Politics & Policy

We Failed You? Try Again.

Anne Rice blames America, not local officials.

“To my country I want to say this: During this crisis you failed us. You looked down on us; you dismissed our victims; you dismissed us. You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us “Sin City,” and turned your backs.”–novelist and New Orleans resident Anne Rice

Let me get this straight.

Ms. Rice, you live in (what was) a very attractive city which lies below sea level. On one side you have a giant lake; on the other side you have the Gulf of Mexico. Running through the middle is the Mississippi River. All of which are above you.

Preventing those giant bodies of water from flooding and drowning you are levees. These levees are described as “century-old.” People have been warning about the devastating effects of a direct hit from a hurricane for decades.

I’ve heard a great deal of complaint in recent days that the federal government may not have allocated enough money to speed up the upgrades to those levees. This does, however, raise the question of why city and state residents were waiting around for the federal government to send enough money to upgrade this, instead of paying for it themselves. I mean, it was only your homes, businesses, and lives at stake. Perhaps these upgrades would have been expensive. If only this city had some sort of events to attract tourists, from which to collect taxes.

Anyway, your state and local officials decided to spend your tax dollars on something else that they (and presumably you) found more important, and then they waited for the rest of the country to pay for these life-preserving necessities.

Your beloved city and region has a colorful political history, in which there is, oh, a wee bit of corruption. I’m from New Jersey, so I can’t throw stones at that glass house. But you guys have managed to pick leaders who give you the worst of both worlds–they’re scandal ridden and incompetent in a crisis. Look, Rudy Giuliani might have run around with Judith Nathan before his divorce, but he was a hell of a leader in our darkest hours. You know the National Review crowd isn’t a fan of Pataki, but the man was a rock after 9/11 compared to Governor Weepy I’ll-Evacuate-Eventually and Mayor It’s-Everybody’s-Fault-Except-Mine. Nobody’s throwing around the adjective “Churchillian” about any of your officials these days. We didn’t pick your local officials; you guys did.

Rice asks, “how many times did Gov. Kathleen Blanco have to say that the situation was desperate? How many times did Mayor Ray Nagin have to call for aid?”

Ahem. What about those buses left unused, less than a mile from the Superdome? JunkYardBlog notes that it’s written in the Southeast Louisiana Evacuation Plan that buses are supposed to be used for evacuation of those who don’t have personal vehicles. As JYB observes, “there is something very peculiar about a city and a state that have a plan on the books for years that outlines what to do when a hurricane is about to strike, yet when a hurricane comes roaring in, the responsible officials just chuck the plan and try winging it. Delaying and then winging it in the face of a monstrous Cat 4/5 hurricane is never, ever a good idea, especially for New Orleans.” (See more here.) Ironically, Nagin told CNN, “I need buses, man,” when he had plenty sitting around unused before the storm hit. Now they’re flooded and useless.

But it’s not like state and local officials could have seen this coming. They have never had a hurricane bearing down on them before and… oh, wait, there was Hurricane Ivan just last year. And after that dodged bullet, Blanco and Nagin both acknowledged they needed a better evacuation plan.

I would note that we’ve seen some pretty intense disasters in other parts of the country, like planes crashing into skyscrapers and subsequently collapsing, earthquakes, tornadoes, blizzards, and yet somehow, none of these disasters had the total breakdown of law and order, civil society, etc. Jonah Goldberg’s early joke about a Mad-Max style post-apocalyptic tribal anarchy may have been in poor taste, but it has turned out to be nightmarishly prescient.

We failed you? No, oh brilliant creator of Exit to Eden, you failed. You might not think of it this way, but: Your leaders failed to upgrade the levees. You elected a bunch of weepers and blame-shifters who lost their head in a crisis.

Over the past decades, your elected officials have let a criminal element incubate and grow until they ruled the streets, instead of the forces of law and order. In pop culture, a New Orleans thief is always a charming rogue with a devilish smile. In reality, they’re a bunch of thugs.

If the number of residents who are looting thugs were such a “tiny minority,” we wouldn’t have seen this widespread, relentless anarchy. Madam, a noticeable number of your neighbors saw this disaster as an opportunity to smash a window and run away with a television, an act that reveals much about the inadequacies of the local school system, since that thief won’t be enjoying that television with any electricity anytime soon.

I would also note that this is one hell of a police force your local officials hired and that you and your neighbors tolerated. 50 percent turned in their badges during the crisis and quit. Your police superintendent is conceding that some cops were looting. Just want to refresh your memory–four years ago, New York and Washington, planes falling out of the sky, thousands dead, no idea what the hell is coming next… and the cops, among others, showed up to work.

To save you guys now, I–and a lot of other Americans–will pitch in. We are witnessing the biggest mobilization of civilian and military rescue and relief crews in history. But I have a sneaking suspicion you’re going to want the rest of us to pay for the rebuilding of your city. (In the near future, we’re going to have to have a little chat about the wisdom of building below sea level, directly next to large bodies of water.) And if you’re going to come to the rest of us hat in hand, demanding the rest of us clean up after your poor judgment, I’d appreciate a little less “you failed us” and a little more “we’ve learned our lesson.”

Jim Geraghty is reporting from Ankara, Turkey, where the locals keep asking him how something like this could happen in America.


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