Weeping for the Crescent City

A flooded and battered Canal Street - New Orleans, LA

A flooded and battered Canal Street - New Orleans, LA

The pictures are very hard to look at.

As I’ve sat along with the nation and watched this national tragedy unfold in slow motion, there’s been a very real sense of personal loss. It sounds kind of strange, since I only visited the city once, but in that short amount of time I fell in love with it. Places where I walked are now underwater.

The darker sides of human nature have now taken hold inside the city limits, as looters and rogues have destroyed the rule of law. This slice of the American south is now under old west rules. I’ve even seen a video of one or two of New Orleans finest actually rifling through the isles of a Wal-Mart with the rest of the looters, taking what could be carted out. Gunfire slows the rescue efforts in some places:

Some rescue operations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were suspended in areas where gunfire broke out, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said in Washington, the Associated Press reported. People trying to board amphibious vehicles outside New Orleans’s Charity Hospital were shot at while trying to evacuate, Cable News Network reported.

But who can you blame for a natural disaster?

By the look of things, there’s more than enough blame to go around. The more general blame goes with those who have been systematically draining the wetlands in the area for development and farming, leaving the city more and more vulnerable:

Wetlands are the water storage protection that nature itself offers against massive flooding. But in the past 70 years, coastal Louisiana alone has lost 1,900 square miles of wetlands, an area larger than Rhode Island. The disastrous upper Mississippi River flooding of 1993 demonstrated how little protection levees can provide when wetlands are allowed to be developed or turned into cropland.

But while ecological blindness and lack of foresight are large in the equation, willful negligence and bad management of funds by the federal government play what I think are an even larger part in the mess. Washington Monthly has a chronology of budget cuts, and the list just turns my stomach inside out:

June 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed. Jefferson Parish emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri comments: “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay.”

June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cut by a record $71.2 million. One of the hardest-hit areas is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which was created after the May 1995 flood to improve drainage in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes.

I would had gladly given back the $300 the Bush tax refund gave me if it would have help fund the preventative measures needed to keep this nightmare from happening. Now all I can do is donate it to the Red Cross to try and help with the aftermath. And funds being diverted because of the President’s war in Iraq? It’s officially had its biggest casualty, and once again it’s on the home front.

Still, all the money and attention in the world might not have been enough to stop this from happening. One point of failure in the system of levees holding back the floods was recently reinforced:

No one expected that weak spot to be on a canal that, if anything, had received more attention and shoring up than many other spots in the region. It did not have broad berms, but it did have strong concrete walls.

Shea Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans, said that was particularly surprising because the break was “along a section that was just upgraded.”

“It did not have an earthen levee,” Dr. Penland said. “It had a vertical concrete wall several feel thick.”

So for all we know, there might have been nothing we could do to stop the flooding of the city. Of course, just basic funding and investment in the preventative infrastructure of the city could have kept it from getting this bad. Penny pinching when it comes to protecting the places we live has never made sense to me — you only wind up paying a greater debt later on.

And what about the refugees?

Those who have been rescued from the nightmare of New Orleans new find themselves heading to Texas and the shelter of large arenas – an exodus as has never been seen in our country’s history. There is shelter from the elements and the floodwaters, but now the survivors are facing a new set of issues as they try to get on their feet again:

“Nobody came up with a plan for having this many refugees in our country,” said Bill White, the mayor of Houston. “We are being asked to meet needs that nobody envisioned even a few days ago.”

Officials expected to put up about 25,000 people at the Astrodome, but accepted only 11,500 inside , said Margaret O’Brien-Molina, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross.

An estimated 75,000 storm refugees were already in Houston on Thursday with as many as 40,000 more on the way. State officials said Dallas and San Antonio had been told to prepare for at least 25,000 each. Six hundred people spent Wednesday night at Reunion Arena in Dallas, and officials there expected hundreds more.

How long before the healing can begin?
With the levees still broken and the water still flowing in, no one can say for sure how long it’s going to be before the city can be drained and the rebuilding begins. I’ve heard two or three months as a low-end estimate. I cannot even begin to comprehend what the citizens are going through. I wish them all the best in their time of need, and you can count on me coming back to the city once it’s been rebuilt.

The nation (and the world) is with you, New Orleans.

