I was born in New Orleans and raised in its close-in suburbs. I lived there until 1980, when I moved to New York City for graduate school. My parents, most of my siblings, and many of my nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends still live either in New Orleans proper or in its greater metro area.
I have purposely avoided blogging about the catastrophe in my home town, partly because I find myself unexpectedly emotional about it and partly because my mind now is swirling with too many disconnected thoughts and uncertainties.
But here are some reactions that I find myself having again and again as I encounter reports on this disaster. I offer these in no particular order.
First. While it’s true that New Orleans sits below sea level, and the Mississippi River’s natural flow has been replaced by a human-directed flow, these facts alone do not mean that New Orleans should not exist where it exists. The Netherlands, to pick one example, is one of the many other places that exist only because of human ingenuity at holding back the sea and replacing nature’s boundaries with man-made ones.
The long-standing existence of The Netherlands and other such places, of course, doesn’t prove the wisdom of having a major population center squeezed between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River – but it does mean that New Orleans’s significant reliance upon levees, spillways, and other feats of earth movement and hydraulic engineering is not necessarily a curse condemning New Orleans to tragedy.
Second. Virtually all useful help – from search and rescue to rebuilding – will come from decentralized sources. No governor, no beltway bureaucrat, and certainly no U.S. President, has sufficient knowledge of what must be done and how best to do it. It’s a fantasy to suppose that Washington can ‘save’ or even give much help to New Orleanians today. The vast majority of good and even great deeds will be performed by individuals, with no direction from DC or from any government agency. Individuals each in his or her own unique circumstances, each knowing of unique problems and opportunities, are the ones who will save lives, help re-unite families, and assist in rebuilding homes and infrastructure.
Third. Time and again, the mantra is that government’s core duty is to supply law and order. Well, it’s not doing so in New Orleans. There is little law there today.
Fourth, the government’s plan for protecting people from Katrina – first putting them in the Superdome, then in the New Orleans Convention Center – seems, admittedly in retrospect, to have been grotesquely ill-advised (to put it mildly). People were herded into these places that are utterly inadequate to handle refugees. Then these people were abandoned there. Where were – where are – the great and good government officials, the public servants, dedicated to protecting people from each other and from the elements in such times of grave emergency? They’ve failed. Why?
I understand that the devastation spread by Katrina makes even the most ordinary daily tasks difficult or even impossible to do. There may be good, if regrettable, reasons for why FEMA is taking so long to get water and food to the refugees, and for why there’s too little police presence in the Convention Center. Maybe. But damn it, isn’t it time people reject as a cruel hoax the notion that government possesses superhuman powers and is motivated by angelic intentions? That it can do things that non-political institutions cannot do?
Who can still believe that, when the chips are down and there’s no one left to count on, people can count on their government for basic help?
Katrina, in addition to stripping my hometown of life, unmasked the pretenses of government as savior.