Some Lessons of Katrina So Far

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Some Lessons of Katrina So Far

 Published in the Maryland Daily Record September 30, 2005

•           Channelizing and frustrating natural flooding only kills deltas temporarily.  The Mississippi will have its delta back someday.  The seas will pare back and pare back the depleted land until the floods return and heal the delta.  It is only a question of how long and stubbornly we try to prevent the inevitable.

•           As a corollary, therefore, it would be madness to rebuild much of New Orleans.  The next Katrina and the one after that will overthrow our levees, however high we build them.  It is showing no disrespect for the poor, those who occupied the lowlands most devastated by the catastrophe, to say that the lowlands should never be reoccupied; it is only showing a proper respect for what nature will inevitably do in the future.

•           As another corollary, we need to find some other way to handle the commerce that relies on the artificial shipping channels we have carved in the Mississippi riverbed – channelizing that has helped weaken protections even for the parts of New Orleans which ought to be preserved.

•           Preparedness for disasters that will threaten masses of poor people is unworthy the name of preparedness if it does not include detailed plans of how and where to evacuate the poor.  Otherwise, only the better-heeled, those who own their own transport, will get out, and only the affluent will have places to go.

•           “Not In My Backyard” will doubtless often be spoken and whispered now that the poor must be relocated.  So many of us have chosen where to live on the principle that we did not wish to be near the poor.  We will not easily accept the disappointment of finding them nearby after all.

•           Pity for the poor evacuees will soon give way to resentment.  Conservatives are not entirely wrong in maintaining that poverty is not simply a condition imposed upon the poor by the absence of opportunities.  There is usually a self-inflicted component to poverty that is very hard for the better-heeled to understand or forgive.  The anger of the well-to-do at the poor often is resolved by a wrong-headed determination to ignore them. Katrina has made the poor visible and frustrated our society’s ignoble attempt to ignore them; but Katrina has also called attention to the spiritual pathologies of the poor.  It would be wonderful, if unprecedented, if both problems were addressed in Katrina’s wake.

•           A nation at war does not have military resources at home to cope with great disasters in satisfactory time and on satisfactory scale.  And great disasters require military interventions.  Great disasters destroy infrastructure, and once infrastructure disappears, lawlessness beyond the coping powers of any mere police force will always ensue.  This is one reason among many not to have unnecessary wars.

•           With adequate taxes, we could have built up the levees further and postponed (though not permanently averted) the catastrophe, and we could have planned to bring timely resources to bear upon containing the tragedy once it began.  We could even have done something about the poverty that mired so many of Katrina’s victims before they became victims.  But our nation has been starving itself of needed taxes too long.

•           It is sickening, therefore, to watch the tax-cutter-in-chief at a photo opportunity tenderly embracing the victims of his very own policies.

•           Not that George Bush bears most of the blame.  He may have continued and exacerbated the long-standing environmental and social policies that made us vulnerable to a blow we knew nature was bound to strike sooner or later, and probably sooner.  The only blame that falls uniquely to him and his administration was for the slow deployment of available resources once the blow had fallen.  It will be fascinating, during the inevitable Congressional inquiries, blue ribbon panels, grand jury investigations, and litigation that will come, to learn the untold story of the help that didn’t come for five long days, while the bureaucrats whose job it was to assure the flow of help mouthed platitudes and lied.

•           It is heartening to see and hear so many journalists asking angry questions of those bureaucrats.  Ordinarily the dance of the negligent official and the mainstream media interviewer is one of momentous questions met by evasions in which the questioner acquiesces.  There was mercifully less acquiescence this time.  But we in the audience are also aware of how easily this kind of confrontation can descend into schtick on the part of the interviewer.  The bureaucrats will never admit the truth because that is not their thing.  True journalism will largely consist, as it always does, of finding the real answers elsewhere.

•           Real answers often came from do-it-yourself journalism.  Blogs reported on the looting by the New Orleans police alongside the urban poor in real time.  Brave if perhaps crazy amateur cinematographers captured the storm surge up close.  Until the cell towers died, people on the ground told their tales by cell phone.  It was a great day for the unofficial Fifth Estate.

•           Katrina made it plain how central communications are to the infrastructure.  Once the power failed, it was somehow far easier to get information out (except, apparently, to FEMA) than it was to get information in.  And the lack of information in, be it word of the arrival and timing of aid or simply the comforting feed of CNN or cellphone communication with near and dear, was instrumental in the emotional devastation of the victims.  We need to plan ways to keep information coming in even without centrally-distributed electric power flowing through the wires.

•           The storm surge, of course, did its worst not to New Orleans’ urban poor but to the seaside folk of Mississippi who often were the resort rich and the working folk who tended to their needs and entertained them.  Or at least so the media depicted it.  It won’t be easy for anyone, but they will doubtless find it easier than poor New Orleans dwellers to rebuild.  It makes no sense to rebuild the lowlands of New Orleans; it may make greater sense for the leveled Gulf Coast to rebuild if its owners choose to do so.  But they should do so at their own expense and risk.  No seaside location on earth is now safe enough for the financial risks to be legitimately spread to others (except perhaps to other seaside dwellers) through government subsidies or insurance.  If the persons or businesses choose to set up housekeeping by the seaside, they should do so in full awareness the odds are against their homes, bridges, hotels, casinos, and the terra firma beneath them surviving over the long term.  And they should bear full financial responsibility for the consequences.

•           The misery of Katrina has been spread up and down our SUV Nation at the gas pump.  But our gasoline prices have been too low to start with, far too low, to encourage conservation.  A century from now, historians will be at a loss to account for our nation’s lemming-like refusal to limit gasoline consumption or to pursue effective substitutes for fossil fuels.  Petroleum, natural gas, and coal are going away, and yet as a civilization we are acting as if they were permanent, and permanently plentiful.  To preserve our access to the Middle East’s oil, we have engaged in reckless efforts to establish an imperium that, inevitably, has brought down the wrath of the empire’s subjects upon us.  In order to withstand that wrath, we have diverted far too many of our nation’s military resources and civil defense resources.  Whatever the full explanation for the help that took five days to arrive while all hell broke loose, part of it will inevitably be that our National Guard was largely deployed abroad and Homeland Security was too absorbed in preventing terrorism. And so, with utter predictability, out of our effort to protect low gas prices and plentiful supplies of gasoline has come our diminished ability to cope with Katrina.  And out of that diminished ability has come — higher gasoline prices.

•           In the weeks and months ahead, we will learn much, much more.  But Katrina, has already shown she holds huge lessons for us, and they are both perennial and urgent.  We should be respecting nature more, and not trying so very hard to bend it to our commercial purposes.  We should be recognizing the coming demise of a fossil fuel economy, and ending the kind of foreign and military policy that will leave us undefended against nature’s worst.  We should be waging war on poverty again, and not on the poor, and we should be demanding accountability of the rich, not giving them further tax cuts.  There is nothing new in these lessons, but there is doubtless something newly urgent.  They say that hurricanes are increasing in size and frequency; Katrina’s kin will be calling again soon.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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