Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- September 21, 2005

Who Lost New Orleans?

Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers

“If some people are foolish enough to live below sea level, or in flood plains, or in earthquake zones, why should the rest of us bail them out when an expected disaster strikes?”

It’s an old complaint revived, of course, by the catastrophe visited upon the Gulf states by Hurricane Katrina. It states, in effect, that the citizens of New Orleans and other devastated communities in the region are have only themselves to blame for their misfortune.

Similarly, prudent individuals will not chose to live alongside great rivers like the Mississippi, or along active tectonic zones (i.e., the entire Pacific coast), or in eastern cities such as New York, which attract terrorists, or in the St. Louis/Memphis region, the site of the New Madrid earthquake of 1812 – the most violent US earthquake in recorded history . I guess we should all pack up and move to Kansas instead.

Oh wait!  They have tornadoes, don’t they?

Who is Responsible for New Orleans’ Safety?

The free-market absolutist libertarian right proclaims, in Ayn Rand’s words, that “there is no such entity as .. ‘the public’ ... only a number of individual men.” (Rand: “The Objectivist Ethics”). Thus the optimal society emerges “spontaneously,” through an unregulated free market, from the self-serving economic activity of individuals and families.

By extension, apologists for the Bush Administration’s neglect of the pre-Katrina safety and the post-Katrina recovery seem to be telling us that “there is no such entity as ‘the nation,’ there are only states and ‘regions,’ whose responsibility it is to look after their own safety and recovery.

This policy is articulated in an e-mail of uncertain origin that I received last week, which states a now-familiar cop-out of the Bush-defense team:

In case you aren’t familiar with how our government is supposed to work: the chain of responsibility for the protection of the citizens of New Orleans is:

1. The Mayor of New Orleans
2. The New Orleans director of Homeland Security.
3. The Governor of Louisiana
4. The [Secretary] of Homeland Security.
5. The President of the United States.

The e-mail message then proceeds to argue that due to the alleged blunders of the Mayor and the Governor, the Secretary and the President are absolved of responsibility for the horror that followed the hurricane. This, we are told, was a city problem and a state problem, not a national problem. As is now more than obvious, this excuse (along with “this not the time to play the blame game”) has become the standard talking point of the Bush apologists.

In fact, when a Governor asks the President to declare a federal state of emergency (as Governor Blanco did two days before landfall) and the President agrees (as Bush did the same day), the above-listed “chain of responsibility” is reversed and “the buck stops” at the President’s desk. This procedure is explicitly stated in the “Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD5" issued and signed by George Bush in February 28, 2003, which you can read here (see paragraph 4).  Media reports and right-wing punditry to the contrary notwithstanding, the Mayor and the Governor fulfilled their responsibilities, albeit imperfectly.  ( See “Right Wing Myths about Katrina, Debunked”).

The Right, with its concept of “the nation” as a collage of autonomous states and regions, perceives a devastated gulf region as comparable to a diseased branch on a tree. Cut off the branch, and the tree will be no worse off, and perhaps more healthy. Thus: “It’s too bad about what happened to New Orleans, and maybe we’ll be charitable and send them some aid. But, once again, it is ultimately the fault of the people in New Orleans because they willingly chose to live in a sub-sea-level bowl.”

On the other hand, progressives and economically informed Republicans see New Orleans and the Gulf region as vital organs of the body politic and of the economy of the United States. Thus damage to this regional part is damage to the entire nation.

For the fact of the matter is that New Orleans is an “inevitable city” – a geographic/economic necessity. The Mississippi River drains two-thirds of the 48 contiguous states, and within its watershed most of the nation’s agricultural products are produced. And, now that we have “outsourced” most of our manufacturing base, agricultural products are our primary export, offsetting the United States’ huge (and unsustainable) trade deficit. Down the Mississippi and its tributaries, barges full of the bounty of American farms are towed toward the Gulf of Mexico, and to the necessary Gulf port at the Mississippi delta. At the same time, essential imports arrive at this port – by tonnage, the largest port in the US and the fifth largest in the world. In addition, from the state of Louisiana, the United states gets fifteen percent of its domestic petroleum and 27% of its natural gas. As George Friedman writes in his excellent article, “New Orleans: A Geopolitical prize”  before Katrina struck, “New Orleans was, in many ways, the pivot of the American Economy,” and, he adds, “there are no good shipping alternatives.” The cargo ships can go no further upstream, and downstream are swamps and wetlands that prevent development.

In short, the port of New Orleans is an indispensable national asset. Its loss, while an inconsolable tragedy to its residents, now scattered around the nation, is also an economic hardship to all Americans, and to millions abroad – as we are all about to discover.

And so, the response to the opening taunt – “it’s their fault for living in a disaster-prone region” – is simple and straightforward: someone had to live there, and because the entire nation has benefited from the city and port of New Orleans, it is appropriate that the entire nation should invest in its reconstruction and assist in the rehabilitation of its unfortunate residents.

Similar considerations apply to the Pacific coast with its seismic hazards, and the Northwest with the additional threat of volcanoes. The national economy requires Pacific seaports, along with the timber of the Northwest and the agricultural production of California’s incomparably fertile central valley. And so, if disaster strikes, compensation to the victims is appropriate.

