Commentary Magazine


The Storm Over Katrina

We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things; and, once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavor to erase them.

Goethe, 1774

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As the flood waters have receded from the drowned city of New Orleans, and the immense destructive effects of Hurricane Katrina from general awareness, a number of more detached and dispassionate evaluations of the crisis have begun to filter through. These point to conclusions radically at odds with what we were told at the time, which by now has assuredly engraved itself on the memories of countless millions of Americans. But if we mean to learn anything useful from those terrible events, we need to attend carefully to the reassessments, and to disenthrall ourselves of much of what we think we know.

To begin with, it is now clear that, as calamitous as were the hurricane’s effects, things could have been a great deal worse. It might seem both bizarre and callous to contend that New Orleans got off easy from Katrina, but there is a measure of truth in it. Katrina turned out not to be the apocalyptic “big one” that has always haunted the New Orleans imagination—“not even close,” according to Hassan Mashriqui of the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University. Nor is Mashriqui alone in arguing that human factors, beyond and apart from the sheer power of the storm, were what turned “a problem into a catastrophe.”

By the time Katrina actually arrived in New Orleans on the morning of August 29, its intensity had probably dropped to that of a Category 3 hurricane—still formidable, but not nearly so cataclysmic as a Category 4 or 5. In addition, the eye of the storm had veered to the east of the city, so that the worst of its cyclonic fury and accompanying surge would be felt on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where towns like Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis would suffer complete obliteration. In the initial hours after the storm itself had passed through New Orleans, there was a wide feeling of relief that the old rogue city might once again have dodged the fatal bullet, as it had just a year before with the careening monster called Ivan, and with so many storms in the past.

Had it not been for breaches in three different levees after Katrina’s concentrated fury had passed, the city would likely have experienced only scattered flooding and wind damage—serious in places, but not catastrophic. It was the failure of these three bulwarks that transformed Katrina from an ordinary hurricane into the most expensive natural disaster in American history. According to three different teams of investigators, all three failures were likely caused by inadequate design or faulty construction.

The failure of the 17th Street and London Avenue drainage canals on the lakefront side of town, whose rupture led to the flooding of much of the city, seems to have occurred not because waters from Lake Pontchartrain topped the levees, as was first believed, but because the peaty soil deep beneath the concrete floodwalls had become saturated and was pushed out of place by the surging waters, thereby causing the concrete structures above them to collapse. Given the nature of the problem, any pre-Katrina effort to raise the existing levees to a greater height would merely have magnified the likelihood of collapse. What might have worked would have been supporting piles sunk much farther into the earth, perhaps to a depth of 40 feet or more. But this would have entailed a project of mammoth expense—just such a project as will have to be considered in any calculation of the cost of rebuilding New Orleans and rendering it safe.

The failure of the Industrial Canal, by contrast, which led to the inundation of the city’s Ninth Ward and outlying St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, seems to have been caused, or at least significantly worsened, by a powerfully concentrated storm surge that was directed up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. This was a possibility that had worried engineers from the moment the Outlet, an underutilized and immensely expensive navigational shortcut, was completed in 1965.

All three of these projects were the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, undertaken decades ago and funded by the federal government. Since engineering or construction failures rather than inadequate funding seem to be at the root of the problem, the Corps will likely end up with much of the blame. But even when the Corps has been successful, as in its taming of the Mississippi River after the legendary 1927 flood, its successes have always had a way of creating more problems.

Most notably, the armoring of the river’s banks in the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (established in 1928), along with ever higher levees and the creation of spillways and reservoirs to regulate river flows, has led to the erosion of Louisiana’s coastal marshes, which serve as an important buffer against marauding Gulf hurricanes, and to the steady subsidence of the city of New Orleans itself. Neither locale was any longer being replenished, as in the past, by the Big Muddy’s constant supply of silt deposits, swept downriver from the upper Midwestern states.

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The point here is that the mere physical setting of New Orleans—subtropical and soggy, lying mostly below sea level, steadily sinking, surrounded by large, powerful, and unpredictable bodies of water, and subject to tropical heat, tropical diseases, and violent tropical storms—is and will always remain challenging in the extreme. It is a comment on the fragility of the place that, as bad as Katrina was, it could easily have been far worse—which means that things far worse will have to be envisioned and planned for if the city is to be rebuilt.

