Hurricane Katrina made landfall exactly a decade ago. It was a politically consequential act of God, which I didn't fully appreciate at the time. Here's what I had to say before, during and after, as it swept through. First, from Britain's Daily Telegraph on August 30th 2005:
If memory serves, the last British hurricane warning was the one delivered - or, rather, non-delivered - by Michael Fish on the BBC: "A lady's just called in to say there's a hurricane. Hur-hur," chuckled Michael dismissively, shortly before it swept in and destroyed all seven oaks in Sevenoaks.
On Sunday, the New Orleans bureau of the National Weather Service, the Met Office's US equivalent, was rather more specific:
Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer. All gabled roofs will fail. The majority of industrial buildings will become non-functional. All wood-framed low-rising apartment buildings will be destroyed. All windows will blow out. Power outages will last for weeks. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards. The vast majority of native trees will be snapped or uprooted. Few crops will remain.
All gabled roofs? All low-rise apartment buildings? All windows? As the weekend wore on, this weather forecast of Biblical proportions turned out to be one of the more understated voices of doom. The Associated Press reported:
Estimates have been made of tens of thousands of deaths from flooding that could overrun the levees and turn New Orleans into a 30ft-deep toxic lake filled with chemicals and petroleum from refineries, and waste from ruined septic systems.
Not to mention the snakes and crocodiles and all the dead bodies from the city's above-the-ground burial plots. I switched on the television to find one expert speculating on the impact of a vast increase in West Nile mosquitoes on those Gulf Coasters who are HIV-positive. And, if that seems a fairly unlikely combination of factors, how about the scene at the New Orleans Superdome? The last refuge of those trapped in the city, the sports stadium was expected to have its lower two stories flooded, while up above huddled 40,000 people with little light, no functioning bathrooms, no air conditioning and temperatures up in the nineties. That's if the roof holds in the 160mph winds.
Anything else? Only the devastation of a big chunk of the oil industry. The estimated $30 billion economic damage was scheduled to begin with a 20-cent-per-gallon rise at the nation's petrol stations by this weekend.
By the time you read this, it may all have come to pass, and West Nile-infected Aids victims may be swimming through the toxic soup of the flooded French Quarter dodging crocodiles and thousands of corpses. But as the cable news speculation and anticipation wandered off down ever more recherché byways in the 24 hours before landfall, it occurred to me that these days Harold Macmillan's bit of alleged political wisdom has never been more wrong. Asked what he feared most, Macmillan famously replied: "Events, dear boy, events." But today in the developed world we don't "fear" events; quite the opposite. It's not that we exactly look forward to them per se, but that we relish the opportunity to rise to the occasion.
And, on the whole, we do. Oh, to be sure, there are always folks who panic, or loot. But most people don't, and many are capable of extraordinary acts of hastily improvised heroism.
I wrote about the phenomenon of "social co-ordination" a few weeks ago apropos the Air France crash in Toronto, and I'm sure there's plenty of it going on in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. "Events" we can cope with. If life were a disaster movie, we'd be fine.
You might recall last year's hilarious eco-doom blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, in which (warning: plot spoiler) a speech by Vice-President Dick Cheney brings on the flash-freezing of the entire northern hemisphere.
I'm not an environmentalist, but I'll take their word for it that that's scientifically possible. If it happens, we'll get over it. In the film, the so-called "money shot" of New York's harbour frozen solid looked to me like a typical February day at the Saguenay fjord in my beloved Quebec. No doubt if you're a commodities broker or an assistant choreographer, it'd be a bit of a bummer, but you'd be surprised at how quickly you pick up the basics of ice-fishing and snow insulation.
The real problems are the non-events - the things that aren't sudden but gradual, the frog-in-the-slow-boiling-water stuff. It's not just that we don't notice the slow-boil threats, but that, insofar as we do take the long view, we obsess on utterly fictional dangers.
