Who Lost New Orleans?
September 20, 2005
By Ernest Partridge, The
some people are foolish enough to live below sea level, or in flood
plains, or in earthquake zones, why should the rest of us bail them
out when an expected disaster strikes?"
It's an old complaint revived, of course, by the catastrophe visited
upon the Gulf states by Hurricane Katrina. It states, in effect,
that the citizens of New Orleans and other devastated communities
in the region have only themselves to blame for their misfortune.
Similarly, prudent individuals will not chose to live alongside
great rivers like the Mississippi, or along active tectonic zones
(i.e., the entire Pacific coast), or in eastern cities such as New
York, which attract terrorists, or in the St. Louis/Memphis region,
the site of the New Madrid earthquake of 1812 – the most violent
US earthquake in recorded history. I guess we should all pack up
and move to Kansas instead.
Oh wait! They have tornadoes.
Who is Responsible for New Orleans' Safety?
The free-market absolutist libertarian right proclaims, in Ayn
Rand's words, that "there is no such entity as .. 'the public'
... only a number of individual men." (Rand: The Objectivist
Ethics.) Thus the optimal society emerges "automatically,"
through an unregulated free market, from the self-serving economic
activity of individuals and families.
By extension, apologists for the Bush Administration's neglect
of the pre-Katrina safety and the post-Katrina recovery seem to
be telling us that there is no such entity as "the nation,"
there are only states and regions, whose responsibility it is to
look after their own safety and recovery.
This policy is articulated in an e-mail of uncertain origin that
I received last week, which states a now-familiar cop-out of the
In case you aren't familiar with how our government is supposed
to work the chain of responsibility for the protection of the
citizens of New Orleans is:
1. The Mayor of New Orleans
2. The New Orleans director of Homeland Security
3. The Governor of Louisiana
4. The [Secretary] of Homeland Security
5. The President of the United States
The e-mail message then proceeds to argue that due to the alleged
blunders of the mayor and the governor, the secretary and the president
are absolved of responsibility for the horror that followed the
hurricane. This, we are told, was a city problem and a state problem,
not a national problem. As is now more than obvious, this excuse
(along with "this not the time to play the blame game")
has become the standard talking point of the Bush apologists.
In fact, when a governor asks the president to declare a federal
state of emergency (as Governor Blanco did two days before landfall)
and the president agrees (as Bush did the same day), the above-listed
"chain of responsibility" is reversed and the buck stops
at the President's desk. This procedure is explicitly stated in
the Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD5 issued
and signed by George Bush in February 28, 2003, which
you can read here (see paragraph 4).
Media reports and right-wing punditry to the contrary notwithstanding,
the mayor and the governor fulfilled their responsibilities, albeit
imperfectly. (See "Right
Wing Myths about Katrina, Debunked.")
The right, with its concept of "the nation" as a collage
of autonomous states and regions, compares the devastated gulf region
to a diseased branch on a tree. Cut off the branch, and the tree
will be no worse off, and perhaps more healthy. Thus: "It's
too bad about what happened to New Orleans, and maybe we'll be charitable
and send them some aid. But, once again, it is ultimately the fault
of the people in New Orleans because they willingly chose to live
in a sub-sea-level bowl."
On the other hand, progressives and economically-informed Republicans
see New Orleans and the gulf region as vital organs of the body
politic and of the economy of the United States. Thus damage to
this regional part is damage to the entire nation.
For the fact of the matter is that New Orleans is an "inevitable
city" – a geographic/economic necessity. The Mississippi River
drains two-thirds of the 48 contiguous states, and within its watershed
most of the nation's agricultural products are produced. And, now
that we have outsourced most of our manufacturing base, agricultural
products are our primary export, offsetting the United States' huge
(and unsustainable) trade deficit. Down the Mississippi and its
tributaries, barges full of the bounty of American farms are towed
toward the Gulf of Mexico, and to the necessary gulf port at the
At the same time, essential imports arrive at this port – by tonnage,
the largest port in the U.S. and the fifth largest in the world.
In addition, from the state of Louisiana, the United States gets
15% of its domestic petroleum and 27% of its natural gas.
As George Friedman writes in his excellent article, "New
Orleans: A Geopolitical Prize" before Katrina struck, "New
Orleans was, in many ways, the pivot of the American Economy,"
and, he adds, "there are no good shipping alternatives."
The cargo ships can go no further upstream, and downstream are swamps
and wetlands that prevent development.
In short, the port of New Orleans is an indispensable national
asset. Its loss, while an inconsolable tragedy to its residents,
now scattered around the nation, is also an economic hardship to
all Americans, and to millions abroad – as we are all about to discover.
And so the response to the opening taunt - "it's their fault
for living in a disaster-prone region" - is simple and straightforward:
someone had to live there, and because the entire nation
has benefited from the city and port of New Orleans, it is appropriate
that the entire nation should invest in its reconstruction and assist
in the rehabilitation of its unfortunate residents.
Similar considerations apply to the Pacific coast with its seismic
hazards, and the north-west with the additional threat of volcanoes.
The national economy requires Pacific seaports, along with the timber
of the north-west and the agricultural production of California's
incomparably fertile central valley. And so, if disaster strikes,
compensation to the victims is appropriate.
