Balkinization  

Friday, November 04, 2005

Unnatural Disaster: Katrina and Governance

Stephen Griffin

Commentators both here in Louisiana and elsewhere have had a difficult time describing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Is it “the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States?” Or “the worst civil engineering failure in history?” Here is a disaster that left even the media groping for superlatives. The condition of the city immediately after Katrina was so bizarre that titles I seem to remember from fantastic fiction were merely descriptive: “The Lost City,” perhaps, or “The Drowned City.” At the moment, the neighborhoods flooded by the levee breaches resemble descriptions of cities after volcanic explosions. A gray or brown film appears to cover everything. The grass and trees are brown, creating the impression of a lifeless city animated only by memory. It is a sepia photograph you can walk through under a blue sky. Nearby, the mounds of debris are three stories high and rising.

The extensive flooding has caused something much more terrible than physical destruction. What has happened is a cultural and spiritual erasure. People have lost their photographs, wedding dresses, family heirlooms, furniture, books and clothes. The flood acted like an insane Grinch who stole every last vestige of Christmas: the “toys, tags, ribbons, boxes or bags.” Except this Grinch took the beds in which people slept, the food they ate and sometimes their life. Their neighborhoods are silent.

If something like Katrina was caused by a government, we might describe it as a case of “ethnic cleansing.” Ethnic cleansing works by making conditions so bad that the targeted group has to flee and never return. Because more than one ethnicity was affected by Katrina, a better term would be “cultural cleansing.” Of course, the term “cleansing” is ironic, because Katrina’s modus operandi was to soil everything. But African Americans in particular have been horrified at the prospect that their carefully tended neighborhoods have been blown apart permanently. Conspiracy theories about government blowing up the levees to save some other part of town have already taken root.

Ten weeks after Katrina approached the Gulf Coast, things are not looking very well for the city of New Orleans. I have reasonable hopes for Tulane and the other academic institutions in the city. But the city as a whole, especially compared to the city as it used to be, faces a grim future. There is a massive housing shortage and an acute labor shortage. The repopulation of the city is going more slowly than expected. It is estimated that only 75,000 people currently live in the city. That is roughly the population of Lawrence, KS (where I grew up), usually described as a “small college town.” Another 75,000 commute in to work or fix their homes. A working population of 150,000 implies that 330,000 people have left. The likelihood of their return is unknown, although a poll of Houston evacuees done by the Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health found that 44 percent wanted to relocate. If anything close to this percentage is true of all evacuees, then many New Orleans neighborhoods will never again come to life.

Recent news accounts have emphasized infighting among the various levels of government and the commissions appointed to study the situation. The story that is not being told by the national media is that all concerned – politicians, business owners, ordinary citizens – have reached consensus on one critical point: New Orleans needs Category 5 storm protection. From the perspective of many, without “Cat 5” protection, discussion of the city’s future and future investment possibilities is pointless. Katrina has been evaluated as a Category 3 storm when it struck Louisiana. Everyone assumes a Category 4 strike is just a matter of time. Category 5 protection is thus an essential precondition for reviving the city. Many of the 330,000 who have not returned are waiting for a sign about future storm protection.

They may be waiting a long time. Neither the Bush Administration nor members of Congress have shown any interest in an increased level of storm protection. The official position of the government is that New Orleans deserves merely a restoration of Category 3 protection. This strikes many residents are nonsensical. Democratic leaders would win themselves the everlasting gratitude of the entire region if they would just endorse Category 5 protection. But nothing has been forthcoming.

This might be just another unfortunate policy mistake but for the emerging evidence that the drowning of New Orleans was guaranteed by blunder after blunder by the government. Only one levee was overtopped by the hurricane, and the protection it afforded had been weakened by a special interest project (the “MR-GO”) funded by the federal government. Three studies underway by the National Science Foundation, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the state of Louisiana are showing severe deficiencies in the way the levees were constructed. It appears New Orleans was never close to Category 3 protection and the protection it did have was undermined, literally and fatally, by government mismanagement and possible corruption.