Jared Diamond currently has a bestselling book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. A timely subject, so I bought a copy. More fool me. It's all about Easter Island going belly up because they chopped down all their trees. That's why they're not a G8 member. Same with the Greenlanders and the Mayans and Diamond's other curious choices of "societies". Indeed, as the author sees it, pretty much every society collapses because it chops down its trees.
Poor old Diamond can't see the forest because of his obsession with the trees. Russia is collapsing and it's nothing to do with deforestation. Conversely, Diamond's book is a huge bestseller with those who see it as a warning on the perils of excessive consumerism - even though, in fact, America returns land to the wilderness every year, and my own town is far more forested than it was in either 1905 or 1805. Diamond's book couldn't be any loopier than if he'd argued that deforestation of Arabia was responsible for September 11th.
So the real test of this hurricane is whether, after the event, there's still the will to tackle the long-term questions. For example, as further refutation of the Diamond thesis, in 1981 America had 315 oil refineries in operation; today, it has 144. Louisiana has 17 of them, operating - pre-hurricane - at capacity. Which is why petrol will be up 20 cents a gallon by the weekend. Why, in the middle of a war centred on unstable foreign oil regimes in the Middle East, is it still politically impossible to upgrade the capacity of the domestic oil industry?
As the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina demonstrate, mankind has got very good at responding to acts of God. We're not so hot at responding to the acts (political and cultural) of man.
Well, the good burghers of New Orleans, not to mention their worthless municipal government, pretty much cleaned my clock on the first sentence of that last paragraph. Five days later I was despairing in The Chicago Sun-Times:
In the Atlantic Monthly a few years back, Robert D. Kaplan went to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other failed jurisdictions of West Africa and concluded that many of the 'citizens' of these 'states,' roaming the streets raping and killing, belonged to a phenomenon called 're-primitivized man.'
Anyone watching TV in recent days will have seen plenty of 're-primitivized man,' not in Liberia or Somalia, but in Louisiana. Cops smashing the Wal-Mart DVD cabinet so they can get their share of the booty along with the rest of the looters, gangs firing on a children's hospital and on rescue helicopters, hurricane victims being raped in the New Orleans Convention Center. . . . If you're minded, as many of the world's anti-Americans are, to regard the United States as a depraved swamp, it was a grand old week: Mother Nature delivered the swamp, but plenty of natives supplied the depravity.
Not all of them, of course. But it doesn't really matter if it's only 5 per cent or 2 per cent or 0.01 per cent if everybody else is giving them free rein. Not exactly the most impressive law enforcement agency even on a good day, the New Orleans Police Department sent along some 80 officers to rescue the rape victims trapped in the Convention Center, but were beaten back by the mob. Meanwhile, the ever more pitiful governor was, unlike many of her fellow Louisianans, safe on dry land but still floundering way out of her depth, unable to stand up to the lawlessness even rhetorically or to communicate anything other than emotive impotence.
With most disasters, it's a good rule to let the rescue teams do their work and leave the sniping till folks are safe. But in New Orleans last week the emergency work has been seriously hampered by actual literal sniping, as at that hospital. The authorities lost control of the streets. Which one of Tom Ridge's Homeland Security color codes does that fall under?
After September 11th, many people who should have known better argued that it was somehow a vindication of government. 'One of the things that's changed so much since Sept. 11,' agreed Vice President Dick Cheney, 'is the extent to which people do trust the government - big shift - and value it, and have high expectations for what we can do.'
Hard to see why he'd say that. September 11th was an appalling comprehensive failure of just about every relevant federal agency. The only government that worked that day was local and state: The great defining image, redeeming American honor at a moment of national humiliation, is those brave New York firemen pounding up the stairs of the World Trade Center. What consolations can be drawn from the lopsided tango between slapdash bureaucrats and subhuman predators in New Orleans?
To be fair, next door, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi has been the Giuliani of the hour, and there are many tales of great courage, like the teams from the Children's Hospital of Alabama who've been helicoptering in to New Orleans to rescue newborn babies.