Any politician who believes that these regions are autonomous
and economically detachable and thus not the responsibility of the
federal government is unqualified for national leadership. To the
great misfortune of the United States, such individuals are nonetheless
in political control of the federal government.
Why a Federal Emergency Management Agency?
Why shouldn't the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana
take full responsibility for emergency management? Why should there
be a Federal agency charged with such tasks?
Answer: for the same reason that cities have fire departments.
Just as some fires can not be controlled by individual home owners,
some disasters are of a scale that overwhelm municipal and state
capacities. Often these disasters, like Katrina, affect several
states, and in such cases the only political entity qualified to
deal with multi-state disasters is the federal government.
It is conceivable, of course, that each state might invest in
massive, federal-scale, emergency response facilities, just as each
homeowner might purchase and park a $100,000 fire truck in his driveway,
"just in case." But the irrationality of both procedures
is immediately obvious.
Neither is cost-effective. While a fire in your home is unlikely,
the probability of fires breaking out somewhere in a city is sufficiently
high to justify a municipal fire department that is frequently engaged
in fire-fighting and constantly prepared to respond anywhere in
the city, including, of course, your home. Similarly, the minimal
annual probability of a Katrina-scale disaster in any particular
state is not worth the investment of fifty large-scale separate
"just-in-case" response facilities.
However, if we multiply the low-probability of a disaster in each
state by fifty, we then have a justification for an in-place and
at-the-ready federal agency such as FEMA. In short: fifty multi-billion
dollar agencies for each state is folly; one multi-billion dollar
agency for all states is rational.
Just as most home fires can be put out with a fire extinguisher
or a garden hose, most disasters can be managed with municipal and
state agencies. But for those rare and massive events, such as Katrina
and the much-anticipated major California earthquake, a coordinated
national response is imperative. As evidence for this claim, just
contrast the effectiveness of FEMA under James Lee Witt during the
Clinton administration with that of the crony-ridden fiasco of FEMA
So Who Lost New Orleans?
None of the leading official players in this tragic drama are
totally blameless – each one, if they had it to do over again, would
respond differently and more effectively. But that does not mean
that each responsible official is equally culpable.
Despite false media reports to the contrary (notably by the Washington
Post and Newsweek), Governor Blanco declared a state
of emergency on August 26, three days before the hurricane made
landfall. The following morning she asked Bush to declare a federal
state of emergency, which he granted, following which Bush, Homeland
Security Secretary Chertoff and FEMA Director Michael Brown were
inexcusably unresponsive for the next two days.
Mayor Nagin's mandatory evacuation order proved to be too little
and too late (by a whole day). Subsequent events would show that
FEMA, severely incapacitated by Bush administration cutbacks, the
loss of key professional personnel, and management by unqualified
political appointees, was worse than ineffective as it refused assistance
by relief agencies such as the Red Cross and numerous municipal
police and fire departments, and blocked assistance to victims by
volunteers. (For a detailed timeline with links to validating documents,
see Salon.com's "Timeline
George Bush's remark to CBS's Diane Sawyer that "I don't
think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," is contradicted
by numerous studies and media reports. In fact, the flooding of
New Orleans was long-anticipated and feared, and aggressive flood
control measures were proposed to Congress. All were slashed by
the Bush administration to small fractions of the amounts requested.
(See Will Bunch: "Why
the Levee Broke.")
It is impossible to determine with certainty whether a repaired
and improved levee system could have spared New Orleans from this
Category Four hurricane. If it could not, then the answer to the
question "who lost New Orleans" must be "Katrina."
If fully-funded and fully-installed levees would have held, then
the answer to "who lost New Orleans" is clearly "the
Bush Administration and the Republican Congress which refused to
fund the repair and re-enforcement of the levees."
But Katrina was two disasters: one natural – the hurricane, and
the other administrative – the botched relief effort that followed.
And for that second disaster the fault lies squarely with the Bush
Administration and its under-funded and atrociously administered
Federal Emergency Management Agency. The message of the Bush spin-machine,
and much of its enabling media, is that the blame lies with Governor
Blanco and Mayer Nagin. But the documented evidence, available
on the Internet for all to see, refutes this allegation.
At the root of the second, post-storm disaster is the right-wing's
visceral distrust of government: the Reaganite conviction that "government
is not the solution, government is the problem," and the Bushite
proclamation that "you can spend your money more wisely than
the federal government can." (Bush in the second debate, 2000).
As Thom Hartmann has observed, "You
Can't Govern if You Don't Believe in Government." And Katrina
has proved that because the Busheviks don't believe in government,
they can't govern. So, faced with a regional crisis with devastating
impacts upon the national economy, the Bush administration was incapable
of acting effectively in the national interest. Indeed, they are
scarcely capable of recognizing the very existence of a "national
interest" apart from the separate interests of privileged individuals
It is difficult to find any silver lining in Katrina's storm clouds.
But if there is any, it might be the dawning public realization
that there are good reasons why no civilized society is without
a government – why our founders recognized that an enlightened government,
"deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed,"
exists, in the words of our Constitution, to "establish Justice,
insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote
the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves
and our Posterity."
Those who dare to call themselves "conservatives" would
have us believe otherwise.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in
the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes
the website, The Online Gadfly
and co-edits the progressive website, The
Crisis Papers. He is at work on a book, Conscience of a
Progressive, which can be seen in-progress here.
Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crisis Papers Archive