Government: the greatest villain in Katrina tragedy

Jeff Crouere Contributor
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Five years after Hurricane Katrina, the biggest adversary for the people of Louisiana continues to be government at all levels — local, state and especially federal.

Hurricane Katrina was a devastating storm, but the destruction was made much greater by the failure of the levees that were built to protect the city. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed levees that were supposedly built to withstand a Category 3 storm. Katrina was only a Category 3 storm when it hit the Louisiana coast, but the levees did not hold and as a result, 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded. The devastation was immense: 1,836 people died and property damage totaled $81 billion.

As we commemorate the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural and man-made disaster in American history, it is worthwhile to remember one of the storm’s biggest lessons: self-reliance. The people who survived were those who heeded the call to evacuate, while those who died remained in the city, dependent on a government that thoroughly failed to protect the people. People without the means of transportation were stuck in the city amidst total chaos. All levels of government were ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

The Army Corps of Engineers failed to build proper levees and the Orleans Parish Levee Board failed to maintain those suspect levees. The result was that New Orleans was destroyed and people died needlessly.

There was failure at all levels of government. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin did not use the scores of available school buses to evacuate residents. He was overwhelmed by the disaster and took refuge on the top floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Nagin was not the only one overcome by Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans Police Department was left without credible leadership and there was anarchy in the department and on the streets of the city. Too many officers abandoned their positions and left town without permission. Others were engaged in wanton, criminal behavior that is just now being prosecuted by the Justice Department. Sadly, one of the department’s worst decisions was to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. In a city that lacked a functional police force, the last thing that should have been done was to disarm a nervous public.

In the early days after the hurricane, there was lawlessness on the streets of New Orleans. As fires were burning and the flood waters had not yet receded, the federal government was much too slow to respond. While television cameras were recording horrific scenes of despair at the Louisiana Superdome and the Morial Convention Center, the federal government was nowhere to be seen. It took five days for FEMA to provide initial help to the storm victims. Eventually, the U.S. Army, under the command of Lt. General Russell Honore, a “John Wayne” type leader, restored order in the city.

In the months and years after the storm, a rebuilding program was administered by the State of Louisiana using funds provided by the federal government. This “Road Home” program had the stamp of approval of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. But unfortunately, it was an unmitigated failure. The Road Home program was rife with waste, mismanagement, fraud and incompetence. Disbursements to storm victims were tardy and inadequate, as the program was improperly managed by ICF, a Virginia firm with no experience in this type of activity. The firm was paid a handsome sum, but did not deliver quality results to people demanding action. Five years after the storm, some people are still waiting for their “Road Home” grants. The program was nicknamed the “Road to Nowhere,” and it perfectly characterized the political fortunes of Governor Blanco. The program was so unpopular that Blanco decided to forgo the embarrassment and not run for re-election in the fall of 2007.

The money supposedly earmarked for citizens was stuck in the disastrous “Road Home” program. Other rebuilding money was directly allocated to municipalities like New Orleans. New Orleans’ recovery director, Ed Blakely, promised there would be a robust recovery and that “cranes in the sky” would be seen all over the city. Sadly, the cranes never materialized, but there were certainly plenty of questions about Blakely. Inquiring minds wanted to know why Mayor Nagin hired a recovery director who only worked part-time in New Orleans and maintained his residence in Australia. With so much of his time focused on lecturing and traveling, Blakely’s impact on New Orleans was limited. In the end, this was a case of more unfilled promises from another government official.

Some major infrastructure projects are finally getting started, and the future of New Orleans looks much brighter today than it did just a few years ago. The city has a new mayor, an honest district attorney and a competent police chief. The disaster forced major reforms of the city’s public school system, and now New Orleans is a model for educational innovation. Charter schools have been started all over New Orleans and the bureaucracy of the Orleans Parish School Board has been dismantled. Prior to Katrina, the city’s school board was known for corruption and waste. Today, the school board only controls a handful of schools and bureaucrats can no longer wreck havoc on poor schoolchildren. The corrupt board members have either been convicted or removed from office by the voters.

Five years after the hurricane, the City of New Orleans perseveres despite constant threats from the Gulf. But even as new levees are being built, the real problem of coastal erosion remains unaddressed. Over the years, the coast has been destroyed by storms and by the canals constructed by oil and gas companies. Only token efforts have been made to repair a coast that is eroding at a rate of a football field a day. This lack of action is maybe the government’s greatest failure. Without proper coastal restoration, no amount of levee reconstruction will ever protect a city that is eight feet below sea level.

Through all of the challenges, the one constant has been the people of New Orleans, who remain resilient and committed to their unique city and their unique way of life. Congratulations are in order to the thousands of people who have returned to the Crescent City on their own with little or no help from the government and in spite of the action and inaction of various government entities. The people of New Orleans remain the true heroes in the ongoing saga of Hurricane Katrina and its long aftermath.

Jeff Crouere is the host of “Ringside Politics,” which airs at 7:30 p.m. Fri. and 10:00 p.m. Sundays on WLAE-TV 32, a PBS station, and 7 till 11 a.m. weekdays on WGSO 990 AM in New Orleans and the Northshore. He is the Political Analyst for WGNO-TV ABC26 and a columnist for selected publications. For more information, visit his web site at RingsidePolitics.com. E-mail him at jeff@ringsidepolitics.com.