As Hurricane Katrina headed toward New Orleans, sticklers for the actual meaning of words told us that it would be wrong to label the impending disaster a tragedy. That term, with its origins in drama, refers to horrible consequences produced out of the flaws in human nature. A hurricane is a force of nature, and cannot by definition be “tragic” no matter how horrible the outcome.
The drama unfolding in New Orleans, however, is now officially a tragedy. Katrina wrought destruction, but the consequences most horrifying us today are the result of human folly.
For at least a decade, critics have warned that the levee system protecting New Orleans needed serious upgrading. Dire predictions of the complete destruction of the city by either a hurricane or by a historic Mississippi River flood have circulated for many years, but were insufficient to move authorities to expensive action. Holland, after a tragedy killing thousands in the 1950s, reinforced its dykes with more than the thumbs of young boys. New Orleans ignored the lessons.
The looting and apparent near-anarchy in the flooded streets have nothing to do with Mother Nature, and everything to do with human nature, unconstrained by the thin veneer of civilization.
The incomplete evacuation of citizens and warehousing in the Superdome struck me at the time as a poor choice. Why were there not sound trucks cruising the streets warning those detached from the media to run for their lives? Why weren’t there places designated where folks heading out of town could fill up their cars with refugees lacking transportation? Why wasn’t every bus, truck, and railroad freight car pressed into service to haul people away?
Blogger Ultima Thule captured my own impression of the political authorities in Louisiana when she wrote
Louisiana Governor Blanco unfortunately resembles her name -- Blanco -- she looks like a deer caught in the headlines -- oops -- I was going to type headlights -- but that was an apt slip of the fingers.
Nobody wants to kick New Orleans and Louisiana when they are so devastated. But we will be deluding ourselves and laying the foundations for future suffering, if we don’t examine the human failures which have turned a natural disaster into a tragedy.
Few if any cities have contributed more to American culture than New Orleans. Jazz, our distinctive national contribution to music, has its origins in New Orleans. So too in the realm of cuisine, New Orleans is virtually without peer. Many years ago, a wealthy and cultivated Japanese entrepreneur observed to me that New Orleans was the only city in America he had found in which rich and poor people alike understood food. He mentioned Provence in France and Tuscany in Italy as comparisons. You could walk into unimpressive restaurants in less prosperous neighborhoods in New Orleans, patronized by ordinary citizens, not free-spending tourists, and expect a meal made from fresh ingredients, flavored with interesting herbs and spices, and served to patrons who would accept no less.
But the many virtues of New Orleans are offset in part by serious flaws. The flowering of the human spirit in the realm of cultural creativity is counterbalanced by a tradition of corruption, public incompetence, and moral decay. It is no secret that New Orleans and the Great State of Louisiana have a sorry track record when it comes to political corruption. And corruption tolerated in one sphere tends to metastasize and infect other aspects of life. They don’t call it “The Big Easy” because it is simple to start a business, and easy to run one there.
Many years ago, an oilman in Houston pointed out to me that there was no inherent reason Houston should have emerged as the world capital of the petroleum business. New Orleans was already a major city with centuries of history, proximity to oil deposits, and huge transportation advantages when the Houston Ship Channel was dredged, making the then-small city of Houston into a major port. The discovery of the Humble oil field certainly helped Houston rise as an oil center, but the industry could just as easily have centered itself in New Orleans.
When I pressed my oilman informant for the reason Houston prevailed, he gave me a look of pity for my naiveté, and said, “Corruption.” Anyone making a fortune in New Orleans based on access to any kind of public resources would find himself coping with all sorts of hands extended for palm-greasing. Permits, taxes, fees, and outright bribes would be a never-ending nightmare. Houston, in contrast, was interested in growth, jobs, prosperity, and extending a welcoming hand to newcomers. New Orleans might be a great place to spend a pleasant weekend, but Houston is the place to build a business.
Today, metropolitan Houston houses roughly 4 times the population of pre-Katrina metropolitan New Orleans, despite the considerable advantage New Orleans has of capturing the shipping traffic of the Mississippi basin.
It is far from a coincidence that Houston is now absorbing refugees from New Orleans, and preparing to enroll the children of New Orleans in its own school system. Houston is a city built on the can-do spirit (space exploration, oil, medicine are shining examples of the human will to knowledge and improvement, and all have been immeasurably advanced by Houstonians). Houston officials have capably planned for their own possible severe hurricanes, and that disaster planning is now selflessly put at the disposal of their neighbors to the east.
Let us all do everything we can to ameliorate the horrendous suffering of people all over the Gulf Coast, not just in New Orleans. But we must not fail to learn necessary lessons. Hurricanes are predictable and inevitable. Their consequences can be minimized by honest and capable political leadership. It appears that New Orleans could have done much better. We would honor the suffering and deaths by insisting that any rebuilding be premised on a solid moral and political foundation.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker