September 05, 2005

A Confederacy of Dunces

Much as I dislike George Bush, there seems to be more than enough responsibility to go around for the disgraceful post-Katrina efforts, and we'd better learn our lessons quickly before the next U.S. disaster, natural or man-made. Rudy Giuliani can't be there to bail us out every time.
  • Generations of Louisiana governors and NO mayors who lined their own, and their friends', pockets at the expense of the state's and city's poor.
  • Also from the last article, "Bush had the legal authority to order the National Guard to the disaster area himself, as he did after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. But the troops four years ago were deployed for national security protection, and presidents of both parties traditionally defer to governors to deploy their own National Guardsmen and request help from other states when it comes to natural disasters. In addition to Guard help, the federal government could have activated, but did not, a major air support plan under a pre-existing contract with airlines. The program, called Civilian Reserve Air Fleet, lets the government quickly put private cargo and passenger planes into service."
  • The shameful treatment of tourists and international visitors caught in the crisis. Ten million tourists visited New Orleans last year, and the rebuilt city, when it's up and running, might benefit from some of those tourist dollars. I remember reading on the NO Times-Picayune website (I can't seem to find a link for it now) that "At the Wyndham Canal Place, which housed 1,500 guests, employees and their families during the storm, guests were turned loose if they couldn't get out on their own."
  • The blinkered and less than constructive comments by members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other African-American leaders.
  • News outlets ignoring much of the devastation beyond New Orleans, especially in Mississippi, where entire towns and cities are gone, too.
    Last Thursday, The Houston Chronicle reprinted this article from 2001. Apparently no-one in any position of authority read that, either.

    More than 16 years ago, John McPhee wrote in The Control of Nature,
    Something like half of New Orleans is now below sea level -- as much as fifteen feet. New Orleans, surrounded levees, is emplaced between Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi like a broad shallow bowl. Nowhere is New Orleans higher than the river's natural bank. Underprivileged people live in the lower elevations, and always have. The rich -- by the river -- occupy the highest ground. In New Orleans, income and elevation can be correlated on a literally sliding scale: the Garden District on the highest level, Stanley Kowalski in the swamp. The Garden District and its environs are locally known as uptown.

    Torrential rains fall on New Orleans -- enough to cause flash floods inside the municipal walls. The water has nowhere to go. Left on its own, it would form a lake, rising inexorably from one level of the economy to the next. So it has to be pumped out. Every drop of rain that falls on New Orleans evaporates or is pumped out. Its removal lowers the water table and accelerates the city's subsidence. Where marshes have been drained to create tracts for new hosing, ground will shrink too. People buy landfill to keep up with the Joneses. In the words of Bob Fairless, of the New Orleans District engineers, "It's almost an annual spring ritual to get a load of dirt and fill in the low spots on your lawn." ....

    In the early nineteen-eighties, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a new large district headquarters in New Orleans. It is a tetragon, several stories high, with expanses of sheet glass, and it is right beside the river. Its foundation was dug in the mainline levee. That, to a fare-the-well, is putting your money where your mouth is.

    Among the five hundred miles of levee deficiencies now calling for attention along the Mississippi River, the most serious happen to be in New Orleans. Among other factors, the freeboard -- the amount of levee that reaches above flood levels -- has to be higher in New Orleans to combat the waves of ships. Elsewhere, the deficiencies are averaging between one and two feet with respect to the computed high-water flow line, which goes on rising as runoffs continue to speed up and waters are increasingly confined. Not only is the water higher. The levees tend to sink as well. They press down on the mucks beneath them and squirt materials out to the sides. Their crowns have to be built up. "You put five feet on and three feet sink," a [U.S. Army] Corps engineer remarked to me one day. ..."

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