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6 Responses to “Weeping for the Crescent City”

  1. don says:

    In times of anguish and hardship, people look to place blame. This past week has been no different. People want to blame the government for not building better levees. I feel this is misplace because te system was capable of withstanding a catagory three hurricane. No body ever expected a category five to hit. Maybee this was not the best plan, but it was playing the odds. Unfourtunatly this time it did not work out. The second place people want to place blame is with the relief effort. To this I have two responses. First I say the people shoulde wshare some of this blame. They had been advised to evacuate. By attempting to ride it out, they put themselves in danger. Whos fault is that? Secondly, the initial relief erfforts were thwarted by ruffians and thugs who were senslessly shooting at ambulances and helicopters. I can certainly understand needing food and water and doing what ever it takes to protect your family. If this means you have to loot the local supermarket than so be it. What I can not understand is what you need to steal a TV or basketball sneakers for. I also can not understand is why you would shoot at people trying to bring aid to your city. This brings me to my third point. While I felt the National Guard was a little slow to re-act, they should not have been needed in the capacity that they were. They certainly should have been there to rescue people and to sandbag to control flood waters. They should not have been needed to provide a police force in an American city. So, once again if there is blame to be had, I suggest the people of New Orleans help themselves to the first serving.

  2. After watching an interview with the Army commander of the Corp of Engineers last night on The News Hour (transcript and audio here), I now understand that the levee system was built to withstand a 200 to 300 year event, meaning that there was a 0.5% chance that a storm like Katrina would hit the city and destroy part of the system holding back the waters. So this disaster was more or less an inevitability.

    The human part of it though, is another matter.

    The evacuation plans never fully accounted for those who didn’t have the means to escape the city. Those poor people who don’t own cars, the elderly, etc. Perhaps a greater effort should have been made to rescue these people before the storm hit? There would have still been those too stubborn to leave the city (there always is), but the numbers may have been much less. The role of a good government is to help those who cannot help themselves, and I think that the local government certainly can hang its head a little lower over this.

    As for the federal government, perhaps some changes in procedure should be made for future category 5 storm strikes. At least a small contingent of national guardsmen should have been en route to the city before the storm ever hit. Maybe order would have been preserved a bit longer — at least at the rescue centers, where reports of beatings and rapes have been heard at the convention center and the Superdome. Sadness upon grief.

    Finally, there are two forthcoming numbers that are going to chill everyone: the death count and the cost to rebuild the city.

  3. Mike says:

    The corrupt mayor of New Orleans is tring to blame the Governor and President for this catastrophy. That is a bunch of bullshit. Where were the busses before the storm. There was/is a plan of evacuation when a storm of this size is coming. People were to take their own personal vehicles to flee the city, for those who have no way of leaving the city, transportation was to be provided by local municipalities. This plan was never enacted. He needs to be tried and convicted of manslaughter for each death that has occured. Next is the Governor, she is in charge of getting the national guard in there asap. She waited for FEMA to take the lead on this. It would have taken FEMA at least 48 hours to respond, under normal circumstances. Unfortunatly, FEMA is now under the Department of Homeland Security. Too many people who didin’t know who was in charge. What I want to know is how is this Bush’s fault? (according to national media)
    After the storm hit, marshall law was declaired. Shoot to kill. If you are shot at, shoot back. These rescue helicopters should have been escorted by blackhawks. That would have stopped the shooting fairly quickly.
    I feel so horrible about the situation in the dome. Murders, rapes. I hope those people are caught and hanged in the town square, on TV. This should curb this from happening again.
    I’ve been to New Orleans before, and based on that one visit, I also fell in love with it (like Andy). I would love to see it rebuilt, however it needs to be done right.

  4. Every bit of relief and response was slow in being enacted for this disaster. The private relief groups, first responders like the police and the fire departments have gone far above the call of duty. Those in charge of it all can equally share in the blame. The President, his Homeland Security director, the FEMA director, the Governor of Louisiana, the mayor of New Orleans…all of them.

    Watch these clips for the Sunday morning news shows and try telling them that the President that the President doesn’t deserve some of the blame:

    Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard (Very dramatic)
    Senator Mary Landrieu’s Helicopter tour of the effected areas

    Also, keep in mind that a good part of the state’s contingent of National Guard troops aren’t here, they’re in Iraq fighting. Having the National Guard anywhere but in our own country protecting us and assisting us in national disasters is ludicrous!

