changes of the past century would almost certainly not cause the effects claimed over the past decade. Whether that claimed trend is real or imagined is another topic of debate. From the National Hurricane Center's website, charts on hurricane activity don't show an escalation in frequency or strength out of line with other "surges" in past decades. Further, if the progresses of civilization have truly caused the warming trend over the past centuries, there's no indication that even the most drastic changes in the way we do things would curb the trend.

Point 4: The Cleanup
My greatest concern here is, why should this be such a large Federal project? Certainly there are scores of investors and entrepreneurs chomping at the bit to develop this area, and industry could be easily drawn to areas near the Port of New Orleans. My suggestion would be to minimize residences in the flood-prone lower areas of the city, and to develop these areas as light industrial/commercial areas. This would achieve two goals--decentralizing the "projects" and filling the area with structures built by entities that would be more capable of managing the loss in the event of future flooding. This is also a perfect opportunity to build the levees as they should be, rather than building them as existing space allows. Landowners will have to be compensated, but the land being acquired under eminent domain would be much more in tune with the spirit of that provision than would acquisition of land for private corporate distribution.
In my opinion, the Army Corps of Engineers should be in charge of overseeing the levees, as they have been in the past, and the Federal government should completely finance this rebuilding and maintenance. There should be no Federal expenditures, however, on private losses. Period. Charitible organizations should step in, and those families dependent upon the government (state or federal) for housing and sustainance should be re-located to non-flooding areas. There is simply no excuse for putting tax dollars into building flood-prone homes for the poor. It's a waste of money and puts those least able to fend for themselves directly in harm's way.

Point 5: The Next Storm
Katrina, better than any natural (or other) disaster of late, exposed weaknesses that have been intrinsic to big federal government. There will be a push to do one of two things: either empower the federal government to seize control of disaster planning, preparation, and recovery without states' consent (a disastrous blow to the intent of our Constitution), or there will be a greater directive towards state governments to do what they are expected and required to do. Either way, disaster preparedness and response will be changed, probably fairly drastically. Problem is, it won't stay that way for long. We have a horribly short memory about things such as this, and we will watch, as the current generation's grandchildren (and perhaps great-grandchildren) refuse to take the next really big storm seriously. Even on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, devastated by Camille only 35 years ago, people didn't evacuate like they should have, and several died in structures that survived Camille. Alas, the adage is as true about natural catastrophe as it is regarding human blunders: Those who do not study history are destined to repeat it. There will be more big storms, there will be more needless loss of life. But above all, there will be the part of the human spirit that demands that we will once again rebuild, that we once again will thrive. We will, once again, be whole.

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