Hurricane Katrina is often called a natural disaster, as if it was all nature’s fault, not man’s. The reality, of course, is that federal, state and local governments ignored warnings from scientists for years, both that climate change would lead to increased storm activity, and that destruction of wetlands outside of New Orleans had hurt the city’s natural defenses against a storm surge. Calls for fixing levees and infrastructure investments went unheeded while the doctrine of markets and profits held sway.
This week, a federal district judge finally ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was indeed responsible for part of the devastation in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward and parts of St. Bernard Parish.
The failure of the Corps to recognize the hazards wetland destruction had created was "clearly negligent on the part of the Corps," said U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. "Furthermore, the Corps not only knew, but admitted by 1988 [the threats to human life] and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued."
In this decision alone the government could wind up paying $700,000 in damages. It doesn’t sound like enough. More importantly, though, the ruling could open the gates to judgments that could reach into the billions.
No judgment will bring back the Ninth Ward which, years after Katrina and Rita and the breaking of the levees is still largely a ghost town, but this acknowledgment that the destruction didn’t have to happen is important. Long neglect of federal infrastructure by governments more concerned with tax cuts than human safety is not a phenomenon limited to New Orleans. The NOLA negligence verdict makes the case for national infrastructure spending now.
By way of reparations, how about not just $700,000 to the plaintiffs in the New Oreleans suit but a re-commitment to infrastructure spending at the federal state and local level. You want national security? Stimulus? Jobs? That’s it, and this is the time. When you hear let the talk turn predictably to deficits and spending cuts instead, remember, while DC measures deficits in dollars, on the Gulf Coast, the deficit in spending is measured in lost lives.
The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.