Silent Witness | The Nation


Silent Witness

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In Disaster, Wall Street Journal reporters Cooper and Block also suggest that New Orleans should be remembered as collateral damage in the "war on terror." They argue that creating the Department of Homeland Security, which swallowed FEMA in 2003, left the nation more rather than less vulnerable. The authors' evidence includes "Hurricane Pam," a planning exercise conducted by FEMA in 2004 to study the impact a huge storm might have on the Gulf Coast. The ugly results, which suggested that the region was woefully unprepared for a disaster that might cause significant loss of life, particularly if the levees failed in New Orleans, prefigured Katrina's wrath. But FEMA couldn't pursue its findings because its abusive parent agency had raided its budget. The Department of Homeland Security then ignored natural disasters that were not merely predictable but predicted. This myopia extended to Congress, which slashed the New Orleans Corps district's budget by 44 percent between 2000 and 2005. And after the storm, the cavalry arrived late for similar reasons. Two wars stretched National Guard units to the breaking point, while commanders, heeding false rumors of armed mobs menacing the Superdome and Convention Center, planned, according to Cooper and Block, a "complicated military operation, one in which federal soldiers might have to kill American citizens, perhaps in great numbers." Military leaders, in sum, readied to put down a phantom insurgency instead of rushing aid to the dying. Here was compassionate conservatism's military wing.

About the Author

Ari Kelman
Ari Kelman, author of A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, teaches history at the University...

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Books written to provoke outrage rarely do. Disaster, though, unnerves by recalling incompetence in exacting detail, reliving decisions that, had they been reversed, would have saved lives. But it's not definitive, because Cooper and Block blur causation and correlation. It's never entirely clear, for instance, if, as they argue, the government botched Katrina due to bloated bureaucracies and turf wars or because of the hacks in charge: ideologues like Chertoff and bootlickers like Brown. Not to mention the President, who comes across in all of these books as out of his depth in crisis and focused on public relations rather than the public. Reluctant to cut his vacation short, President Bush first lingered on his Crawford ranch as Katrina's storm surge dissolved New Orleans's levees. He then flew over the Gulf Coast without landing. When he finally toured the ruined districts, he lauded Brown for doing "a heckuva job" and held up Senator Lott as the face of the tragedy.

The President eventually addressed the country from New Orleans's Jackson Square, promising to rebuild the city. His handlers managed to turn New Orleans's power on for the first time in weeks so that this bit of political theater could be staged just so. Then, with the flimflam delivered via satellite uplink, the city sank once again into darkness. Since then, despite the fact that fewer than half of the city's residents have returned, and those who have often live without basic services, the President has barely mentioned New Orleans. His silence is designed to foster a collective amnesia that serves his interests.

These books share a common flaw: They sometimes duck questions of race and class, the disaster's root rather than proximate causes. "To some," writes Brinkley, "the crowd stranded at the Superdome conjured up images of both slavery and slave insurrection. Of course, such over-the-top comments were irresponsible." Really? Why? He also writes about New Orleanians seeking high ground in the neighboring town of Gretna and the white police who blocked their way. Of officials who denied that race had anything to do with the confrontation, Brinkley concludes, "One might as well take them at their word on that." Indeed, one might as well--if one is crafting a colorblind account of events in which color mattered. For their part, Cooper and Block argue, "New Orleans, while uniquely fragile geographically and confusingly exotic culturally, is just an average place in the scale of risk." This assumes, somehow, that the scale of risk ignores variables like race, class and culture, that it didn't matter that New Orleans was 67 percent African-American and among the nation's poorest cities when the storm hit. Horne is best on Katrina's racial and socioeconomic dimensions. He asks probing questions about the disaster's origins and then notes how black, white, rich and poor experienced and perceived the debacle in different ways based on history, culture and relative privilege. Some members of New Orleans's African-American community, for example, tended to view the ruined levees in the context of the city's long history of environmental injustice. Most whites instead saw the failures as emblems of race-blind incompetence. Even these issues, though, sit on the periphery of the analysis.

Michael Eric Dyson's Come Hell or High Water directly answers questions other Katrina books usually only imply. Why were poor and black people left behind? Why was relief so late arriving? Why was the nation surprised to discover poverty in its midst? And does George Bush care about black people? In order: Because poor people and people of color often live in harm's way and are forgotten. Because Republicans gutted disaster response in favor of limited government. Because cultures of conservatism and consumption render black people and the impoverished invisible. And, no, President Bush doesn't care about black people. It's nothing personal, writes Dyson, a humanities professor at Georgetown University: "The black poor of the Delta lacked social standing, racial status, and the apparent and unconscious identifiers that might evoke a dramatic empathy in Bush and Brown." Although the book relies heavily on Dyson's earlier work on rap music, African-American religion and popular culture, its insistence on the centrality of race and class during Katrina is powerful and well taken.

The authors whose essays appear in the anthology What Lies Beneath expand on Dyson's arguments. They suggest that New Orleans suffered because it was a blue island floating in a sea of red politics, that global warming supercharged the storm, that poverty and racism trapped people in the city. The book, in other words, incorporates many of the left's concerns. It's also occasionally a bit overblown. Nonetheless, it reminds readers of the moment after the hurricane when the nation forgot irony and revived dormant conversations about the impact of racial and socioeconomic inequities. It seems like an age ago, especially with the media making a mockery of presidential candidates for trying to continue these discussions. Pundits harp on one's haircut or ponder whether another is black enough to appeal to African-American voters. The noise is distracting. What Lies Beneath tries to refocus attention on Katrina's core lessons.

One of which was the value of high ground. Or so Mike Tidwell, author of the global-warming jeremiad The Ravaging Tide insists. He warns that "every coastline in the world" may soon suffer New Orleans's fate because of rising ocean levels. But even if true, fearmongering and reductive analysis--"September 11 happened because of oil, plain and simple"--undermine the message, ensuring nonbelievers will remain skeptical and offering Alexander Cockburn something to ridicule. By contrast, nobody will mock Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster, because nobody will read this collection of scholarly essays on New Orleans's future. Such is the fate of published academic conference proceedings. Still, a highlight here is MIT professor Lawrence Vale's "Restoring Urban Viability," which considers conditions--economic, political, cultural--that historically have allowed cities to rise from ruin. This material, in more depth, appears in his book The Resilient City, required reading for anyone interested in context for New Orleans's reconstruction. In that volume Vale, his co-editor, Thomas Campanella, and several contributors all argue that cities do typically recover from disasters, but their rebirth takes a long time. And their resilience hinges on their economic centrality, utility as a symbol of state power and the sway of their citizens. For all these reasons, New Orleans's prognosis, Vale suggests, is murky.

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