Lessons of Katrina Revisited

Having just listened to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s news conference regarding preparations for the upcoming storm, even before knowing how well the preparations will work, I cannot help but wonder how such a plan would have affected the city and its people three years ago with Hurricane Katrina.

Instead of leaving school and charter buses unattended and prone to flooding as they were in the days preceding and following Katrina, Nagin in this case put them to use, ferrying people under mandatory evacuation to Shreveport and points inland. While Katrina’s effect on property in the region could not have been tempered, I wonder what effect the implementation of such a common-sense evacuation plan would have had on the more important human toll of the storm three years ago. I cannot help but ask whether many of the dead–some 1,600 across the gulf coast, I believe–would still be walking among us today had the state and local governments had their heads somewhere else but in their posteriors at this time in 2005.

Nagin, today, also warned the people of his city that, should they fail to heed the mandatory evacuation for any reason, they were on their own. Undoubtedly, regardless of the warning, the government at some level will take the blame should we once again be confronted with images of people on rooftops, begging for rescue. Still, with regard to those who decide to ride out the storm, Nagin had two specific warnings:

First, should anybody be living in or adjacent to the more than 8,000 travel trailers still serving as housing in New Orleans, precautions should be taken as the trailers are secured only by cinderblocks and are only rated for winds up to 35 miles per hour. These trailers, Nagin said, will become projectiles and will pose serious danger for anyone inside them or in their path. While it may not be the most pressing question with a category four hurricane currently steaming toward Louisiana, it still needs to be asked — after three years, why are people in New Orleans still living in FEMA trailers? I understand whole-heartedly that people lost everything, that the insurance companies acted in bad faith, but three years in a travel trailer? Hurricane Gustav aside, at what point were these unfortunate souls expected to take personal responsibility for their lives?

Second, Nagin promised that anyone caught looting in the aftermath of the storm by the historic amount of law enforcement and National Guard patrols would “go straight to Angola” and be locked up in general population in what was formerly known as The Bloodiest Prison in the South. Good for him. While, at this point, such a warning is only words said at a podium, had such a hard tack been taken in the aftermath of Katrina, perhaps the rest of the nation and world would have been spared the images of Americans at their worst, perhaps New Orleans would not have been victim to such violence, and perhaps the Second Amendment would have been left intact.

After Hurricane Katrina, much of America was quick to blame President Bush and the federal government, oblivious to the fact that preparation responsibility for such storms lie in local and state governments. The thousands who stayed behind in the face of Katrina only to be left stranded without food, water or shelter were the responsibility of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Their failure to properly evacuate the city and, in the wake of grossly negligent evacuation, provide a means for food, shelter, water and access for federal aid very much caused the images of human tragedy seen three years ago today. Likewise, their failure to provide adequate law enforcement and security in the storm’s aftermath was a principal cause for the looting and lawlessness which further darkened New Orleans in such an otherwise dark hour. The result of added preparations for Hurricane Gustav today and this week should shed light upon just how negligent they were in the past. It will be interesting to see how New Orleans and its people handle this imminent threat.

The bottom line, however, is that the government–local, state or federal–should never have been blamed entirely for what happened. A hurricane is not like a tornado or earthquake; warning, in many cases, is ample for a measured, effective response on a personal level. The people who lived in New Orleans at this point three years ago were on the hook for their own welfare and safety, as they should be now. While the government may be relied upon to manage the evacuation efforts for the disabled, for the sick and for the elderly, people largely must be responsible for their own health and well-being.

We constantly shift blame in this society. We blame the government for the housing crisis, and not the people who sought financing for a $600,000 house on a $40,000-per-year salary or the lenders which approved them. We blame the firearms and firearms manufacturers for the crime in our urban areas rather than the people who, completely devoid of any respect for life, pull the trigger in the first place. We blame the fast food restaurants for our expanding waistlines, and not the people who choose to consume an Egg McMuffin for breakfast, Big Mac for lunch, and Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese for dinner. I’ve written before that we are not-so-slowly coddling ourselves into oblivion, and our acceptance of the attitudes of those in New Orleans and beyond in the days and weeks following the Katrina tragedy was no different.

I’m interested to see how the people of the Gulf Coast respond to the threat on their doorstep, feeling the still-fresh wounds of three years ago. I’m interested to see just how quiet the streets of New Orleans are after hearing the words of Ray Nagin. And I’m interested to see if Nagin’s promises, made before dozens of cameras knowing full well that the scrutiny of an entire nation is upon him, will be kept.

Mostly, however, I’m praying for those in the path of this storm, and I hope all of you do the same.



  1. Brutus says:

    I too pray for those affected by Gustav. But I do hope they are not depending upon the government to rescue them. Instead they will perhaps be making their own preparations for safety.

    Certainly there are some who cannot care for themselves and we would hope the families would take care of their own. But remember that government is always inefficient even in good weather.

    One key difference between liberals and conservatives is the dependence on the state for assistance. Conservatives reject the nanny state and do for themselves.

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