Any politician who believes that these regions are autonomous and economically detachable and thus not the responsibility of the federal government is unqualified for national leadership. To the great misfortune of the United States, such individuals are nonetheless in political control of the federal government.

Why a Federal Emergency Management Agency?

Why shouldn’t the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana take full responsibility for “emergency management.” Why should there be a Federal agency charged with such tasks?

Answer: for the same reason that cities have fire departments. Just as some fires can not be controlled by individual home owners, some disasters are of a scale that overwhelm municipal and state capacities. Often these disasters, like Katrina, affect several states, and in such cases the only political entity qualified to deal with multi-state disasters is the federal government.

It is conceivable, of course, that each state might invest in massive, federal-scale, emergency response facilities, just as each homeowner might purchase and park a $100,000 fire truck in his driveway, “just in case.” But the irrationality of both procedures is immediately obvious. Neither is cost-effective. While a fire in your home is unlikely, the probability of fires breaking out somewhere in a city is sufficiently high to justify a municipal fire department that is frequently engaged in fire-fighting and constantly prepared to respond anywhere in the city, including, of course, your home. Similarly, the minimal annual probability of a Katrina-scale disaster in any particular state is not worth the investment of fifty large-scale separate “just-in-case” response facilities. However, if we multiply the low-probability of a disaster in each state by fifty, we then have a justification for an in-place and “at the ready” federal agency such as FEMA. In short: fifty multi-billion dollar agencies for each state is folly; one multi-billion dollar agency for all states is rational.

Just as most home fires can be put out with a fire extinguisher or a garden hose, most disasters can be managed with municipal and state agencies. But for those rare and massive events, such as Katrina and the much-anticipated major California earthquake, a coordinated national response is imperative. As evidence for this claim, just contrast the effectiveness of FEMA under James Lee Witt during the Clinton administration with that of the crony-ridden fiasco of FEMA under Bush.

So Who Lost New Orleans?

None of the leading official players in this tragic drama are totally blameless – each one, “if they had it to do over again” would respond differently and more effectively. But that does not mean that each responsible official is equally culpable. Despite false media reports to the contrary (notably by The Washington Post and Newsweek), Governor Blanco declared a state of emergency on August 26, three days before the hurricane made landfall. The following morning she requested Bush to declare a federal state of emergency, which Bush granted, following which Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff and FEMA Director Michael Brown were inexcusably unresponsive for the next two days. Mayor Nagin’s mandatory evacuation order proved to be too little and too late (by a whole day). Subsequent events would show that FEMA, severely incapacitated by Bush Administration cutbacks, the loss of key professional personnel, and management by unqualified political appointees, was worse than ineffective as it refused assistance by relief agencies such as the Red Cross and numerous municipal police and fire departments, and blocked assistance to victims by volunteers. (For a detailed timeline with links to validating documents, see Salon.com’s “Timeline to Disaster”).

George Bush’s remark to ABC’s Diane Sawyer that “I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," is contradicted by numerous studies and media reports. In fact, the flooding of New Orleans was long-anticipated and feared, and aggressive flood control measures were proposed to Congress. All were slashed by the Bush Administration to small fractions of the amounts requested. (See Will Bunch: “Why the Levee Broke”).

It is impossible to determine with certainty whether a repaired and improved levee system could have spared New Orleans from this Category Four hurricane. If it could not, then the answer to the question “who lost New Orleans” must be “Katrina.” If fully-funded and fully installed levees would have held, then the answer to “who lost New Orleans is clearly the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress which refused to fund the repair and re-enforcement of the levees.

But Katrina was two disasters: one natural – the hurricane -- and the other administrative – the botched relief effort that followed. And for that second disaster the fault lies squarely with the Bush Administration and its under-funded and atrociously administered Federal Emergency Management Agency. The message of the Bush spin-machine, and much of its enabling media, is that the blame lies with Governor Blanco and Mayer Negin. But the documented evidence, available on the internet for all to see refutes this allegation.

At the root of the second, post-storm, disaster is the right-wing’s visceral distrust of government: the Reaganite conviction that “government is not the solution, government is the problem,” and the Bushite proclamation that “you can spend your money more wisely than the federal government can.” (Bush in the second debate, 2000). As Thom Hartmann has observed, “You Can't Govern if You Don't Believe in Government."   Katrina has proved that because the Busheviks don’t believe in government, they can’t govern. And so, faced with a regional crisis with devastating impacts upon the national economy, the Bush administration was incapable of acting effectively in the national interest. Indeed, they are scarcely capable of recognizing the very existence of a “national interest” apart from the separate interests of privileged individuals and corporations.

It is difficult to find any silver lining in Katrina’s storm clouds. But if there is any, it might be the dawning public realization that there are good reasons why no civilized society is without a government – why our founders recognized that an enlightened government, “deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed,” exists, in the words of our Constitution, to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Those who dare to call themselves “conservatives” would have us believe otherwise.

Copyright 2005 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .