Visiting New Orleans for the 15th time since the hurricane of 2005, President Bush declared last week that “When Katrina broke through the levees, it broke a lot of hearts. But it didn’t affect the spirit of a lot of citizens of this community.” The city of New Orleans, the president assured his listeners, “is coming back.”
That is doubtful. New Orleans was deeply troubled before Katrina, beset by corruption, high crime rates, poor family structure, and a weak economy. Nearly one-third of New Orleans residents had incomes below the poverty level. The schools were abysmal. Some estimates put the dropout rate at 50 percent. Was it any surprise that the state and local officials who presided over what in another context we might label a “failed state” responded so poorly to Hurricane Katrina?
But on this second anniversary of the catastrophic hurricane, we are being asked to think with our emotions. Isn’t it wonderful that so many are rebuilding their homes and their lives? Don’t we need to spend even more money to make this dream a reality for more of the displaced?
A disaster like Katrina should be the occasion for a sober evaluation of costs and benefits. What was a huge city doing below sea level on the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast anyway? “New Orleans naturally wants to be a lake,” Timothy Kusky, St. Louis University professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, told Time magazine. Only reckless development transformed a former cypress swamp into the Lower Ninth Ward. And only a complex system of levees and pumps kept the basin dry even in the best of times.
As Jack Shafer noted in Slate magazine, “Settlers built the original city on a curve of high flood land that the Mississippi River had deposited over eons, hence the name ‘crescent city.’ But starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the early 20th century, developers began clearing and draining swamps behind the crescent, even dumping landfill into Lake Pontchartrain to extend the city.”
Can you say “tempting fate”? A Katrina evacuee interviewed on one of the networks cited costly insurance as one of the biggest obstacles to returning home. Well, yes. Her plea was for government aid to reduce the cost.
There has been no shortage of aid. The Washington Times reports that federal spending on the Gulf Coast in the past two years ($127 billion) has exceeded total spending on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II (in inflation-adjusted dollars). More than $7 billion has been allocated by the federal government to rebuild the levees and repair the flood protection system for New Orleans, and President Bush plans to ask for another $7.6 billion in next year’s budget to (ahem) complete the work.
Since Hurricane Katrina, the murder rate in New Orleans — always high — has shot skyward. Nicole Gelinas, in the City Journal (“Baghdad on the Bayou”), offers the statistics: “In 2004, the year before Katrina, New Orleans suffered 265 murders, yielding a murder rate of 56 per 100,000 residents — already four and a half times higher than the average for similar-size cities. In 2006, the year after Katrina, the flood-ravaged, much smaller city logged 162 murders — a rate of at least 77 per 100,000 people, even assuming the most generous quarter-by-quarter repopulation figures available. (New Orleans has recovered less than half its pre-Katrina population of about 470,000.) In the first 64 days of 2007, New Orleans’s murder rate scaled even higher — more than 87 per 100,000 residents. Such a rate in New York City would mean nearly 7,000 murders a year, well over the 2,262 it experienced at the height of its Dinkins-era violent-crime crisis 17 years ago. Other violent-crime indexes — from assault to armed robbery — have moved in a similar direction.”
Before the storm, New Orleans had 23 major hospitals and other medical facilities. According to a Brookings Institution report, as of last month, ten remain closed, including acute-care hospitals, psychiatric clinics, and long-term disability and rehabilitation facilities.
Dysfunctional before, disastrous today. If there is to be any hope for New Orleans it must rest upon reality: build on higher ground; reform the justice system to truly punish violent crime; reform welfare to discourage illegitimacy as most other cities and states have done; and permit choice in education. Instead, we are being urged, in the name of compassion and justice, to throw good people back into a terrible situation and to invite another catastrophe.