    FEMA being part of the department of Homeland Security is even more asinine! They should never have been made part of that agency. Homeland Security should control things like intelligence gathering, law enforcement, and not disaster relief! They should never have lost their seat on the cabinet — that has done nothing but add to the lag in important decisions being made.

    Instead, this man is calling the shots:

    Homeland security director Chertoff

    And his boss, all he can do is tour around and tell these people that there’s “hard work” ahead. I swear I want to wretch every time he says it, because I don’t feel that the man has ever known what real hard work is. A hard working president doesn’t take a whole friggin’ month off!

    In all likelihood this tragedy could not have been avoided, but it certainly could have been lessened.

    Google Maps of New Orleans (Press the Katrina button in the upper right to see recent satelite photos of the flooded city)

  5. Mike says:

    I still don’t see how Bush has anything to be blamed for. I keep hearing that he cut funding. But what I want to know is, what did the city do with the funding they did have? Did they use that funding correctly, and allocate it in the correct places? Besises, the president wasn’t in charge of this rescue operation, the governor was. The mayor was in charge of ordering the evacuation, where are the busses? Granted, the entire city would not have been emptied by the couple hundred busses that were available, but less people would have died.
    FEMA, screwed up. Heads need to roll. When FEMA showed up, the didn’t let supplies or the red cross into the city. What the hell is that about? I’ve heard that they were trying to encourage people to leave, and by not sending in supplies that would have been accomplished. What kind of horse shit is that. People were hungry, starving, Dying… Give them the food.
    My heart goes out the the President of Jefferson Parish. However, I have issue with a certain part of his address. He said that he was told that the calvery was coming over and over again. Now, that being said, why was he waiting for the calvery? The situation should have been handled as if there was no calvery coming, and when the arrived, let them take over. Instead, time was wasted waiting. Of course this is easy to say sitting on my computer chair in an air conditioned office building, with a week to think about it. I hope that something good comes of this crisis. I hope that in the future if there is such an event like this or worse, we will be better prepared.

  6. Tell me, when a business has a bad turn, who is the one who’s supposed to deal with it? Doesn’t the CEO have to accept blame for the way the supporting employees act? It’s his or her charge to try and fix the situation, including but not limited to firing ineffective employees as the situation may dictate. So if the President is the political equivalent of a CEO, why should we treat the expectations of his office any different.

    You don’t see how Bush has anything to be blamed for? The very nature of his office makes him responsible for what happened on his watch. The fact that it’s his hand chosen cabinet members who are dropping the ball only reenforces that fact.

    And when he finally did get on the ball, what did he do? Well, I think this small quote from a first hand account of escape from the city (which I’ve also posted about here) says it all:

    We arrived at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The airport had become another Superdome. We 8 were caught in a press of humanity as flights were delayed for several hours while George Bush landed briefly at the airport for a photo op.

    You do have a valid question about what was done with the funding that was given to reenforce the levees. A quick search has brought up some answers:

    Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.

    Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security — coming at the same time as federal tax cuts — was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

    I’m certain further investigations will bring even more details to the fore, but I doubt the story will change much. The reconstruction efforts were woefully underfunded and the war in Iraq is one major reason why the funds weren’t there. A war, I might add, that was sold to the world and our nation as a hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction and is now being peddled as an attempt to build democracy in the Middle East. And instead of the American-styled democracy everyone was hoping for, it looks like Iraq is either going to ripped to shreds in a civil war or become an Islamic republic somewhat in the style of Iran.

    I’m all for sharing the blame here, but Bush can’t shy away from his share.

    As for the President of Jefferson Parish, I’m positive that he wasn’t just sitting there twiddling his thumbs waiting for someone else to do the hard work. But at the same time, part of his job is to get those reinforcements there when needed. Think of it like a battlefield commander calling in for air support. If he’s not calling and recalling in the middle of a fire-fight, no one is going to know where to send the help.

    Mike, I share in your hopes that something good can come of this and that lessons are learned. But I think for that to truly happen, a lot of people are going to have to be held to account — more than we could possibly imagine. For that to happen, we have to demand answers of all our elected officials and those in their employ. No free passes, period.