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The Lessons of Katrina
September 12, 2005
The world was stunned by the searing images from New Orleans: tens of thousands of refugees in the Superdome and the Convention Center without food and water for four days with urine and excrement around, begging for help.
Since New Orleans was not marooned, and a highway led all the way to these locations, how did the bureaucracy perform so poorly? That the richest country in the world failed to mobilise its machinery to provide food and water to people huddling in the shelters in New Orleans for five full days was astonishing.
Conservative and liberal pundits have noted that the experience of this disaster will reverse a long-established trend, supported both by the Democrats and the Republicans, of increased dependence on private companies in the performance of emergency relief in a disaster.
The tragedy of New Orleans has lessons and they are somewhat contradictory. First, the government is part of the problem, which we saw in the failure of the emergency management bureaucracy to do what was its responsibility. There was bickering between state and federal authorities for control.
Second, one needs more government investments to deal with the poverty that persists in America, which came unveiled during the rescue in New Orleans.
Journalists remarked that the world's richest country has within it, hidden away, a segment that is not much better than the third world. Although there are political groups in the US who have complained about the increasing economic disparity in the country, the leaders of the two major parties decided in the last decade or so that the solution to the problem of poverty was not more social programs but economic growth. The idea that disparity will force an individual to work hard and become successful was accepted as true.
The comprehensive social programmes adopted by Europe to serve its underprivileged have been criticised in America as being socialistic and responsible for the stagnation of European economies. Also, due to its tradition of decentralised government, Americans are much more loath to pay high taxes than Europeans.
If the argument that higher taxation would be a drag on the entrepreneurial energy of the country is correct, then one must acknowledge that it will be hard to remove its residual poverty. In spite of this negative, America's opportunities remain most alluring to non-Americans. When you speak to any young man in Europe or Asia and ask him as to where he would like to live, the answer is almost always "America."
Lurking behind the current resistance to higher wages and higher taxes is the fear of China, where much of American manufacturing has relocated. The huge American trade deficit is also creating pressures to bring wages down, so that manufacturing and service industries remain internationally competitive.
There has been criticism that appropriate investments in the strengthening of the levees protecting New Orleans have not been made in the previous years due to the complicated process that goes into the forming of the federal budget in Washington. In this process, politically powerful congressmen and senators are often able to include their pet projects, even if they are not worthy.
Another piece of infrastructure in America that needs shoring up is its public schools, which are the levees that provide strength to society. This would be a cost-effective way to create conditions that will alleviate poverty and provide hope and opportunity to the inner-city communities.
Critics claim that the excesses of the 1990s emphasised selfishness in American public life as exemplified by the many Wall Street scandals. The acceptance of social Darwinism where failure is taken to be a consequence of a character weakness has caused the elite to lose sympathy for the poor and the weak.
When New Orleans is rebuilt (and it is estimated that it will cost $125 billion), the history of the Dutch with their system of dikes would be a useful lesson to study. In 1953, its famous dikes were breached by a powerful storm that flooded most of the southern half of the country, and killed more than 1,800 people.
After the 1953 disaster, the Delta project, a vast and expensive construction project consisting of 3,000 km of outer sea-dikes and 10,000 km of inner, canal, and river dikes, was launched and largely completed in 2002. The official goal of the Delta project was to reduce the risk of flooding in Holland to once per 10,000 years.
But due to climate change, sea levels are rising, and so the dikes will have to be made higher and wider in the future, and this will hasten the sinking of the land. Many experts think that this battle against the sea cannot be won forever, and at some point people will have to be relocated.
It is also clear that as the world population increases and more sea-side resorts are built, wet-lands are destroyed, and trees cut down for new habitation near the sea, such disasters will only increase in frequency.