There is a case to be made for that rebuilding, as for New Orleans in general. There is a case for the city’s economic importance as a key American port. And there is a historical and cultural case for preserving so unique an American city; indeed, declining to do so could be seen as an admission of national failure. But any effort commanding widespread support will have to proceed on the basis of sober and disinterested realism, with complete honesty about the risks, and costs, and tradeoffs involved.

And there’s the rub: in the fractious atmosphere of contemporary American public discourse, sober and disinterested realism seems well on the way to becoming extinct. In particular, our understanding of what happened with Katrina has been so tainted and distorted by sensationalism, emotional oversimplification, and ideological opportunism that it may require a miracle for Americans to think through clearly what needs to be done.

Perhaps the foremost culprit in this regard are the mainstream mass media. If one had no evidence beyond the wild journalistic coverage of events as they were unfolding, one would have thought that the fury and carnage of Hurricane Katrina, and the widespread suffering in its aftermath, rather than representing what used to be called an “act of God,” could be blamed entirely on the crimes of commission and omission perpetrated by political leaders, and chiefly President George W. Bush.

It is striking how quickly the “blame game” and the manipulation of angry emotion became a conspicuous part of the many dozens of television images hauntingly depicting the violence and squalor and vulnerability into which so many New Orleanians were plunged by the catastrophic events around them. Here is a portion of an interview with Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, conducted by Anderson Cooper of the Cable News Network on September 1:

Cooper: Senator, I’m sorry . . . for the last four days, I have been seeing dead bodies here in the streets . . . and to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other—I have to tell you, there are people here who are very upset and angry, and when they hear politicians thanking one another, it just, you know, it cuts them the wrong way right now, because there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman has been laying in the street for 48 hours, and there is not enough facilities to get her up. Do you understand that anger?

Landrieu: I have the anger inside of me. Most of the homes in my family have been destroyed. I understand that, and I know all the details, and the President—

Cooper: Well, who are you angry at?

Surrounded by devastation and suffering, the star reporter homed in on what was, to him, the most urgent consideration of all: who are you angry at? That, indeed, was the question of the hour. Hardly had the rain stopped falling on the unlucky Gulf Coast than the search was on for certifiable villains. The game was in motion, and the very stones and waters cried out for vengeance.

In the campaign to score political points, an impressive litany of charges was assembled in record time. The severity of the storm itself was said to have been caused by global warming, which Bush had notoriously refused to address, and by the erosion of the southern Louisiana wetlands, alleged to have been caused principally by the rapaciousness of his fat-cat developer friends. The breaks in the levees were the result of inadequate funding from the Bush administration, including a cut in the most recent budget for the Army Corps of Engineers. The violence in the streets, the grim living conditions at the last-resort shelters in the Superdome and Convention Center, and the plight of unrescued citizens waving desperately from the rooftops of their submerged homes in the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish—all these were attributed to the tardy and inadequate federal response to the storm, stemming from the fact that needed National Guard troops had been deployed in Iraq (another Bush crime) and from incompetent management of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by a Bush crony, not to mention FEMA’s having been placed under the Department of Homeland Security, an indication of the administration’s overemphasis upon terrorism to the exclusion of natural-disaster relief. Worst of all, Bush was caught lollygagging on vacation at his ranch in Texas and was unconscionably late to respond to the crisis publicly.

And so on. Everywhere they looked, the media found George Bush’s fingerprints all over Katrina.

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In fairness, one has to grant that Bush did poorly in the first test of symbolic leadership: the need to appear before the public quickly and decisively and reassuringly. But none of the other accusations was deserved, and in sum they amount to one of the most breathtaking bum raps in memory.

There is, for example, no way that the Bush administration or anyone in it can be held responsible for the levee failures. As for the inadequate response to Katrina, no doubt it will turn out that FEMA deserves some limited portion of the blame; but FEMA is a relatively small agency with only about 2,500 full-time employees, and its chief purpose is to assist in the coordination of work by other public and private agencies. In any case, chief responsibility rests not with Washington but with the state and local officials who are, in the American system of government, rightly tasked with the bulk of emergency planning and first response to crises of this kind.

If villains are to be sought, then, they have to be sought among officials like Kathleen Blanco, the hapless Louisiana governor who was late in ordering an evacuation, late in requesting federal troops, and late in getting the Louisiana National Guard onto the street, who declined to permit President Bush to federalize rescue and relief efforts, and whose own Louisiana Department of Homeland Security inexplicably barred the Red Cross from bringing water, food, and health supplies to the stricken New Orleanians camped out on bridge overpasses and in the two megashelters. Or Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, who also waited too long to evacuate and failed to implement the city’s own evacuation plan—which, as officials knew, was the only real defense the city had against catastrophic storms—allowing hundreds of municipal school buses under his direct control to sit idly in a parking lot.

