Wednesday, September 6. 2006
The following appeared in the Wichita Eagle back on Aug. 29, one year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It's titled "New Orleans Today" -- really just a list of numbers:
There are lots of interesting things you can unpack from those statistics, although there is certainly more to the story. For one thing, the federal government has spent quite a bit of money in the area. That money has stimulated the economy, which would otherwise be even worse off. But that money has mostly been spent on major infrastructure projects, like rebuilding the levees. That's not so unreasonable, but it's clear that the short-term construction boom isn't reinvigorating the city. That's one reason for the discrepancy between getting back to 2/3 of the pre-storm workforce but only 1/3 of the various service metrics.
But the other reason is that the disaster disproportionately drove from the city its numerous poor. The services shortfalls are just one reason the poor will be slow to return. But a deeper reason is that the poor depend on castoffs and hand-me-downs, and that's what the floods destroyed first and foremost. People of little means get by on whatever marginal environments they can find. We're blind to such niches, and when we do notice we seem them in negative terms -- as slums, as blight. So we can't conceive of rebuilding the city as it was, even though it's politically fashionable to assert that the city will rebound.
The rhetoric comes from our steadfast belief in progress. There are many instances where progress has stalled, and indeed where we've lost ground, but the slippage has usually been gradual. What happened to New Orleans was sudden: half a major city was wiped out in a day. Even if no similar storm returns -- not a prognostic to bet on -- New Orleans will never come back, least of all like it was. A big part of this is that we remain very confused about what happened and why, but we're also quite confused about what New Orleans was and how it got that way. Much of this confusion, both before and after the fact, comes from our faith in the free enterprise system. The idea that the invisible hand works to our mutual benefit is comforting myth; what is certain is that the invisible hand does things we don't see let alone comprehend -- like growing and decaying cities.
I went to the Wichita Public Library tonight, for the first time in 3-4 weeks. I saw thirty or so books that looked like they might be worth reading. I won't be able to read more than a couple of those -- I'm stacked up to a ridiculous degree already -- but I'm impressed with how hard so many people are working to try to clear up many of the problems we face. I remember searching through bookstores after 9/11 for anything that might help me to understand that had just happened and finding virtually nothing. Now there are dozens of books covering virtually every aspect of that and the misbegotten War on Terror that followed. On the other hand, all that effort has had little impact either on those in power, on their apologists, on their so-called opposition, or on anything having to do with popular opinion. I'm reminded once again that in my own experience with companies on the brink of failure, no amount of reason could alter their course.
Among those books, half-a-dozen were on Katrina, and another was on a 1969 hurricane that took the same course with much the same devastating effect. That book is Category 5: The Story of Camille, Lessons Unlearned From America's Most Violent Hurricane. The gist seems to be that political authorities were unprepared for Camille and botched every aspect of responding to it, much as they did with Katrina. As interesting as that one looked, I figured another book looked more immediately useful. This is by Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan, called The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina -- The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist. From the back cover:
Not sure I'll get to it either, but I like the technical emphasis. Still, beyond that is a whole range of political and economic issues, which I don't expect this book to handle. But understanding starts with the technical details, and this book looks to be useful for that.
Looking again at the Eagle article quoted above, I find it curious that the front page major title is "To dream amid decay" and that the main picture has these words spread across the top: "A year after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians hope their city isn't squandering its chances for rebirth." Both messages signify confusion.
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