A year ago Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and caused widespread destruction. A year later we’re in the midst of an orgy of media overkill about the Meaning of It All. Why should one hurricane out of several a year that hit the continental United States still stir our memories a year later?
The main reason, of course, is that New Orleans, arguably the birthplace of America’s most original contribution to world culture, jazz, and a city beloved by people all over the country and the world who have tasted its revels, was virtually destroyed, and it is uncertain if it will ever really come back.
Despite heroic efforts and heartwarming tales of self-reliance and helping hands, the future of one of America’s premier cities still teeters on the edge of government-built levees that will hold up to Category 3 storms, might withstand Category 4 storms, but probably are insufficient should another Category 5, Katrina-like storm hit.
The storm also became a vehicle for critics of the Bush administration and a metaphor for the ineffectiveness of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, an agency traditionally headed by political hacks. But it wasn’t only FEMA, which, among other things, turned away three Wal-Mart trailer trucks loaded with bottled water, that failed. State and local governments not only floundered but actively prevented the Red Cross and Salvation Army from going into the city with relief supplies in the crucial first hours.
Now, a year later, more than half of New Orleans’ former residents still have not returned, and rebuilding is excruciatingly slow. Why?
There are inescapable logistical reasons, of course. Much of New Orleans is built on land below the level of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, and when the levees broke damage was done that can’t be fixed with a few two-by-fours and some plasterboard. Houses that had stood for generations were devastated. Entire neighborhoods were wiped out, and people wonder whether the risk of rebuilding in such disaster-prone areas is worth it.
A significant portion of the reason why New Orleans is still in limbo, however, may stem from decades of over-reliance on the very institutions that failed to cope adequately with Katrina. Poor people especially have been encouraged to rely on government not only for rescue from disasters but for all the necessities of life. Forced by disaster and dysfunction to rely on their own resources, too many discovered how slim those resources were.
Post-Katrina rebuilding has been hindered, rather than helped, by government sclerosis. Endless commissions and advisory panels have dithered over whether an all-encompassing master plan should be imposed, delaying action by those who simply wanted to clean up their properties and get on with things their own way, the way New Orleans originally grew into one of the most memorable places on Earth.
Our druthers would be for the city to resist the impulse to impose a top-down master plan, but establish few regulations and encourage private-sector insurance and financial support that helps communities reemerge and homeowners rebuild lives. New Orleans may never again be what it once was — for better and for worse. The best way to find out what it can become is for government to get out of the way, not to lock the city in a suffocating embrace.
FEMA and other agencies say they have supplies and tracking systems in place and won’t repeat last year’s mistakes if a disaster hits this year. But the levees are untested, and the culture of dependency has not even been addressed, let alone cured.