And the other charges? It is widely agreed that we are currently in an active hurricane cycle, and that such cycles have little or nothing to do with recent atmospheric temperatures, let alone the Kyoto Accords. Nor did Bush and his “friends”—in Democratic Louisiana!—have anything to do with the conditions that have led over several decades to the erosion of the wetlands. There were, also, plenty of National Guard troops available in New Orleans, and they were deployed far more rapidly there than in previous instances; in 1992, when Homestead, Florida, was flattened in a devastating Category 5 strike by Hurricane Andrew, deployment took five days rather than three.

There is no doubt that conditions in the Superdome and the Convention Center were terrible, given the lack of power, ventilation, sanitation, and food and water. But the stories that came out of those places were the stuff of X-rated horror or disaster movies, as scripted by Thomas Hobbes. It was said that evacuees were firing upon helicopters trying to rescue them, and killing those around them for food and water. There were stories of women, children, and even babies being raped, of dead bodies being stacked in a freezer. Police officers were said to be involved in repeated shootouts with heavily armed gang members inside the two buildings; outside, snipers were reportedly firing from rooftops and high-rises at doctors and soldiers. The dead lay piled everywhere.

Such lurid impressions did much to shape the public perception of events, and of the federal government’s supposed culpability for them. Four weeks later, however, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. . . . [M]ost of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened.” Living conditions for the thousands awaiting evacuation from the Superdome and Convention Center, while extremely difficult and unpleasant, were nothing like the descriptions of apocalyptic violence being bandied about by the media.

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And then there were the racial accusations. Because the non-evacuees who sought shelter at the Superdome and Convention Center were overwhelmingly poor and black, news coverage quickly and deliberately fostered the suspicion that the slowness of relief efforts could be traced, not to the massiveness of the storm or the confusion of local and state officials, but to an undercurrent of racism in the nation at large and the White House in particular.

Various public officials played upon this theme shamelessly for the avid benefit of the cameras. Mayor Nagin speculated that if what was happening in heavily black New Orleans had happened in Miami or Los Angeles or Chicago, “we would have had everything we need.” The Rev. Al Sharpton proclaimed that “Bush is James Crow, Jr.,” and that “broken levees are weapons of mass destruction.” Louis Farrakhan suggested that the levees were deliberately exploded, by whites who wished to drive blacks out of the city. In a particularly appalling statement, the activist Randall Robinson declared that “black hurricane victims in New Orleans have begun eating corpses to survive,” and that this news meant “the end of the America I strove for.”

Perhaps the most notorious of such statements came from Congressman Charles Rangel of New York, who told a town meeting held by the Congressional Black Caucus that “George Bush is our Bull Connor,” a reference to the Birmingham, Alabama police commissioner who unleashed attack dogs and turned water hoses on peaceful civil-rights protesters in 1963. Rangel’s comparison was met with wild cheers and sustained applause from those present; they included his fellow speakers Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, and the conference’s two co-chairmen, Danny Davis of Illinois and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. Not only did none of these prominent Democrats disavow Rangel’s remarks, but Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, dismissed a request to do so by his Republican counterpart, Ken Mehlman, with a taunt: “I think the chairman of the RNC ought to be embarrassed for what his party has done to America the last five years. . . . It ought to be Mehlman that’s apologizing.”

Need one point out that this effort to make political hay out of the racial theme was likewise wholly meretricious? Not only were the mayor, police chief, and many other public officials in New Orleans themselves black, but the flow of aid to the city from federal and state government, and from charitable organizations like the Salvation Army and Red Cross, was massive and steady from the start. The death toll in the city, which had been predicted to be as high as 10,000, turned out to be a tenth of that number for the whole state of Louisiana, thanks to well-organized rescue efforts by helicopters from the Coast Guard, Air Force, Army, and Air National Guard, as well as the truly remarkable feats of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, whose boats managed to carry an estimated 20,000 people to safety.

