Hurricane Katrina: Destroying Lives, Destroying Illusions

The flood is receding from the streets of New Orleans, but the Crescent City and the wider Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama will be prostrate for the foreseeable future.

At press time, the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, has “strongly encouraged” all remaining residents to leave the city to escape the threat of disease from contaminated flood waters. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials say it could take 80 days to pump out the billions of gallons of water that Hurricane Katrina poured into the area on August 29. And in a sign of the painfully long recovery ahead, officials from Orleans and St. Bernard parishes expect that their public school systems will be closed to students for a full year.

On the narrow strip of delta south of the city, the devastation was more complete—entire towns and villages all but vanished overnight.

Hurricane Katrina occasioned some of the most gripping journalism we have read in years. Chief among them was a (September 4) chronicle of the destruction of New Orleans by a team of New York Times reporters.

“New Orleans,” they wrote, quoting Flannery O’Connor, “is a place where the devil’s existence is freely recognized.” “But not this devil,” they continued. “Not the devil of bloated bodies floating in muddy waters washing lazily over submerged pickups and campers, of corpses being eaten by rats as they decomposed on city streets, of people dying in wheelchairs outside the convention center as friends poured water over their heads to try to keep them alive.”

THE WARNINGS WERE CLEAR—On September 1, after most of New Orleans had been under water for three days, President Bush appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and observed, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” For better of worse, that whopper is what Americans will remember about Bush’s response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. (If you’re a Republican running for Congress next November, count on it being for worse.)

In a five-part special report in June 2002, the Times-Picayune of New Orleans laid out in exhaustive detail the imminent threat that hurricane-related flooding posed to the city. “If enough water from Lake Pontchartrain topped the levee system . . . the result would be apocalyptic,” the newspaper presciently reported. “Adding a 20-foot storm surge from a Category 4 or 5 storm would mean 30 feet of standing water. . . . Tens of thousands . . . would be stranded on rooftops and high ground, awaiting rescue that could take days or longer. They would face thirst, hunger and exposure to toxic chemicals.” Sound familiar?

In an October 2004 feature, National Geographic presented a “doomsday scenario” that it dubbed “not far-fetched.” “Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste,” the magazine proposed in an imaginary past tense. “Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry. . . . It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.” And today, it is.

It wasn’t only these journalists (and others) who warned about the threat. A FEMA report predating September 11, 2001, detailed the three most likely catastrophes that could happen in the United States: a terrorist attack on New York, a strong earthquake in San Francisco, and a hurricane striking New Orleans. Clearly, FEMA’s disaster-forecasters are more skilled than its disaster-response planners.
In repeated computer simulations conducted over the last several years by local, state and federal officials, the results were consistently alarming: A major hurricane could flatten the entire region, and flooding from a direct hit of even a lesser storm could kill thousands.

IT’S THE ENVIRONMENT, STUPID—As a number of natural and human factors have combined to sink coastal Louisiana, New Orleans is much more vulnerable now to the havoc Mother Nature wreaks than it was in years past.

Because it is built on soft alluvial soil, New Orleans has been sinking by as much as three feet a century. Historically, that process was counteracted by the deposition of new soils when the Mississippi flooded. But since the levees and canals were built—mostly after the great flood of 1927—the river has not been flooding, and the critical sediments are traveling out into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

This also means that Louisiana is losing its protective fringe of marshes and barrier islands faster than anyplace in the U.S. “Since the 1930s some 1,900 square miles of coastal wetlands—a swath nearly the size of Delaware or almost twice that of Luxembourg—have vanished beneath the Gulf of Mexico,” National Geographic reports.

Making things worse: In the last 50 years, as engineers have chopped up the remaining wetlands with more than 8,000 miles of canals for petroleum exploration and ship traffic, erosion has increased dramatically. Offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be speeding up the sinking process, as the strata under the soil are pumped out. And sea levels worldwide are rising as much as three feet a century on account of global warming.

But beyond these long-term factors, critics of President Bush point to policies that have exacerbated the problem. In the online journal Salon, Sidney Blumenthal attacked the president for allowing development on wetlands that serve as a critical barrier for New Orleans. “Bush had promised ‘no net loss’ of wetlands, a policy launched by his father’s administration and bolstered by President Clinton,” Blumenthal wrote. But in 2003, “the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency . . . announced they could no longer protect wetlands unless they were somehow related to interstate commerce.”

THE BUCK STOPS WHERE?—Officials at the local, state and federal levels all knew that a Katrina-like disaster was possible—even inevitable—yet they were unprepared, and for an excruciating week, relief operations were almost unbelievably slow-moving and inadequate.

Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Michael Chertoff, whose Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for FEMA oversight, have received well-deserved criticism for sleepwalking through the early days of the crisis. Neither Chertoff nor Brown came to his job with any prior experience in disaster management. Brown was the head of the International Arabian Horse Association, and Chertoff spent his career as a criminal prosecutor.

Dr. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, has told the Times-Picayune that he briefed federal officials, including Brown and Chertoff, in the days prior to the disaster about Katrina’s potential deadliness, including warning of a surge capable of overwhelming the levees. “We were briefing them way before landfall,” Mayfield told the paper. “It’s not like this was a surprise.”

President Bush had directed DHS and FEMA to “coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency.” Nevertheless, it was not until the day Katrina hit that Brown requested that DHS, within two days, dispatch 1,000 of its employees to the battered region.

A day after the storm hit, Brown told CNN, “I must say, this storm is much, much bigger than anyone expected.” Chertoff told Meet the Press that he didn’t learn of the levee failures and flooding until a day after it had happened.

