Earlier this week, the first installment of our 10-year Hurricane Katrina retrospective focused on the fact that Louisianans weren’t quite so much enamored of the “Bush’s fault” narrative the national media established to describe the poor response to the devastating storm and held the responsibility a bit closer to home.
But there is a good deal more to what you might have heard about Katrina that the people who lived through it and have spent the past 10 years trying to get beyond its effects simply don’t agree with.
First, as we discussed in the first installment, George W. Bush is not seen by the majority of Louisianans as the villain of the storm. That is not meant to say that the federal government is highly regarded for its performance where New Orleans is concerned.
For example, remember the meme about how global warming caused Katrina? That one doesn’t impress too many people in Louisiana.
For one thing, while the state did have Hurricanes Gustav and Ike coming through and causing some inconvenience in the years after Katrina, it’s been some time since there was much of a threat from big storms in the Gulf to Louisiana. The global warming crowd assured us of the inevitable barrage of storms coming through, and thankfully they’ve not delivered.
And it isn’t the rising sea levels putting New Orleans more and more at risk. The Big Easy is closer and closer to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s true, but the problem is a bit simpler than the CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
It’s very simple — the federal government screwed the whole thing up.
How? Because the Army Corps of Engineers decided to place levees along the Mississippi all the way to the river’s mouth. That might be a good idea for navigation, and it might be of benefit to some of the folks living along the river — though south of New Orleans that’s not a lot of people — but what it’s definitely not good for is the marshes in the lower part of the river’s delta that desperately need the silt the river would naturally deposit with the spring floods each year.
No silt alters the natural balance between the Gulf’s erosion and the river’s replenishment. Louisiana is losing an astonishing amount of land each year as a result, and the Mississippi’s delta is the primary place it’s disappearing. To the west, the Atchafalaya delta is actually growing — because that river isn’t leveed to its mouth.
This matters, because the Corps of Engineers is the party responsible for other levees — specifically the ones in New Orleans that failed during Katrina. It wasn’t the actual hurricane that destroyed the city, something most people don’t know. It was the failure of the levees after the storm had passed that caused the massive flooding and the scores of billions of dollars of damage. In fact, the sun was out when the levees broke — one reason why the idiotic rumor got started that the federal government blew the levees to destroy the city and get rid of the black people who live in it. Louisiana folks get a kick out of that one.
Which brings us to a rather amusing story about the federal government’s role in managing the amount of surface water in New Orleans. In the middle of the city sits the venerable City Park, in which there used to be a relatively popular public golf course. As City Park sits at an elevation lower than most of the city, the golf course became more or less a giant water hazard when the levees broke.
And as the city has attempted to rebuild the course, it ran into trouble with none other than the Army Corps of Engineers, who last month threw penalty flags because in constructing the course the city destroyed an acre of wetlands.
As if the Corps of Engineers has room to talk.
But on the positive side, Katrina destroyed the New Orleans public school system.
Seriously. That was a good thing. New Orleans had the worst public school system in America when that hurricane hit. Things were so bad that a New Orleans Times-Picayune article shortly before the storm about the experience of the forensic accounting firm hired to attempt a cleanup of its dysfunctional finances contained an estimate by the firm’s project leader that there was some 20 percent fraud and waste in the system’s payroll. Institution of proper accounting practices could cut the abuse in half, he said, but the record-keeping they inherited was so deficient the only way it could be completely eliminated was to stop sending out checks and force the employees to actually show up at the schools on payday to pick them up so they could be asked exactly what their jobs were.
Shortly thereafter, this was no longer a problem. There was no system, and it was replaced by a hodgepodge of competing charter schools, private schools operating with vouchers, and traditional public schools that perform at a level much higher than was the case pre-Katrina. And the results paint New Orleans as a test case for not requiring a hurricane to blow up a failing public education system; as Brigitte Nieland of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry noted earlier this week, among the successes of the marketplace in New Orleans…
The fact is that the people of New Orleans chafe quite a bit over the Katrina revisitation. It’s not a particularly high-demand conversation, for a number of reasons — the most prominent of which being that the people for whom it was a mere inconvenience rebuilt and have moved on, and are tired of hearing about it, and for the people whose losses were more than just property the hurricane is a traumatic experience the reliving of which brings more pain than anything else.
But for a goodly number of the affected, the Katrina revisitation is also a source of irritation because Katrina is in such large measure a device for the promotion of agendas. As an example, Barack Obama came to New Orleans yesterday to mark the anniversary, and to praise the federal effort in a city he’s offered virtually nothing to in eight years. And of course the National Urban League, headed by former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, is spending the week in the Big Easy for its national convention; a gripe-fest at which every failed socialist program will be touted as the panacea for what still ails the city (all of which has already been tried in New Orleans, with dismal results). And the Times-Picayune, now owned and managed by Newhouse Publishing out of New Jersey, has spent the entire summer running stories touting the Katrina anniversary to the annoyance of commenters on its website.
There are those who never got past Katrina. But most of the people in southeast Louisiana have a message for the perpetual gawkers and sympathizers, and it’s a simple one:
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