Three months ago, after chafing from criticism over his failure to even appear to respond to the suffering in New Orleans, George W. Bush finally made it to Jackson Square to deliver his promise that “this great city will rise again.” Yet today the great city remains largely in darkness. Most citizens of New Orleans are outside its boundaries, many with no real prospect of returning. What’s rising in New Orleans are divorce and suicide rates, toxic dumps, foreclosures and rage.
The rage was evident in early December just a half-dozen blocks from Jackson Square, in Congo Square, where African-Americans performed ancestral music in the early nineteenth century, heralding a new American culture. On a recent chilly Saturday, Congo Square was the meeting point for a crowd of about 500 demonstrators who gathered to march behind the Soul Rebels Brass Band to demand the return of New Orleanians to New Orleans.
By now it should be obvious that the drowning of the city was a man-made disaster. Multiple investigations, including those sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the National Science Foundation, conclude that the sea walls and levees were poorly designed, constructed and inspected. A not-too-subtle whispering campaign quickly suggested that the fault might lie with those gaudy New Orleanians who insist on rollicking below sea level, or with a state whose legacy of political shenanigans dates back to before “The Kingfish,” Huey Long. The city and state have much to account for, including an evacuation plan that failed to protect their most vulnerable citizens. But the ongoing campaign against New Orleans obscures the simple truth that erecting barriers against floods is a federal responsibility. The Army Corps of Engineers failed its job. The Bush Administration now has the obligation to launch a massive effort to rebuild the city that the federal government destroyed.
Bush last visited the Gulf Coast on October 11. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the President, and many in Congress, would prefer to look the other way while New Orleans collapses. Over the past quarter-century, conservatives have waged their most effective war against “big government.” This model was advanced by Ronald Reagan and endorsed by every President since. Now, when a federally coordinated solution is required, agencies from HUD to the EPA to FEMA are flummoxed. Bush faithfully followed the script by endorsing only limited solutions like the Gulf Opportunity Zone and Worker Recovery Accounts. In doing so, he advanced government as a stop-gap for what couldn’t be handled by his private and faith-based “armies of compassion.”
Stymied by this lack of leadership and by no national call for an ambitious regional rebuilding effort, Louisiana legislators, among them Democratic Representative William Jefferson and Republican Senator David Vitter, are now fretting aloud that demands for protection from the strongest hurricanes could actually work against the city’s interests by raising hopes too high. That’s pathetic. A half-day’s drive through New Orleans–at least, through the 80 percent of it that still looks nearly exactly as it did three months ago–should reveal to anyone what happens when levees don’t hold. You can start by reading the body count still scrawled in red marker on some homes. Yet there are those who dare to offer New Orleans protection on the cheap.