I saw something in passing the other day while reading news or commentary or some such on the disaster in New Orleans. If I remember it correctly, it made the distinction between New Orleans' "situation" and its "site." The situtation of New Orleans makes it a critical port, because it's at the mouth of a vast transportation network that connects a full third of the lower forty-eight. That mouth is the mouth of the Mississippi river, and that transportation network is the vast network of rivers that flow into the Mississippi. The oil networks could easily be routed from somewhere else. The barges that carry the vast majority of America's agricultural exports, not so much.
In contrast to that is New Orleans' site, which is a subsiding swamp directly in the path of some of the world's most violent weather. The location itself is virtually unlivable, and can only be maintained with the greatest effort.
Because of this, a disaster of some magnitude was virtually inevitable. This wasn't a direct hit, nor was it the strongest hurricane that could have hit -- but it could have been, and someday it will be. But there's a difference between the destruction of property and infrastructure and a situation where large numbers of people are forced to re-enact the worst parts of Lord of the Flies and the Donner Party disaster. While the physical destruction may have been inevitable, it's becoming clear that the human toll was not.
There are two main reasons for this. The first is a failure of imagination -- while people knew that the city was vulnerable, they knew it in the abstract. Nobody had ever seen such a disaster. The second is learning the wrong lessons from experience -- because maybe the last time wasn't that bad, or some other city didn't get hit that hard, this one probably won't either (similar to the lessons learned from "the boy who cried 'wolf'"). And these failures were present at every level, from individuals to the highest levels of government.
Now, at every level, there is a share of responsibility. But as you go up the hierarchy, there's less and less excuse for not getting it right. While an individual may not have enough data to understand the peril (especially a poor and uneducated individual, which was an astounding percentage of New Orleans population), the government has no such excuse. It bloody well should know better, or it should be called to task for failing to do so. In this case, the danger was quite well known. There wasn't any debate about it, New Orleans was vulnerable, and everyone involved knew it. Not only that, there were already some strong complaints about the direction FEMA was heading during last year's hurricane season.
But now it's starting to become pretty clear just how unprepared everyone was. I'm not just talking about slashing funding for strengthening levees and the like. Even before the Bush administration started slashing that funding, there probably was never enough being done to prevent such a disaster. Still, this is a clear case of FEMA (and the rest of our government) being "penny wise, pound foolish." Nor does the blame belong solely to FEMA (and by extension, the Department of Homeland Security and the Bush Administration itself). Certainly congress could have stepped in. But if the state of Louisiana or the city of New Orleans had any contingency plans at all, it's clear that they were woefully inadequate. Was it lack of money? Was it bad planning? It's hard to say -- probably both. But what is clear is that they weren't ready.
And that's the point. From the New Orleans city government to FEMA, no one was prepared. It would have been a hell of a lot cheaper and infinitely more effective to have actually had assets in place to evacuate the city before the hurricane hit. Where were the buses they're now using to evacuating the Superdome? (Greyhound, for one, pulled out more than a day before the hurricane made landfall -- but forget that, doesn't the national guard have trucks? Doesn't FEMA? Doesn't anyone? And if not, why not?)
But you know, this is what happens when you run a government like a business, and do it on the cheap. It's one thing to leave telecommunications to the private sector. It's one thing to leave our oil infrastructure to the private sector. Or electrcity, or whatever. A lot of things work better that way (as long as you keep an eye on them to make sure things don't get out of hand). But when you're talking about critical things like disaster management, or the military, you don't do those the cheapest way possible, you do them right. You don't leave those to the market and hope for the best. Because we get what we pay for. And what you're unwilling to pay for now, you'll pay more for later when you're picking up the pieces. The government is not a business, it's the freakin' government. Now that the "small government revolution" is here, I mostly smell hypocracy, where we've got a government every bit as big, only now wasteful corporate welfare has replaced wasteful individual welfare. But, as long as we're pissing away money, we might as well piss it away on building Neo Orleans.
And as for that -- yes, we probably have to. The port is too important. That doesn't mean that we need to (or should) build it the way it was. I'm not sure we should rebuild the entire city, and whether or not we do, it probably needs to be radically rebuilt -- otherwise this will simply happen again. Either way, it will never be the way it once was. People will leave on their own, and the city will probably be uninsurable.
But, if we don't completely rebuild it, we must be certain that we do right by the people who are displaced. For in the end, we are all Americans, and for those that don't believe that, that say the people there got what they deserved, or that it's better this way (enjoy your trips to the gas station, buddy) -- be it tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, or locusts, may God's wrath rain down upon them. And while you're at it, big guy, don't forget the people responsible for preparing for this one.