There are those who say that New Orleans is a lost cause and that whole districts that lie below sea level should never be rehabilitated, that the chances of it happening all over again are just too great and that trying to hold back the waters is an expense not worth the risk.
That theme seems increasingly popular among conservative radio talkers who argue that in this age of global warming — a fact they now appear reluctantly to accept after years of denial — that tempting nature is not only foolish but ignores the obvious. All this comes against the backdrop of a city still struggling to emerge from the bad dream of Katrina two years after the fact and facing the urgency of another hurricane season.
While there is some validity to the contention that fate should not be so cavalierly tempted there is an obvious problem with writing off most of New Orleans, as some propose, as a cause even the most optimistic and sentimental must realize is lost. Nothing in modern times has so devastated the worldwide image of American capability and resilience as the failure to come to grips with the rebuilding of this magnificent Southern icon — not unimportantly the birthplace of our only indigenous art form, jazz. The city is among the most important symbols to the world of this nation’s melting pot toughness. It is a sensual place where a half dozen cultures have mixed for centuries to produce a romantic brand of living only the most callously insensitive would not find charming.
Asked to define the failures of the administration of President Bush, most of the world would say Iraq and New Orleans with the latter held up as among the most glaring examples of domestic failure in the history of the country, a model of bureaucratic incompetence that no one from the White House to the city’s amazingly inept administrators seems able to correct. One need only watch the almost nightly television pictures of the still devastated Ninth Ward and its environs to understand that only a small fraction of what needs to be done has been accomplished all these months later.
The fact that the Army Corps of Engineers has rebuilt the levee system to withstand only a Category 3 level of battering instead of the Category 5 that is needed for the city’s peace of mind is common knowledge from Iran to Ithaca and points west. Why? After all, this country rebuilt much of Europe after World War II in about the same time. This is a nation that lends its technical expertise and manpower to those hit by natural disasters around the globe with far more success.
Cynics and the president’s opponents would suggest that Bush’s stubborn refusal to realize the failure of Iraq and his demands for billions of dollars more to support that increasingly foolish war has drained our ability to rebuild the Crescent City’s neighborhoods and return tens of thousands to safe homes there. How does one find the money to build the levee system to needed specifications when the president demands $50 billion more for Iraq? Isn’t there something incongruous about making that request on the same day he traveled to New Orleans to offer words of encouragement?
For whatever reason, government at every level seems incapable of overcoming the bureaucratic failures that have kept this an ongoing tragedy far longer than necessary. The Federal Emergency Management Administration and its parent Department of Homeland Security have made monumental mistakes and every American depending on these guys for their security should be scared to death. The Corps of Engineers is a disgrace here and every politician from the Louisiana statehouse to the New Orleans’ City Hall should be booted out of office.
Americans are weary of the inaction and the lack of results. But most of them don’t agree with those who would abandon this beautiful old city to a flood plain of emptiness. New Orleans deserves better. Americans deserve better.
If Yankee know-how can’t overcome this, perhaps those who say the American age is coming to an end are correct. If we can’t move efficiently and swiftly to take care of our own, what business do we have trying to influence others?
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)