Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What will fix New Orleans?

Nicole Gelinas has an article up on The City Journal website about the true cause of the devastation which hurricane Katrina brought to the New Orleans area:

Though President Bush declared on Saturday that Hurricane Katrina exposed “deep-seated poverty” in America, the disaster isn’t ultimately a story of poverty or of race, but of the greatest failure of civil engineering in American history. Luckily, while the nation has never been able to solve poverty, it can solve the engineering problem at the heart of southern Louisiana’s potential recovery.
She then goes into the history of the New Orleans levee system and explains why it failed:

The Corps’ post-mortem of Katrina tells the story: “the system did not perform as a system,” its engineers concluded. “The hurricane protection in New Orleans . . . was a system in name only. . . . The majority, approximately two-thirds by volume, of the flooding and half of the economic losses can be attributed to water flowing through breaches in floodwalls and levees.” The failures weren’t due to construction malfeasance or incompetence: “the system was built as designed,” the Corps concluded. But the system was, in many ways, conceived to fail. In the Corps’ view, it was inconsistently designed and lacked redundancy—that is, back-up protections.

Some levees, in particular the massive earthen fortresses with wide foundations, performed well, withstanding days of water pressure with little erosion. But floodwalls designed as narrow vertical walls driven into the ground—they look like the walls built on highways to block out the noise—performed abysmally.

First, some walls had sunk up to three feet lower than their original “authorized heights” before the storm. Second, the pressure of Katrina’s waters wore away the walls’ narrow vertical foundations because they weren’t “armored” with erosion-proof material, causing the structures to topple into the water. And because the system wasn’t redundant, each break caused additional weaknesses.

She then asks the “money question” and the answer gets to the heart of the problem of not only why the levees failed, but why they are unlikely to be rebuilt in a way which will prevent another Katrina-style flood:

Why didn’t the Corps design a consistent, redundant system? In large part, the reason was foot dragging—or worse—by pols on the state, local, and federal levels. In some cases, political opposition prevented the Corps from seizing land to build sturdier foundations. Plus, Louisiana’s local levee boards were lousy stewards. Levee officials were political animals, not engineering experts, and sometimes proved more interested in running ancillary “economic development” projects than working with the Corps to make sure the levees were up to their task. (It’s not because New Orleans is poor and black: the levees protect New Orleans’s richer, whiter suburbs too.) In addition, the Corps warned that many of New Orleans’s manmade canals, obsolete for years, should be closed or at least gated—to no avail. Moreover, when the Corps, along with state officials, came to understand that wetlands restoration is a vital part of the flood protection system, not a tree-hugger’s afterthought, Congress balked at spending the required $14 billion over several decades for coastal restoration.

Public officials have unfortunately lost interest in such rational infrastructure investment, doubtless because entitlement spending has consumed budgets as well as politicians’ attention. As the American Society of Civil Engineers warned last year, “congested highways, overflowing sewers and corroding bridges are constant reminders of the looming crisis that jeopardizes our nation’s prosperity and our quality of life.” As entitlement spending has gobbled up the federal budget, spending on infrastructure has fallen to about half where it was as a percentage of GDP 40 years ago; state and local infrastructure spending lags as well.

Let us summarize her main point. The welfare state caused the devastation of New Orleans. By sucking up funds that could, and should, have been used for infrastructure entitlement spending ensured that when the flood waters came nothing would be there that was strong enough to hold them back.

As an historical aside I would note that Rome had a similar problem. The aqueducts and fountains which brought a surplus of fresh drinking water into the city of Rome were financed in part by leading citizens, as were the roads which carried commerce to and from the city. The public baths which elevated the quality of life in the city and most of the other public infrastructure were entirely the gifts of wealthy Romans to the people of the city. They did this in order to raise their status as benefactors and buy the love of the people.

Unfortunately there was another way to earn the love of the people and that was by hosting public feasts and by distributing free bread and staging events in the arena. Bread and circuses made one’s largess more apparent to the mob and brought more tangible returns in public adulation than building a new bridge over the Tiber or underwriting the construction of a new sewer, even though those things would have been of far more lasting value to the city.

This brings us back to New Orleans and President Bush's problem.

The incompetence and corruption of the political culture of Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular approaches the level of a Third World banana republic. This non-functional local situation made the federal government appear inadequate, incompetent and unconcerned.

FEMA is designed to function in a support role assisting local authorities. FEMA is to supply money, manpower and material to local emergency management officials who are assumed to know how and where to use it to greatest effect.

This process broke down in Southern Louisiana because there were no, or at least very few, competent local authorities. The “school bus” affair stands as symbol for all the failures of the local government in the face of Katrina.

The city’s evacuation plans called for the city’s school buses to be used to drive people out of the city that had no other way to evacuate. It was there in the city’s disaster plan in black and white. The problem is that the city did not invoke the disaster plan. Bus drivers were never ordered to report to the buses, never given orders to drive to collection points and load up and never given a map to a place on high ground where they could discharge their passengers into the care of FEMA or the Red Cross who would have been happy to set up a tent city, complete with field kitchen and hospital, to receive them.

When asked about the plan to use school buses to evacuate the city Mayor Nagin (earning the nickname “School bus Nagin”) could do nothing but rave semi-hysterically that he needed every Greyhound bus in the country to come down and get his people. Hundreds of school buses which could have driven thousands of people to safety were allowed to sit in low lying parking lots until they were ruined by rising flood waters.

To this could be added the fact that Louisiana’s Democrat governor was caught on tape saying that she should have asked the President for federal assistance sooner, but couldn’t bear the thought of giving him a chance to look good.

When you add to this corrosive mixture of incompetence and corruption a bitterly partisan mainstream media which has been working tirelessly since the levees breached to assign 100% of the blame for every mistake made by anyone at any level to the federal government in general and the President in particular you can see the problem the President faces.

Mr. Bush is in a quandary. He is smart enough to know that what New Orleans needs is engineers and construction crews, not social service handouts and Jesse Jackson. But the modern American mob, like their ancient Roman counterparts, worship instant gratification and the quick fix. So the temptation to pour more billions down anti-poverty rat holes will be almost impossible to resist.