Thursday, August 09, 2007

Katrina Plus Two

Stephen Griffin

I was going to wait until closer to the anniversary to blog on Katrina, but as usual the media have beaten me to the punch, with major articles in the National Geographic and all Time Inc. publications. So far, most of these stories are about the enviro situation -- the state of the levees, restoring the wetlands and so on. So let me take a different tack and highlight two areas that have been relatively neglected. Mind you, these areas have received comment, but they always seem to rank third or fourth in lists of what needs to be done for Nola.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Nicole Gelinas, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, published a prescient article on the importance of overhauling the city's criminal justice system. Never in good health, the system basically fell apart after the storm. What happened has been documented by Tania Tetlow, my colleague at Tulane, and others. It is a very sad tale and represented a basic abdication of authority by the state. Blessed with a superior education (she graduated from Tulane) and thus local knowledge, Ms. Gelinas pointed out that the city's long-term future depended just as much on getting the crime situation under control as it did on good flood protection. This is still counterintuitive for many, but perhaps is fed by the reality that it is much easier to design flood gates and pour concrete than to change flawed institutions and human behavior.

I don't know if Ms. Gelinas is a libertarian (that seems to be the leaning of the Institute), but this is one issue on which libertarians tend to be especially acute. If you don't have the criminal justice basics, the social system can turn in a very unhealthy direction and that can affect everything else.

The second issue is the terrible state of the people, often poor, who had to evacuate from affordable rentals, such as public housing. Many of them are still stuck in cheap trailers in wastelands basically, out in the middle of nowhere in Louisiana and Mississippi with no services and no hope. These people illustrate very well that if you have no political power, you get zero. They can't return to Nola unless apartments are built or public housing is refurbished. But as far as I can tell, one point on which both white and black homeowners in Nola (and surrounding suburbs like Metairie) have agreed is no more apartments. As has been pointed out many times, this starves the city of needed workers to no purpose. New Orleans still has a labor shortage! But the U.S. has never been very good at providing enough decent housing for the poor. And of course we haven't seen any presidential leadership on this score.

I'm lucky that Tulane, despite losing hundreds of millions, is operating just fine and is ready for another academic year. The city can still use lots of help and has certainly been victimized by FEMA and the inadequacies of the Stafford Act in the face of this kind of unique disaster. But if meaningful aid is finally given, it ought to be conditioned on the city cleaning up its criminal justice act and opening the door to lots of rental housing for workers.


The criminal justice system in NO has been broken for decades, if not longer. The current crop of disruptors are directly effecting the rebuilding process. Families are reluctant to be the first ones on the block to rebuild, they are left vulnerable and alone in their efforts.

On the other hand, I live a short ways away in MS. We are pulled over often, there are police everywhere along 90 and I10, and it sometimes seems excessive.

Is it coincidence that rebuilding is going along apparently smoother than in NO? People feel safe enough to rebuild. They are able to go about their business and slowly get their lives together in a relatively safe environment. I have teens and they are pretty much chased off of the beach at night, even questioned by police if they hang out to late. (The result being I often have a house of young people with nowhere else to go.)

I am a bit frustrated at the overall complete police presence along 90, but it has perhaps enhanced the ability for the communities to recover.

On a side note but related, the entire country of Columbia, South America has seen phenominal economic growth since it placed increased security measures five years ago. Their exchange market has seen 90% growth, and for the first time, Colombia is attractive for investment purposes. The murder rate has declined to a bare minimum. (CNBC) The correlation of increased security to economic growth cannot be overlooked.

I would suggest that the people of New Orleans are getting exactly the government incompetence they elected before and reelected after the storm.

You only have to look next door to Mississippi to see how the rebuilding job is being done correctly with less federal assistance.

Professor Griffin,

Not to belittle the suffering in the Gulf Coast in the wake of the hurricane, but it bears mention, I think, that this week marks the 62nd anniversary of U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (this after Japan had already sued for peace, if one takes peaceniks like Admiral Nimitz.)

Our failure as a society to prevent the worst of the damage from Katrina, and our similar failure to care for the dispossessed, and the shameful racial cast to the inequities seen in rates of recovery, these things are blights on our conscience. But they are only some of the more recent. We have many sins to atone for still.


That's partisan BS. First of all, a lot of what happened in New Orleans is the federal government's (i.e., the Republicans') responsibility-- and to the extent it didn't happen in Mississippi, it's because Haley Barbour, a former RNC chair, is governor there and the Bush Administration and movement conservativism has a great incentive to make sure Barbour looks good.

Second, southern Mississippi doesn't have a New Orleans. The largest cities on the Mississippi gulf coast are Gulfport and Biloxi, which are much smaller than New Orleans and are being rebuilt with gambling money.


Mississippi suffered as much damage, received less aid and is much further along in every phase of rebuilding because of the far superior performance of their state and local governments.

No one had to make Barbour look good. He has done a superb job. NPR interviewed him last year and he had intimate knowledge of the details of every facet of rebuilding including the exact tonnage of wreckage which had been removed from each area and the projected timelines for infrastructure rebuilding in each area.

Meanwhile, the LA governor remains clueless and Nagan refuses to act on a rebuilding plan because various constituent groups cannot come to an agreement about what the rebuild and where.

You do not really want to get into partisan comparisons on dealing with Hurricanes or I will throw Florida, Alabama and Texas into the comparison. In particular, the "smart" Bush brother earns very high marks.

Rather than a partisan divide, I think we have a cultural chasm between LA and most of the rest of the US. I doubt the GOP down there is much better than the Dems. LA has been a corrupt banana republic for most of its history. These are the people which elected complete loons like the Longs. Katrina simply exposed the utter incompetence and corruption of the government there.


I won't argue with you about the general corrupt tenor of Louisiana politics. (You didn't mention Edwin Edwards or David Duke, but you could have.)

But Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco weren't responsible for building and maintaining those levees. The Army Corps of Engineers was. Nagin and Blanco didn't run FEMA. "Brownie" did. Plenty of the problems were the federal government's responsibility.

And you can't compare the amount of aid Mississippi received with New Orleans. Simply put, Mississippi's major population centers-- none of which are nearly as big as New Orleans-- are far enough north to have escaped serious damage. Mississippi suffered a lot of damage, but the only urban areas to really get hit were on the gulf, and those were smaller and richer cities than New Orleans.

Lastly, I don't quarrel that Jeb Bush was a good governor through hurricanes. I actually was down in Central Florida when one of them passed through town. But you know, that's one of the reasons why George W. Bush's performance in Katrina was so strange. He basically ignored it, doing political fundraisers and playing a guitar in San Diego while people were on rooftops and parching on bridges and at the convention center and Superdome. He finally deigned to fly over it, and never really got personally involved, whereas his brother, by all reports, took charge, personally supervised disaster relief, and chewed people out who didn't get with the program when hurricanes hit Florida.

New Orleans happens to be a very difficult place to govern well. It has a third world-ish economy, with massive tourism revenue, massive corruption, and massive poverty. Plus there has been a massive flight of population out of New Orleans after Katrina. There is simply no direct comparison between what Barbour faced and what Nagin and Blanco-- with so little help from Bush-- faced. If Barbour had to rebuild New Orleans, he would have fouled it up too, unless his presence there would have caused the President to get with the program, which is possible.

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