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.