September 25, 2007

New Orleans

Last night I was thinking about writing the follow up to a post I wrote about New Orleans a couple of weeks ago. There are many things that I can say about New Orleans and the gulf coast post Katrina, but while I certainly have the right to express them here, I realize that I am in no way qualified to do so. I moved to Louisiana five weeks ago and have spent only five days in New Orleans. Most of that time was spent in the Central Business District, French Quarter and Garden District, some of the least effected areas of the city. Much of the knowledge that I have of Hurricane Katrina is second hand and consequently somewhat invalidated. That being said, I write this post for my own edification.

There can be no dispute that the people of New Orleans were failed in many ways, some more excusable than others. I can understand why residents weren’t completely evacuated before the storm hit. Politicians, engineers and citizens all made the same innocent assumption that a storm the size of Katrina would not hit New Orleans. A gamble was made and it carried with it epic consequences. Had Katrina gone the same direction of hundreds of storms before it, many lives and billions of dollars would have been saved.

Every day we take the same type of gambles in our own lives. I just made one a few hours ago when my daughter was uncontrollably crying and I decided not to pull the straps on her car seat as tightly as directed. If I were ever to experience the complete consequences of such an action, beyond my own personal devastation I would be deemed not a loving, but an irresponsible parent. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was a macrocosm of these same decisions, the ones we make every day and never have to live with the effects of.

As I see it, the largest failure then of Katrina is how we responded after the storm left the region. Never before had there been a reason to evacuate the entire city, so you can’t blame residents for not leaving prior to landfall. Ultimately there was no logistical way to pull this off anyway, making the point moot. However, after everyone around the country woke up the next day to see the almost complete destruction, there could no longer be an excuse to respond so slowly to people in need. Some would say that this simplifies the issue of evacuation, but in a country of such vast economic, industrial, and social resources, if we wanted everyone out of New Orleans immediately following the storm, they would have been out. The blame for that lies on every single decision maker involved from President Bush down to Mayor Nagin.

And how about now, a full two years after Hurricane Katrina? Amazingly, like “September 11th”, “Hurricane Katrina” has become part of our national lexicon. How similar are these two disasters? One directly perpetrated by people of ill will, unavoidable; instantly becoming the most heinous moment in our history. The other perpetrated by our own collective inactivity in response to an obvious growing disaster. Yet the two occupy the same place in our mind, the place that makes you feel like you got punched in the stomach whenever you think of it.

Maybe the uniting factor of these two tragedies is the ridiculous reality that years later, the situation at both ground zero and the hardest hit sections of New Orleans, is virtually identical to that of just months after each event. In both cases the only reason for such inactivity is political red tape and insurance company wrangling. In New York, where my wife and I lived for three years, the ludicrous question of whether or not each tower’s collapse represented two separate attacks was just the first of many curious insurance company maneuvers designed to transfer rebuilding costs to the developers. Residents of New Orleans and the gulf coast are experiencing the same type of maneuvering when insurance companies deftly and superciliously try to show that damage from flooding during a hurricane is somehow not related to that same hurricane.

Politically, if everyone were not so worried about where they should come down on these issues, there would be a chance for someone to step into the forefront and move us towards rebuilding. The Freedom tower has finally gotten under way in New York, but not before they have gone through one new mayor, one new governor and six long years. Who knows how long it will take to fully rebuild the entire gulf coast. The owners of the World Trade Center sight are not exactly poor, both politically and financially. Just imagine trying to implement such change if you are the minority owner of a small flattened home, one of thousands, in the Lower Ninth Ward alone.

One of the more unfortunate nuances of both of these historically tragic events is that most Americans have already, in large part, forgotten them. We have forgotten not just that they happened, but forgotten the climate and circumstances that led to them. Undoubtedly we will look back on them whenever it is that the next terrorist attack or natural disaster occurs and wonder why we didn't heed the lessons that they left behind.


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