The calamity was enormous, the toll in lives and ruin like nothing the country knew. Yet the ultimate disaster was in the staggering negligence of the government and its oblivious leader. Despite years of warnings and then the stark sight of suffering, help was disgracefully slow, too late for so many. “People must realize now,” one witness wrote in her diary, “how rotten the structure has become.” Long afterward, historians would think it a breaking point in trust, the moment when the future began.
No, not the great New Orleans flood of 2005. The great Russian drought and famine of 1891. Not George W. Bush. But a similarly fey Nicholas II. Not a breaking point in America perhaps, though there are intriguing parallels.
As most of the world knows, the grim search for the dead has now begun in New Orleans, and among the casualties already is much of the credibility of the Bush Administration. From startlingly bold coverage, the scenes of tragedy in picture and print are indelible: Frail old ladies slumped rag-doll dead across their wheelchairs. Lifeless babies in someone’s helpless arms. Families on rooftops waving frantically and in vain. A hospital patient who could not be rescued amid the rising water and was euthanized by a desperate nurse “We’re going to help him to heaven,” she said to the sobbing young doctor who later told the story. Not least, the barely describable horror of thousands trapped and left in the Superdome, the enveloping squalor symbolic of the building’s own squalid history as another of America ‘s coliseum monuments to public plunder for private greed.
Then, of course, there were those other scenes: As sodden, long-neglected levees crumbled and a great city sank beneath the tide, President Bush flew off heedlessly to the West Coast to celebrate his triumphs of national security. As Americans begged to be taken from catastrophe, Vice-President Dick Cheney continued taking his vacation in Wyoming. As bloated corpses went floating on the flood, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went shopping Fifth Avenue for a small fortune in shoes. Asked later her thoughts on the victims from her kindred South, the Secretary offered with her usual authority, “The Lord Jesus Christ is going to come on time. If we just wait.”
Like an old French graveyard upturned by the torrent, the history of the debacle near and far has come bobbing inescapably to the surface. There were chillingly graphic warnings for decades, of course, from the files of federal, state and local governments to the pages of National Geographic. Developers came to eat away the fragile shield of shoreline, but no funding came to shore up what everyone knew to be the last line of defense at the levees.
It took five to six days for us to watch much of New Orleans die, the cries go silent, the rooftop begging vanish. But the real killing of the city took a quarter century and more. The Corps of Engineers budgets slashed and states starved by Washington’s tax cuts for the wealthy, endless enriching of special interests, gathering orthodoxy of greed and abandonment of the common good all grotesquely garbed as conservatism or fiscal responsibility.
It hardly began with George W. Bush and the Republicans. The oligarchy that left New Orleans to its fate for so many years of borrowed time was thoroughly bipartisan. The disaster could never have happened without the Democrats, from Congress after Congress to the spectacle of Bill Clinton last week adding his clubbish alibi for the inexcusable failure of a government to read its own files.
Nor are we surprised to see racism lurking naked in policy and practice, or the regrettable atavism of the administration’s primitive theology and its energy lobby accommodations that stoutly denied the global warming that may well have spawned Katrina. But no freedom from prejudice or ignorance now would have saved New Orleans from the criminal negligence of those decades that left a grindingly poor population at the mercy of decrepit dikes.
Of course, the war on Iraq and those who perpetrated it must bear the blame for the atrocity in New Orleans. Of course national guardsmen were in Mesopotamia, not Mississippi where they belong. Of course helicopters were running gauntlets in a lost war, not rescuing our own lost souls. But the war that presents so ready and simple a target is only part of the larger disaster, and the eventual going of Mr. Bush only part of coming to terms with the far wider, longer misrule.
Even then, hundreds, perhaps thousands, might still have been saved. A general of the Northern Command tells the BBC his relief force was in place over the precious final days, and was only awaiting presidential orders. The USS Bataan, it turns out, was offshore all along with vital help never mounted in time.
But nothing could save New Orleans from the dithering incompetent crony bureaucrats and insensate politicians who together have been the inevitable, necessary accompaniment of the oligarchy. Thus the cruel joke of FEMA Director Michael Brown, the former horse association impresario entrusted with the lives of tens of thousands, easily matched by Republican Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, the ex-wrestling coach as statesman, who helpfully suggested that much of New Orleans should be “bulldozed.”
All this, we should note, in a New Orleans already one of the poorest of America ‘s cities, a redolent casualty of the system long before Katrina. Where half the households make less than $28,000 a year, schools are a disgrace, the murder rate among the highest in the country, and a police force with more than 50 officers recently convicted of crimes. Into the cesspool of state politics will now pour at least $10-billion in federal aid with the same able bureaucrats and politicians overseeing it, adding appreciably to the “looting” of New Orleans.
It all gives new meaning to Homeland Security. Katrina has shown us unmistakably that there are two homelands, two distinct versions of Security in 2005 America. As New Orleans symbolizes so vividly, the country has its high ground and low, its rescued and expendable. In health care, education, jobs and a dozen other ways, in the far-reaching meaning and impact of the war on Iraq, one homeland will be secure, the other left to face the century’s floodtides alone.
The plundering and heedlessness will go on as long as the system endures. Even now the blame is shifting to state and local officials. In the end, millions will believe, as millions already do, that the poor, thus benighted, city committed suicide and, in sentiment suitably muted, good riddance.
I’ve worked with presidents Johnson and Nixon tough nuts but capable of changing their minds. Those in power in Washington now speak directly to God; I have no hope that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney are going to undergo some spontaneous conversion to a different way of thinking post-Katrina. What we can hope is that both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress and those contemplating running in 2008 sense the pressure for a major reversal of priorities, for troops to be brought home and resources reapportioned to true homeland security. And this pressure may just force the administration’s fiercely grudging hand at least to begin the process. A slim hope.
And what of charming old New Orleans and environs, portal to a fourth of the nation’s trade, refinery of every tenth tank of gas, that and more. Perhaps foolishly rebuilt and wanly defended as the funds inevitably dwindle. Perhaps turned into a Cajun Venice in a country where tourism is always a last resort.
In any case, it will be a busy autumn. Supreme Court confirmations. The Plame scandal indictments. By Thanksgiving, between shots of feasting soldiers in Baghdad and turkey at the Crawford Ranch, the media should be showing smiling faces at the long-term shelters.
But who knows? Somewhere, as in the tortured Russia of 1891 there may be a diarist recording, “People must realize now…” Perhaps somewhere in the suffering and stench, the seeming immunity of the misbegotten powerful, there really has been a breaking point, however difficult to see or feel. Perhaps another future has begun for America, after all.
September 8, 2005