In a stunning appearance on that same broadcast, while thousands of victims sat waiting for rescue, Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, which neighbors Orleans Parish to the west and south, said that he was witnessing “one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history.” Often speaking through sobs, Broussard declared, “Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area.”

Bureaucracy was certainly the villain fingered by the New York Times‘s conservative columnist John Tierney. “[FEMA] became even less efficient after it was swallowed by a [DHS] bureaucracy consumed with terrorism,” he wrote. “The department has spent billions on new federal airport screeners—with no discernible public benefit—while giving short shrift to natural disasters.”

The Washington Post‘s liberal Harold Meyerson points instead to the “can’t-do spirit . . . shouldn’t-do spirit [that] guides the men who run the nation.” Meyerson notes that Joe Allbaugh, George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign boss, and the man who took over FEMA in 2001 (with no prior relevant experience), once called the agency “an oversized entitlement program” and advised states and cities to rely instead on “faith-based organizations . . . like the Salvation Army.” Is it any surprise then, that the Bush administration would respond so insouciantly?

In the “We Wish It Were a Joke” Department, note that Allbaugh is now a lobbyist for Halliburton, the energy services and construction company that enjoys an ever-cozier relationship with the Bush administration. Under an existing $500-million contract, Halliburton has already begun repairing U.S. Navy bases damaged by the hurricane.
Also already under way is the political posturing around who should be accountable for the federal government’s pathetic response. FEMA’s Michael Brown was belatedly relieved of his command “in the field” by Secretary Chertoff and replaced by Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen. The Associated Press reports that Brown had been considering leaving FEMA after the hurricane season ended and that his recall to Washington virtually assures his departure.

If previous experience is any guide, we expect Brown to head into retirement with no less than a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bush has announced that he himself will be conducting an investigation to “find out what went right and what went wrong.” Count on a whitewash.

BAD BUDGETING—Misplaced priorities are at the heart of what the government failed to do in recent years to prevent this calamity. Since at least the 1960s, civil engineers and environmentalists have had no shortage of urgent recommendations: raise the levees and reinforce their effectiveness against storm surges; allow the Mississippi River to flood in a controlled manner and add thousands of acres a year of new land through sedimentation; cut back on shipping routes that harm wetlands; install wave absorbers to reduce erosion; and rebuild damaged barrier islands.

The ideas were there, but the sticking point, of course, was money. The price tag for a solutionmeasured in billions of dollarswas always more than Washington was willing, and Baton Rouge was able, to spend.

One critical project in New Orleans is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Hurricane Protection Project, which shields the city from surges in Lake Pontchartrain. The project, which was to be completed in 2015, involved building new levees and strengthening and enlarging existing ones.

Although the Corps requested $11 million for the project in fiscal year 2004, the White House allocated just $3 million and Congress eventually approved $5.5 million. In 2005 the Corps requested $22.5 million. The president cut that to $3.9 million, and Congress made an appropriation of $5.5 million. That amount “was insufficient to fund new construction contracts,” according to a Corps fact sheet. The president’s proposal of $3 million for the project for fiscal 2006 is also “insufficient,” says the Corps. Their engineers “could spend $20 million if funds were provided.”

The Corps also oversees the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control project, which Congress authorized after deadly floods in 1995. The Times-Picayune reported that, overall, the Corps had spent $430 million on flood control and hurricane prevention, with local governments offering more than $50 million toward the project. Nonetheless, “at least $250 million in crucial projects remained.”

In the past five years, the amount of money spent on all Corps construction projects in the New Orleans district has declined by 44 percent, according to the New Orleans CityBusinessnewspaper, from $147 million in 2001 to $82 million in the current fiscal year.

Instead of investing in flood prevention, we’ll now pay for cleanup and rebuilding. And the weight of thousands of lives ruined or lost will have to be reckoned in the balance.

RACE AND CLASS—A catastrophic flood in New Orleans was obviously not a new threat. Presidents before George W. Bush could have done the right thing. And, of course, it is the members of Congress, not the president, who spend federal dollars. But Bush has earned special ignominy because his administration’s tax-cut and privatization zeal have never looked more starkly out of step with public need.

London’s Financial Times pointed out that “[U.S.] federal tax revenues as a percentage of the economy have dropped to the lowest levels since the early 1950s.” “But,” wrote the Times, “that is little comfort to the tens of thousands stranded in primitive conditions in New Orleans who are begging for government help, and will face months and years of rebuilding their lives even after it comes.”

One legacy of Katrina will surely be the searing images of the suffering poormostly African-Americanresidents of New Orleans, which have thrust race and poverty back into the national spotlight. Poverty has actually grown worse since Bush pushed through tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited only a group of very wealthy Americans.

The Census Bureau has reported that 1.1 million more Americans slipped below the poverty line in 2004. Since 2000 the number of poor Americans has grown from 11.3 percent of the population to 12.7 percenta higher percentage than in the 1970s, despite 30 years of economic growth.

At least for a timeperhaps until the mid-term electionspoliticians won’t be able to deny this pitiful reality. Democrats have the rhetorical ammunition they need to stop Republicans from pushing ahead when Congress reconvenes with plans to further cut taxes and slash social spending.

We often disagree with Thomas Friedman, but he nailed it in a recent New York Times Op-Ed: “The Bush team has engaged in a tax giveaway . . . [with] one underlying assumption: There will never be another rainy day. . . . Besides ripping away the roofs of New Orleans, Katrina ripped away the argument that we can cut taxes, properly educate our kids, compete with India and China, succeed in Iraq, keep improving the U.S. infrastructure, and take care of a catastrophic emergency.”