We recently spent a week in New Orleans and southern Louisiana interviewing relief workers, community activists, urban planners, artists and neighborhood folks. Even as the latest flood waters from Hurricane Rita recede, the city remains submerged in anger and frustration.
Indeed, the most toxic debris in New Orleans isn’t the sinister gray sludge that coats the streets of the historic Creole neighborhood of Treme or the Lower Ninth Ward but all the unanswered questions that have accumulated in the wake of so much official betrayal and hypocrisy. Where outsiders see simple “incompetence” or “failure of leadership,” locals are more inclined to discern deliberate design and planned neglect–the murder, not the accidental death, of a great city.
In almost random order, here are twenty-five of the urgent questions that deeply trouble the local people we spoke with. Until a grand jury or Congressional committee begins to uncover the answers, the moral (as opposed to simply physical) reconstruction of the New Orleans region will remain impossible.
1. Why did the floodwalls along the 17th Street Canal only break on the New Orleans side and not on the Metairie side? Was this the result of neglect and poor maintenance by New Orleans authorities?
2. Who owned the huge barge that was catapulted through the wall of the Industrial Canal, killing hundreds in the Lower Ninth Ward–the most deadly hit-and-run accident in US history?
3. All of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish east of the Industrial Canal were drowned, except for the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial District along Chef Menteur Highway. Why was industrial land apparently protected by stronger levees than nearby residential neighborhoods?
4. Why did Mayor Ray Nagin, in defiance of his own official disaster plan, delay twelve to twenty-four hours in ordering a mandatory evacuation of the city?
5. Why did Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff not declare Katrina an “Incident of National Significance” until August 31–thus preventing the full deployment of urgently needed federal resources?
6. Why wasn’t the nearby USS Bataan immediately sent to the aid of New Orleans? The huge amphibious-landing ship had a state-of-the-art, 600-bed hospital, water and power plants, helicopters, food supplies and 1,200 sailors eager to join the rescue effort.
7. Similarly, why wasn’t the Baltimore-based hospital ship USS Comfort ordered to sea until August 31, or the 82nd Airborne Division deployed in New Orleans until September 5?
8. Why does Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld balk at making public his “severe weather execution order” that established the ground rules for the military response to Katrina? Did the Pentagon, as a recent report by the Congressional Research Service suggests, fail to take initiatives within already authorized powers, then attempt to transfer the blame to state and local governments?
9. Why were the more than 350 buses of the New Orleans Regional Transportation Authority–eventually flooded where they were parked–not mobilized to evacuate infirm, poor and car-less residents?
10. What significance attaches to the fact that the chair of the Transportation Authority, appointed by Mayor Nagin, is Jimmy Reiss, the wealthy leader of the New Orleans Business Council, which has long advocated a thorough redevelopment of (and cleanup of crime in) the city?