Katrina is thus shaping up not as a natural disaster primarily, but as a policy disaster, an “unnatural disaster” and one of unparalleled scope. The erasure of an entire city (as it used to be) and region now seems possible, just seven weeks after President Bush promised an extensive reconstruction. So far, there is no sign that anyone in government understands the scale of the problem. I’ve concentrated on one precondition here, but there are others mostly having to do with housing and property rights. I was hoping by now I would be assessing different plans for rebuilding the city. Increasingly, however, it appears this may never happen. Without Category 5 protection and an innovative housing/development plan, the possibility of restoring some semblance of the old New Orleans may wink out as the year ends.

Comments:

To put it bluntly, if people want to live next to the ocean, down at the bottom of a hole, they can pay for their own damn levees. Or build their houses on top of stilts.

NO is a crazy situation that came about because of unanticipated circumstances; The more they tried to drain the water, the more their soil shrank, and sank the city. Nobody set out to build a city below sea level next to the ocean. It just happened over the course of many decades.

But if we throw crazy amounts of money at it to put it back, we WILL be setting out to do that stupid thing. At a cost per resident that would pay to put them all in mansions on high ground. Maybe you should ASK those people whether they'd honestly prefer the mansions?

Rebuild the parts that make real sense, and let Disney put the rest back together as a theme park. That's all the New New Orleans would be, a crazy theme park that charges admission to the whole country through our taxes.
 

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Stephen's description of the destruction of New Orleans brings to mind Kai Erickson's moving account of the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster in his book Everything in It's Path. In both cases the social and cultural destruction was largely the result of a long-term disregard for the lives of those without big bank accounts. Those in Buffalo Creek, though, could point the finger at a large mining corporation and demand compensation in court.

A closer analogy might be found in the kind of negligence that lead to the testing of nuclear weapons in the Bikini Islands. There, too, the government had wholly inadequate evacuation plans for a population that, through a combination of natural weather patterns and government actions, subjected the population to significant material and social losses. Their substantial exposure to radiation and the subsequent medical problems they experienced were accompanied by the loss of homes, communities, and significant cultural practices. They lost a way of life.

I doubt that the residents of New Orleans, however, will ever see an admission of negligence and liability similar to the Buffalo Creek settlement or, more analogously, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. And perhaps it is right that they won't. Turning the remedy for such a massive collective harm into a series of individual claims seems to miss an important nature of the loss that JB & Erickson are describing. The harm is collective, and the remedy should be as well.

Unfortunately, it seems increasingly unlikely that the response will justify the label "remedy" at all.
 

New Orleans is our home, and at the bottom of a hole or not, it deserves better than Disney.
 

لا تقلق بشان تلوث مياه الخزان الخاص بك , فمع شركة تنظيف خزانات بالرياض تتخلص
من كل الطفيليات والطحالب والبكتيريا العالقه بجدران الخزان الداخليه وبالاعتماد على افضل المواد والادوات عاليه الجودة فضلا عن الاعتماد على اكفأ وامهر عماله بشرية تعمل بجد واجتهاد فى مجال تنظيف خزانات بالرياض فاتصل بنا ولا تتردد ونحن فى انتظارك لخدمتك على الرحب والسعه نقدم لكم الشركة الرائده فى عالم كشف التسربات وتسليك المجارى بأحدث اجهزة الكشف وبدون تكسير بالاعتماد على اكفأ المهندسين المختصين بأعمال السباكة المنزلية واصلاح المواسير الداخليه والخارجية واللذين يؤدون خدمتهم على اكمل وجه وبأقل التكاليف واجود النتائج من شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالرياض فاتصلو بنا عملاؤنا الكرام من اى مكان بالسعودية لنتشرف بخدمتكم على الرحب والسعة نحن افضل شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالرياض
تنظيف خزانات

 


ادي سبب كثرة التنقل من اجل العمل الي الحاجه دايما الي شركة نقل اثاث بالرياض حتي يتمكن العملاء الكرام من القرب من اماكن التي يعملون بها وكذلك قرب الطلبه من اماكن دراستهم ومن هنا يبداء البحث عن افضل شركة نقل عفش بالرياض
والتي يتوفر لديها احدث السيارات وجميع الاحجام وكذلك العماله الماهره والفنيين ذوي الكفائه وايضا الجوده خلال عمليه تغليف الاثاث وذلك حتي يضمن العميل سلامه الاثاث خلال عمليه النقل ونحن بحمد الله نوفر ذلك لعملائنا الكرام
 

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