Moreover, significant racial disparities in the rates of death simply did not materialize. The breakdown of the recovered bodies at the St. Gabriel morgue has been roughly equal as between whites and blacks, reflecting their roughly equal numbers in the larger metropolitan area. The levee breaches were not caused by explosions, and well-to-do whites living in the city’s Lakeview area were just as badly affected by them as were blacks living in the Ninth Ward. Nor was race a factor in any delay that occurred in providing food and water at the two megashelters. To the contrary, according to Major Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard, who was present at the Superdome for eight straight days, unsubstantiated reports circulating in the media had the entirely predictable effect of hyping hysteria and keeping away fearful rescue workers, along with additional sources of aid.

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Thus did the news media, and in particular the hotdogs of television, make themselves not merely a nuisance but an important contributing factor to the very problem they were reporting on. Not, of course, that they saw it that way. The coverage of Katrina was “one of television news’s finest moments,” crowed CBS ex-anchorman Dan Rather, a past master of hotdoggery, adding that “covering hurricanes is something I know something about.”

Rather thrilled to the sight of reporters like Cooper who “were willing to speak truth to power.” But in light of the astonishing level of inaccuracy in what was reported, one would have to say instead that this was one of television news’s worst moments, an exceptionally shameful performance made all the more so by the self-congratulation that accompanied and followed it.

In what is becoming a routine of news reporting, some web-based bloggers and blogsites were quick to expose the falsity and bias that pervaded much of the work of the mainstream media, to be followed in due course by print media like the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and New Orleans Times-Picayune, which eventually detailed the extent of the journalistic errors made. But the damage had been done. Although Bush’s strong speech to the nation from a deserted Jackson Square on the night of September 15 did much to reverse the perception of him, and won him high marks even from evacuees living in the Houston Astrodome, the instant litany of charges and complaints was successful in giving decisive shape to public understanding of the event.

A determination to build on that success has marked, as well, the political aftermath of Katrina. Thus, in the view of George Lakoff, the Democratic party’s guru of political semantics, a “framing war” needs to be fought over Katrina’s lessons. The hurricane, he declared, has clearly demonstrated “the intellectual bankruptcy of modern conservatism,” with its emphasis on small government, low taxes, and strong defense. Not only have conservative policies, in Lakoff’s reading, stripped government of the power to deal with disaster, but conservative values are “just plain un-American,” for this is a country “where people pull together in the face of disaster.”

How, then, are Democrats to prevent Republicans from closing “the framing gap” and “parlay[ing] this disaster into an even bigger power grab than they made out of September 11”? By fighting back, paying attention to the “deep framing” of the issues at “the level of values and principles,” and answering the “sink-or-swim” mentality of conservatives with the liberal emphasis on “shared sacrifice” (Lakoff’s preferred term for higher taxes).

Given conservative complaints about the Bush administration’s big-government propensities, not to mention its munificent response to Katrina, Lakoff’s sink-or-swim caricature seems rather desperately out of touch with reality. But his analysis does accurately reflect the Democratic hope that an event like Katrina, especially in combination with other perceived Republican stumblings, could yet serve as a means of redefining an unfavorable political landscape and of taking back the moral high ground that liberalism has manifestly lost over the years. That hope may not be completely unfounded. Bush, for his part, seems determined to thwart this by doing whatever it takes, and spending whatever it takes, to maintain a huge federal role in the post-Katrina reconstruction.

The federal government is providing support for hundreds of thousands of housing units—shelters, mobile homes, public housing, hotels, motels, mortgage initiatives—through a variety of programs. It has sent 1,500 health professionals and 50 tons of medical supplies into the afflicted areas, and is funding 26 new health centers. It is seeking the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone and of Work Recovery Accounts to stimulate employment in the region. It aims to provide extensive federal funds for school districts burdened by displaced children. And that is not even to take account of the funding for the physical reconstruction of the city, three-quarters of the cost of which is federally obligated under the terms of the 1988 Stafford Act.

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If there is a danger here, it lies in an opposite direction from the one perceived by George Lakoff. It is that the convergence of political factors, including Louisiana’s legendary appetite for federal pork, not to mention the presence of real needs that can only be addressed by federal resources, will conspire to turn the post-Katrina rebuilding into an orgy of haphazard and wasteful spending.

Poured in an uncontrolled and unsupervised way into the notoriously corrupt political culture of south Louisiana, such spending will almost certainly do more harm than good, abetting the same disinclination to make responsible choices that got us where we are today. Precisely because Katrina was not the “big one,” there is still an opportunity to do things more nearly right in the reconstruction of New Orleans. Yet, given the current political atmosphere, and with the mass media playing so consequential a role in helping to push Democratic ambitions, there is good reason to question our ability to negotiate the path from opportunity to achievement.

