Thursday, September 01, 2005
Isn't this America?
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Biloxi and Gulfport on August 29. It's impossible to describe the aftermath, despite up-to-the-minute coverage and a plethora of stories of tragedy on-line. Much of New Orleans is flooded, the power is out, there is no fresh water or food, looters have taken everything not nailed down, and of course it's very hot. Tens of thousands of people, many of whom are sick or elderly or infant, and most of whom were too poor to leave town over the weekend, are crammed into the Superdome and the Convention Center and any other unflooded structure they can find. Many of these are places where the city told the refugees to congregate. Now those places are no better than perching on a rooftop, are filling with the dead and dying and panicky. People are shooting at the military and relief helicopters, because they're scared and acting stupid. It's like watching footage from war-torn Africa, and yet it's one of the largest and most beautiful cities in the U.S. Or, at least it was. It's like the storm washed away everything good and left nothing but misery and starvation and disease in its wake. And here I am with not a lot of food in my cupboards but enough to keep a starving family alive, with clean running water and aspirin and a notable lack of sewage flowing around my knees, and a whole lot of survivor's guilt. It would take so little to make a difference to a few, but it will take huge amounts to make a difference to enough.
And now on the fourth day, people still perch on their roofs, fearful of looters but with nowhere else safe to go, and thousands huddle in the Convention Center and ask passing reporters and police officers why the Red Cross isn't there. Relief efforts have been at best half-assed, if you ask me. People are dying of dehydration while on the news we see FEMA having meetings about logistics. Screw the logistics and screw the 30,000 National Guard troops, who are just going to add 30,000 more mouths to feed. We're a big rich country with a massive military. We have helicopters and barges and big army trucks. Not all of them are in Iraq, although far too many are. How hard could it be to get truckloads and palettes of water and granola bars into the downtown? Get the approvals for it later. Especially since this flood scenario is something the city supposedly prepared for as recently as last year. Bureaucracy and planning are no substitute for action.
And finally, the rebuilding question. How much sense does it make to rebuild a city that is 10 feet below sea level? Congress now faces this very serious question. New Orleans only exists because of the elaborate system of levees and pumps that holds back both Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. In the face of the absolutely inevitable rise in sea level that will come with global warming, and has in fact already begun, such low-lying cities are a virtual loss anyway. When we discuss such situations, we do so in a detached, hypothetical way that puts Malaysia and Indonesia under water but certainly not *America* because we are preordained to come out on top, so to speak, even when Earth does its best to shake us off. Well, guess what? The hypothetical has become reality and right here at home, too. If New Orleans is rebuilt, it will only be destroyed again. A quote from Will Durant: "Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
Now, San Franscisco was rebuilt after an earthquake, and nobody questions that decision a hundred years later, even though we all know another big one will come eventually. Galveston was rebuilt after a hurricane killed over 6,000 people. Cities in Southeast Asia are rebuilt after typhoons. The inevitable will happen again and again, and humanity's response is "You can't beat us." Or, rather, "It's worth the risk." But this seems like a particularly losing proposition - building a city that can't help but be filled with water. When Chicago was destroyed by fire in 1871, it was presented with a blank slate on which it could redesign and rebuild a city the right way, one that was less flammable. Maybe New Orleans should take this opportunity to correct its locational error and move to higher ground.