The comparison with September 11th isn't exact, but it's fair to this extent: Katrina was the biggest disaster on American soil since that day provoked the total overhaul of the system and the devotion of billions of dollars and the finest minds in the nation to the prioritizing of homeland security. It was, thus, the first major test of the post-9/11 structures. Happy with the results?
Muhammad Yousef Al-Mlaifi, director of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Endowment (and no, I've no idea what that means, though feel free to do your own jokes), wrote a hurricane essay arguing the novel line that 'The Terrorist Katrina Is A Soldier Of Allah.' You could sort of see his point. Imagine if al-Qaida were less boneheaded and had troubled themselves to learn a bit more about the Great Satan's weak spots. Imagine if they'd decided to blow up a couple of levees and flood a great American city. Would local and state government have responded any more effectively than they did last week? After all, Katrina, unlike Osama, let 'em know she was heading their way.
The nation's taxpayers will now be asked to rebuild New Orleans. The rationale for doing so is that it is a great city of national significance. Fine. But, if it's of national significance, what have all the homeland security task forces been doing these last four years? Why is the defense of the city still left to a system of levees each with its own individual administrative regime? If it's of national significance, why did the porkmeisters of the national legislature and national executive branch slash a request by the Army Corps of Engineers for $105 million for additional flood protection measures there down to just over $40 million, at the same time they approved a $230 million bridge to an uninhabited Alaskan island? Given that the transport infrastructure's already in place, maybe it makes more sense to rebuild New Orleans in Alaska.
One thing that became clear two or three months after 'the day that everything changed' is that nothing changed - that huge swathes of the political culture in America remain committed to a bargain that stiffs the people at every level, a system of lavish funding of pseudo-action. You could have done as the anti-war left wanted and re-allocated every dollar spent in Iraq to Louisiana. Or you could have done as some of the rest of us want and re-allocated every buck spent on, say, subsidizing Ted Turner's and Sam Donaldson's play-farming activities. But, in either case, I'll bet Louisiana's kleptocrat public service would have pocketed the dough and carried on as usual - and, come the big day, the state would still have flopped out, and New Orleans' foul-mouthed mayor would still be ranting about why it was all everybody's else fault.
The assumption was that after 9/11, big towns and small took stock and identified their weak points. That's what they told us they were doing, and that's what they were getting big bucks to do. But in New Orleans no one had a plan that addressed levee failure, and no one had a plan for the large percentage of vehicleless citizens who'd be unable to evacuate, and no one had a plan to deal with widespread looting. Given that all these local factors are widely known -- New Orleans is a below-sea-level city with high crime and a low rate of automobile ownership -- it makes you wonder how the city would cope with something truly surprising - like, say, a biological attack.
We've yet to find that out. At any rate, two days later, I returned to Britain's Telegraph to reflect on my previous breezy assurances about the resilience of the Big Easy:
Readers may recall my words from a week ago on the approaching Katrina: "We relish the opportunity to rise to the occasion. And on the whole we do. Oh, to be sure, there are always folks who panic or loot. But most people don't, and many are capable of extraordinary acts of hastily improvised heroism."
What the hell was I thinking? I should be fired for that. Well, someone should be fired. I say that in the spirit of the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, the Anti-Giuliani, a Mayor Culpa who always knows where to point the finger.
For some reason, I failed to consider the possibility that the panickers would include Hizzoner the Mayor and the looters would include significant numbers of the police department, though in fairness I wasn't the only one. As General Blum said at Saturday's Defence Department briefing: "No one anticipated the disintegration or the erosion of the civilian police force in New Orleans."
Indeed, they eroded faster than the levees. Several hundred cops are reported to have walked off the job. To give the city credit, it has a lovely "Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan" for hurricanes. The only flaw in the plan is that the person charged with putting it into effect is the mayor. And he didn't.
But I don't want to blame any single figure: the anti-Bush crowd have that act pretty much sewn up. I'd say New Orleans's political failure is symptomatic of a broader failure.
I got an e-mail over the weekend from a US Army surgeon just back in Afghanistan after his wedding. Changing planes in Kuwait for the final leg to Bagram and confronted by yet another charity box for Katrina relief, he decided that this time he'd pass. "I'd had it up to here," he wrote, "with the passivity, the whining, and the when-are-they-going-to-do-something blame game."
Let it be said that no one should die in a 100F windowless attic because he fled upstairs when the flood waters rose and now can't get out. But, in his general characterisation of "the Big Easy", my correspondent is not wrong. The point is, what are you like when it's not so easy?
Congressman Billy Tauzin once said of his state: "One half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment." Last week, four fifths of New Orleans was under water and the other four fifths should be under indictment - which is the kind of arithmetic the state's deeply entrenched kleptocrat political culture will have no trouble making add up.
Consider the signature image of the flood: an aerial shot of 255 school buses neatly parked at one city lot, their fuel tanks leaking gasoline into the urban lake. An enterprising blogger, Bryan Preston, worked out that each bus had 66 seats, which meant that the vehicles at just that one lot could have ferried out 16,830 people. Instead of entrusting its most vulnerable citizens to the gang-infested faecal hell of the Superdome, New Orleans had more than enough municipal transport on hand to have got almost everyone out in a couple of runs last Sunday.
Why didn't they? Well, the mayor didn't give the order. OK, but how about school board officials, or the fellows with the public schools transportation department, or the guy who runs that motor pool, or the individual bus drivers? If it ever occurred to any of them that these were potentially useful evacuation assets, they kept it to themselves.
So the first school bus to escape New Orleans and make it to safety in Texas was one that had been abandoned on a city street. A party of sodden citizens, ranging from the elderly to an eight-day-old baby, were desperate to get out, hopped aboard and got teenager Jabbor Gibson to drive them 13 hours non-stop to Houston. He'd never driven a bus before, and the authorities back in New Orleans may yet prosecute him. For rescuing people without a permit?
My Afghanistan army guy's observations on "passivity" reminded me of something I wrote for this paper a few days after 9/11, about how the airline cabin was the embodiment of the "culture of passivity". It's the most regulated environment most of us ever enter.
So on three of those flights everyone faithfully followed the Federal Aviation Administration's 1970s hijack procedures until it was too late. On the fourth plane, Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Thomas Burnett, Mark Bingham and other forgotten heroes figured out what was going on and rushed their hijackers, preventing the plane from proceeding to its target - believed to be the White House or Congress. On a morning when the government did nothing for those passengers, those passengers did something for the government.
On 9/11, the federal government failed the people; last week, local and state government failed the people. On 9/11, they stuck to the 30-year-old plan; last week, they didn't bother implementing the state-of-the-art 21st-century plan. Why argue about which level of bureaucracy you prefer to be let down by?
My mistake was to think that the citizenry of the Big Easy would rise to the great rallying cry of Todd Beamer: "Are you ready, guys? Let's roll!" Instead, the spirit of the week was summed up by a gentleman called Mike Franklin, taking time out of his hectic schedule of looting to speak to the Associated Press: "People who are oppressed all their lives, man, it's an opportunity to get back at society."
Unlike 9/11, when the cult of victimhood was temporarily suspended in honour of the many real, actual victims under the rubble, in New Orleans everyone claimed the mantle of victim, from the incompetent mayor to the "oppressed" guys wading through the water with new DVD players under each arm.
Welfare culture is bad not just because, as in Europe, it's bankrupting the state, but because it enfeebles the citizenry, it erodes self-reliance and resourcefulness.
New Orleans is a party town in the middle of a welfare swamp and, like many parties, it doesn't look so good when someone puts the lights up. I'll always be grateful to a burg that gave us Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima, and I'll always love Satch's great record of "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?" But, after this last week, I'm not sure I would.
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