Consider, for example, the issue of whether or not the “new” New Orleans should include a reconstructed Lower Ninth Ward, or whether the area should be allowed to revert to swampland. This may be the single most difficult of the many decisions facing those beginning to think about the shape of the post-Katrina city.

For the foreseeable future, all signs point to a much smaller New Orleans, stabilizing at perhaps half its pre-Katrina population. As many as 250,000 houses are unlivable at present, and many of the city’s former inhabitants have emphatically declared their unwillingness to return. The largely black and poor Lower Ninth Ward was especially hard hit, as it often has been in the past, and there is literally almost no structure left in it worth preserving.

Hence the starkness of the choice—either demolish the entire neighborhood and rebuild on a massive scale, or demolish it for the purpose of letting it return to the elements. The difficulty in deciding the case is not scientific or logistical. Craig E. Colten, a geographer at Louisiana State University, told the Washington Post flatly that the oft-flooded area “should not be put back in the real-estate market”; even if the former residents regarded such a decision as an insult to them, it would, he asserted, “be a far bigger insult to put them back in harm’s way.”

But detached and humane rationality of this kind will do nothing to contain the potentially explosive political reaction to any such decision, or the immense political price to be paid for abandoning a poor and black neighborhood as a place unworthy of preservation—particularly if, as seems all but certain, the Lakeview section and other predominantly white parts of the city are rebuilt. Action of this kind will surely lend credibility to the malicious charge, already voiced by the ever-alert Jesse Jackson, that the Katrina aftermath is being used as a way of “whitening” the population of New Orleans and thus changing Louisiana’s “political order.” In the face of such hardening dogmas, it is small wonder that Mayor Nagin has so far been noncommittal about the area’s future.

But the mayor’s immobilization also reflects the absence of good ideas about the city’s future. Explaining his proposal to transform part of the central business district into a Las Vegas-style gambling strip, Nagin said, for example, “I’d like to have another solution for the citizens, but I don’t know what else we can do at this point.”

Nagin’s lameness may well be a function of his own lack of imagination, but it is also a function of reality. New Orleans has lost so much of its economic base over the past half-century that, aside from the tourist industry, there is almost nothing left to it. Having for years traded on its mystique, now, with the chips down, the city finds itself with little else to sell.

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It would, indeed, be hard to find a place in the United States that is more thoroughly enamored of its own myths about itself—its European provenance, its charming provincialism, its colorful locals, its sophistication, its naughtiness. New Orleans is a fatal magnet for overripe clichés and literary conceits, a city that thrives more on adjectives than on nouns. In its addiction to fancy, it is a little like Laura in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, stuck in a haze of unreality, waiting for imaginary gentlemen to call.

Anyone who has ever lived in New Orleans recognizes the state of mind that prevailed before Katrina. That something like this could happen, and probably would happen, was utterly common knowledge. Equally known was that local officials were too corrupt and incompetent to manage a catastrophe. But a combination of fatalism and denial, and a good stiff drink, always served to banish the reality principle. Spencer Williams’s great 1926 song “Basin Street Blues” had more than one meaning to convey in calling New Orleans a “land of dreams.”

The reality of New Orleans is something far less dreamy: a poor, hopelessly corrupt, racially tense, horrendously violent, and often ugly and disheveled city, with many more cases of peeling paint, rotten siding, imploding front porches, ratty-looking lawns, cracked sidewalks, and crumbling streets than of elegant mansions. A city whose police force is widely believed to be more dangerous than the criminals it protects against, and whose smokestack-era infrastructure is so old that in driving the overpasses and bridges one might easily imagine oneself back in the 1930′s or 40′s. A city that boasts of having more canals than Venice, but whose canals are little more than unkempt drainage ditches running alongside the major thoroughfares.

Of course, there is no point in denying that there is much to love in this land of dreams. Who could not be charmed by the battered green St. Charles Avenue streetcars that lumber through the lushly overgrown uptown neighborhoods like prehistoric beasts on the prowl? Or the many neighborhood restaurants, often looking like crack houses on the outside, that faithfully serve up the simple, superb local cuisine—New Orleans at its unpretentious best? One even learns to love the monsoon-like rains, particularly in the spring, that come up suddenly and flood the streets in a matter of minutes, leaving cars to scramble up onto the curbs, lawns, and neutral grounds for safety, forcing the whole city to put everything on hold, waiting for the streets to drain.

