Gustav & the Big Easy

Tropical storm Gustav is expected to become a hurricane as it bears down on what the prognosticators deem to be the Gulf of Mexico, with landfall possibly being in the New Orleans area – a sort of Katrina II but hopefully not as vicious as the Katrina of August 2005. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin did virtually nothing to prepare for the disaster of Katrina in August 2005, though he announced recently that the levees are not "repaired" yet. Of course they aren't. The schedule calls for them to be repaired by some time in 2011. It's a safe bet, though, that the citizens, as they remember the mayor's total failure in 2005, are taking things into their own hands this time. One still remembers all those school-buses standing in the water, when they might have been used to evacuate tens of thousands.

By contrast, "with memories of Hurricane Katrina still vivid, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued a state of emergency [days ago] and asked the federal government to issue a "pre-landfall federal declaration," both of which set in motion the deliverance of aid and staffing of emergency shelters, should they be needed, The Town Talk (which serves central Louisiana) reports on its Web site. About 3,000 National Guard soldiers have already been put on alert" (Scientific American, 28 August). The Southern Decadence Festival, a gay and lesbian gathering that draws ``several thousand people every Labor Day,'' was still on schedule on 28 August, according to a spokesman. That's just what the Big Easy needs, another dose of decadence.

One remembers the unbelievable misconduct of both Nagin and then Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco during the time before and after Katrina hit New Orleans and the adjacent areas in coastal Mississippi and Alabama. Nagin had made no provision for the thousands stranded in the Louisiana Superdome even though it had been used before as a shelter from hurricanes. People were stranded there for days. Blanco simply waffled in signing the papers that would have allowed the federal government to get itself in place to help. As a result, TV-viewers were exposed to the sight of Coast Guard helicopter- crews rescuing nearly a thousand people from rooftops. This time, however, New Orleans citizens are already being evacuated to other places in both Louisiana and other states.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was slammed by the media and by people in Congress for mismanagement but the actual blame lay with the state and city officials, mainly Nagin and Blanco. For his glaring incompetence, Nagin was later reelected in a vote (fax, absentee ballot) that was made up in part from people nowhere near New Orleans but scattered throughout the South. Governor Blanco is no longer in place to do damage.

President Bush was wildly ridiculed by the media when he declared that FEMA's on-scene director, Mike Brown, had done a good job. For his trouble, Brown was thrown under the bus by the president, under this intensive media barrage. One remembers Fox's Shepard Smith and Geraldo (too important to have more than one name) caterwauling around the Superdome and frantically approaching hysteria in their dumfounded condition as to why something wasn't being done.

Later, the House held hearings. By that time, the democrats realized that the fault did not lay with Brown, but mostly with Nagin and Blanco, so they were no-shows in their own committee's investigation of the matter. They just washed their hands of it rather than face and respond to the truth. Before that, the U.S. government, which could have been on-scene and in operation from the get-go with the proper papers being signed by Blanco, had already resettled tens of thousands, many if not most, at least at first, being put up in hotels, where they stayed for months and to whom the government merely and merrily doled out taxpayer cash with little or no accounting as to how it was spent. There were plenty of mobile homes available and a multitude of them stand vacant today. The stories are now legend about the unbelievable waste.

In New Orleans, the police department folded and looters took over the city. The Big Easy is dangerous in the best of times but exponentially so when the law is virtually nonexistent. The crime rate there was out the top in 2005 and is bad again as many have moved back.

The government frantically works on levees that will never guarantee the city's safety – not in a million years. New Orleans is, on average, eight feet below sea level and, due to the massive pumping operations to keep it dry, is sinking at the rate of three feet per century. With levees totally surrounding the city, if a levee fails, as happened in 2005, the result is catastrophic; yet, the government is pouring tens of billions of dollars into what everyone knows is a hopeless hole in the ground. In 2005, the decision should have been made, while well over half of the citizens were no longer residents and probably well over half of all residences were wrecks, to permanently locate the populace to safe areas. This would have been far less expensive, even in the short term, not to mention the out-decades, but maudlin attitudes prevailed.

So…while it's hoped that Gustav will go elsewhere, though anywhere in that area means devastation, New Orleans Mayor Nagin whines that the levees – huge mounds of earth and rock (350 miles of them) that accommodate a myriad of pump stations – are not completely reinforced. Apparently, he thinks that an effort this huge is done at the snap of the fingers. In any case, the entire force of governments is in place this time, so there shouldn't be the chaos that accompanied Katrina, though there may well be abundant evidence again that the Big Easy is too expensive for the rest of the country to support.