A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Many people want to blame President Bush for the disaster in New Orleans. The president was slow to react, but by the time the disaster had landed in his lap, the failure of Louisiana officials had already been decisive.

A hurricane’s direct assault on New Orleans, breaking the levees and swamping the city, had long been understood as Louisiana’s greatest vulnerability. But two months before the hurricane struck, New Orleans’s daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, reported that the city lacked the resources and planning to evacuate the estimated 130,000 residents who lacked private transportation.

Realizing this, the city warned those residents that they were on their own in the face of a storm, and urged them to make arrangements for getting out in such an emergency. This was good enough for state government, as well.

Only now that the city is wrecked is government more or less forcibly moving people out _ showing that the authority was there if anyone had wanted to use it.

As the hurricane bore down, the city administration, having declined to organize emergency transport for the poor and helpless, announced that the Louisiana Superdome would serve as the shelter of last resort. But provisions for food, water, sanitation and security were grossly inadequate.

When the levees broke and the city was flooded, the city administration was put out of business. Much of the administration had already evacuated, and then half the police department scattered, while the half that bravely stayed was not equipped to serve as a navy, and so was almost incapacitated.

Meanwhile, the rest of Louisiana never mobilized itself. The governor never called on police from the rest of the state to gather at the state capital to be marshaled, along with the National Guard, for deployment with boats to New Orleans. For the longest time, the governor seemed to think that sending a few dozen extra state troopers would be sufficient, when the troopers were barely able to protect themselves against thousands of trapped and desperate people.

Neither the mayor nor the governor took charge; only television journalists did.

And so for three days the world watched TV broadcasts from the Superdome and the nearby New Orleans convention center as the refugees sweated, thirsted, starved, went mad, and were murdered or otherwise died.

As soon as the broadcasts from New Orleans made clear that no one was taking charge to organize a relief column, the president should have federalized the National Guard of Louisiana and nearby states and directed them to the city. He should even have airdropped water bottles from Air Force One himself, if that was what it took.

But even then, New Orleans would have been only slightly less a disaster _ for even the best management would probably not have gotten the necessary cooperation. There were so many residents who refused to evacuate _ including many who especially should have known better, such as administrators of hospitals and nursing homes.

New Orleans has its virtues quite apart from jazz and partying. It is a crucial industrial center and port, as now attested by the national shortage of gasoline and natural gas, and the interruption of international trade.

But New Orleans is also a lethargic place, and its being largely below sea level is a bit of a metaphor, for it is also a desperately poor place with many zonked-out people _ a place where it can be, in every respect, hard to get lower. (The French Quarter, the part of town most seen by outsiders _ not the part where most people live _ is above sea level, and so was not badly damaged.)

When disaster struck New Orleans, there were many women with children, but few fathers to protect them _ even as there were many predatory men who, when government dissolved, ran rampant over them and the city.

Indeed, there may not have been much in government in Louisiana that hadn’t already broken down. The old joke is that half the state is underwater and the other half under indictment. The Almanac of American Politics calls it “America’s banana republic.”

Yet though Louisiana may be the state least able to cope with disaster _ and New Orleans is uniquely vulnerable to flooding _ similar disasters in other U.S. cities might have similar results. This is partly because cities are increasingly concentrations of the poor, sick, disconnected, and predatory. It is also because deferred maintenance and neglect of infrastructure are not unique to Louisiana. On the contrary, they are national policy _ from the 1983 collapse of a Connecticut Turnpike bridge to the storage of radioactive waste at nuclear-power plants, thanks to the failure to complete the long-promised Nevada-desert storage facility.

The New Orleans disaster will be investigated. But preparing for the next hurricane is only a small part of what needs to be done.

(Chris Powell, managing editor of The Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn., spends a week each fall in New Orleans.)