I remember getting caught in one of these sudden downpours while on my way home from a Tulane University graduation one May afternoon. Forced to pull my Toyota up onto someone’s lawn on Prytania Street, I sat for three hours, still wearing my academic regalia, reading the one book that happened to be in the car with me: Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life. A classic New Orleanian moment, and one that only the most insensate rationalist could fail to cherish.

People like to be enveloped by lore, to feel they live in a storied place, where there are ghosts and skeletons in every closet and historical resonances in every street name. This has always been a big part of the appeal of New Orleans, particularly in an increasingly standardized and suburbanized America. The appeal is not merely aesthetic, but may be an important clue to a balance missing from much of modern American life.

But, as with other good things, there can be too much of it. New Orleans has too often been a casualty of its own myths—perhaps, most of all, the myth of its own superiority that it has habitually summoned forth in order to rationalize its inefficiency and improvidence. According to this idea, the city embodies what might be called the counter-Weber thesis: unencumbered by the Protestant ethic and the fetishes of modern efficiency, it offers a more exuberant, authentic, and satisfying mode of human existence.

Whatever is true in this idea depends on one’s willingness to overlook the squalor and despair that have characterized the lives of all too many New Orleanians, not to mention the steady connivance of the Democratic political class in keeping them that way. Indeed, the very things that made the city seem so charming to the outside world served to obscure, and even perpetuate, the grinding poverty and futility of so much of the life within it. Now, thanks to Katrina, and for better or worse, the myth is no longer sustainable.

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Yet there is another, less obvious part of the myth that does deserve to survive, and that in its own way may have something to contribute to thinking about the city’s future. As the story about my enforced sojourn on someone else’s lawn during a May downpour illustrates, New Orleans is a city in which one has always been reminded, at every turn, in ways both banal and profound, of the degree to which existence itself is contingent, and human mastery an illusion. No one living for long in New Orleans can fail to understand this; it is a lesson that the city’s limitations, and particularly its intimate contact with the power and terror of the elements, teaches very well.

This is emphatically not the lesson, however, that has been drawn from Katrina, or that undergirds much of the debate in its aftermath. When “someone” is always to blame for calamity, it must mean that everything untoward happening in the world can ultimately be attributed to the malfeasance of some human being or human agency, and can be fixed by some other human being or agency. We are, or should be, masters of our existence, and we should never tolerate real or perceived lapses in that mastery.

Lost in this view of things, sometimes fatally, is that increases in rational mastery over the physical terms of existence do not necessarily make us happier, or safer—and may even have the opposite effect. Consider the growing rage at our medical system and pharmaceutical industry, a system that has been remarkably skillful, and more so in every passing year, at addressing a range of diseases and conditions that were formerly thought to be untreatable. Modern medicine can do many astonishing things. But it cannot banish risk, which is why the medical system is all too often a casualty of the very expectations it raises.

The principle can be extended to other realms as well. The more things become mastered, the more intolerable are those remaining areas in which our mastery is not yet complete. This parallels very neatly the observation made by Tocqueville that times of revolutionary upheaval occur when social expectations are rising, and his prediction that the growth of social equality in America would exacerbate, rather than relieve, Americans’ sense of class injury and class resentment.

It can only add to our already keen sense of grievance when we find that the areas eluding our mastery are likely to proliferate in years to come. Storms and earthquakes will continue, as will plagues and epidemics and accidents and other things beyond our control, including the appearance of drug-resistant strains of disease that we thought we had conquered. Even with the finest imaginable Department of Homeland Security, there may be other 9/11 attacks, other scares, poisonings of water systems, subway and bus and ship bombings, and instruments of terror that few of us can now imagine. The illusion of mastery has already made it hard for us to absorb the blow of such events in a mature way, and move beyond them productively. Instead, we spend more and more of our time asking ourselves, “Who are we angry at?”

This is precisely why any sensible planning for the future of New Orleans needs to take into account the inherent limitations of the place. There is no question that the city should be restored as much as possible and made as safe as possible. But the limits are very real, and cry out to be observed more respectfully than in the past. If it would be a colossal mistake, and a moral failure, to abandon New Orleans, it would be no less a mistake to assume that it can be made once and for all into a showcase of man’s triumphant and risk-free conquest of nature. Not only is any such objective profoundly expensive and difficult to achieve, and bound to be put to tests it might well not pass, but “success” in the task is a fool’s illusion—as New Orleans, at its best and at its worst, has always insisted on reminding us.

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About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.




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