Anyone watching television news is familiar with the muddy mess left in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While these disastrous images invade our homes and our consciences, another storm is ravaging in the pressrooms of the left and right winged media.
Rescue efforts had barely begun when the finger pointing from the political poles started; the left blasting President Bush and the right blaming everybody else but the president. There’s no doubt that much of damage to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast might have been prevented, but realistically, there is no one public official or agency to blame. Disasters like this usually happen because of a confluence of mismanagement and incompetence.
The levees holding in Lake Pontchartrain are a perfect example. Parish officials started noting the need to strengthen the levees nearly twenty years ago. The Lake Pontchartrain area comes under the rubric of the federal Flood Control Act of 1928, and improvements to flood control are funded through the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project. Parish authorities sited the history of hurricane activities in the Gulf Coast region as a reason for continued improvement to the Lake Pontchartrain levees. But no one anticipated that a Level 5 storm could possibly hit the area. So the Army Corps of Engineers, which carries out planning and construction of improvements, fortified the levees to protect against Level 3 storms, the designation given many of the hurricanes that affected the area in the past. This is the dance of bureaucracy city and federal officials across the country have performed for years. The fed gives you what is indicated rather than what you think you need.
So who’s to blame for the levee collapse? Is it the Parish officials who didn’t insist on better fortification, the state for not lobbying the fed for better protection for its citizens, or the federal government for only performing minimum improvements? The answer: all three. Parish officials had a number of options to fund further improvements of the levees, including bond initiatives, borrowing, and increasing bed and sales taxes. The state had the opportunity to lobby the federal government for increased funding and its congressional representatives for legislation which would have improved the level of funding inherent in the Flood Control Act. And the fed could have listened more to the concerns of the local residents and commissions, studied the meteorological history of the area better and provided maximum improvements rather than minimums. This scenario isn’t a result of what individual republicans or democrats failed to do- it’s a result of institutional thinking. Everyone involved recognized the problem, but no one came up with an adequate solution.
It’s understandable why this faulty thinking exists. In the brief life of this country, we’ve had relatively few disasters compared with so many countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the continent to our south. Without such real life experience, it’s easy for us to feel like we are somehow impenetrable. Whenever disaster does strike we realize how vulnerable we are, but that realization is gone after a short period of time. Such events in this country usually don’t last long. So it’s easy for us to move on until the next crisis occurs. It’s not like we had to endure the Black Plague that killed 70,000 in Europe or the recent tsunami in Asia that took the lives of 150,000. Only AIDS and the Flu Epidemic of 1918 have affected huge numbers of people in this country at one time.
Many of these decisions are made in order to lower costs for whoever may be footing the bill. It’s a lesson that few learn from. The immediate result of stop-gap repairs may be satisfying to the numbers crunchers. But when the stop-gaps give way, it always results in extreme expense, including human life. The ultimate economic loss for the devastation will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars and the human costs will be exorbitant. Thousands are dead, tens of thousands ill or wounded, and many more thousands homeless.
It will likely take many more disasters like New Orleans before we see a change in how we deal with impending disasters. Across the US, infrastructure is weakening due to overuse and lack of maintenance. Until we comprehend how easily nature outmaneuvers us, the polarized punditry will continue to stir the pot of discontent, assigning blame to whomever is in charge when the highways, bridges, levees, and buildings come crashing down around us.