Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Musings On the 2nd Anniversary of Katrina

It is hurricane anniversary season in New Orleans, and the beleaguered city is threatened with a new inundation: a tidal wave of reports, assessments, stock-takings, prognostications and tongue-lashings.

On Wednesday, New Orleans will have endured exactly two years since Hurricane Katrina hit, and the moment will be marked by ceremonies solemn and silly, in keeping with the city’s twin masks. President Bush, an object of lingering if unfocused resentment here, is expected to drop in. In the meantime, nothing in the city’s halting march back is too small, or too large, to be examined in earnest prose and PowerPoint presentations raining down from Washington and points north, sometimes accompanied by overnight politicians or think-tankers vowing to bravely fight on.

The condition of the swamps, the progress of the poor, arsenic in the schoolyards, awful conditions at the jail, great conditions at the hotels, the generosity of corporate donors, the parsimony (or beneficence) of the government, the wisdom of the bond-rating agencies, the in-migration of the young, the out-migration of the old, the hopeful (or hopeless) schools: all of it is grist for the report-making, assessment-mongering frenzy in a slow August news season.

The bewildering range of outlooks adds up to a giant question mark, a collective split personality. Is the city recovering, standing still or sinking back?


Hurricane Katrina clearly changed the public perception of Bush's presidency. Less examined is the role [Karl] Rove played in the defining moment of the administration's response: when Air Force One flew over Louisiana and Bush gazed down from on high at the wreckage without ordering his plane down. Bush advisers Matthew Dowd and Dan Bartlett wanted the president on the ground immediately, one Bush official told me, but were overruled by Rove for reasons that are still unclear: "Karl did not want the plane to land in Louisiana." Rove’s political acumen seemed to be deserting him altogether.


As the second anniversary of Katrina approaches, residents in hurricane-prone areas are still concerned that they cannot obtain insurance to cover damage to their homes from future disasters. Specifically, the decision by State Farm, Mississippi’s largest insurer, to discontinue selling new policies on homes and small businesses there has sent shock waves beyond the state. Banks that normally require homeowner’s insurance as a condition for obtaining a mortgage are also not sure what impact this will have on their clients’ ability to buy such coverage.

. . . State Farm’s decision is only the tip of the iceberg of a much broader problem: how this country can reduce future losses from natural disasters and aid victims in their recovery efforts. Because of increasing development in hazard-prone areas and the effects of climate change, we are in a new era of catastrophic losses from natural disasters. Ten of the 20 most costly natural disasters have occurred during the past five years — all 10 of them hurricanes, typhoons or tropical storms.


With the cost of natural disasters far beyond the insurance industry’s ability to pay, a new market has sprung up to spread the risk. But how do you calculate the odds of catastrophe?


Over the past two years since Hurricane Katrina, I've seen waves of hardworking volunteers from nonprofits, faith-based groups and college campuses descend on New Orleans, full of compassion and hope.

They arrive in the city's Ninth Ward to painstakingly gut houses one by one. Their jaws drop as they wander around afflicted zones, gazing at the towering mounds of debris and uprooted infrastructure.

After weeks of grueling labor, they realize that they are running in place, toiling in a surreal vacuum.

Two full years after the hurricane, the Big Easy is barely limping along, unable to make truly meaningful reconstruction progress. The most important issues concerning the city's long-term survival are still up in the air. Why is no Herculean clean-up effort underway? Why hasn't President Bush named a high-profile czar such as Colin Powell or James Baker to oversee the ongoing disaster? Where is the U.S. government's participation in the rebuilding?

And why are volunteers practically the only ones working to reconstruct homes in communities that may never again have sewage service, garbage collection or electricity?


In a funky, crowded, smoke-filled bar in the French Quarter, locals are passing a tip bucket 'round the room, while singer John Boutte whoops and hollers, banging on his tambourine, crooning tales of regret and rage over the havoc wreaked by that witch Katrina. Adding his own spin to an old Randy Newman song, "Louisiana 1927":

President Bush flew over in a airplane . . .

President Bush said, "Great job, good job!

"What the levees have done to this poor Creole's land . . . ."

Backstage, in between sets, the Virgin Mary gazes down from her perch on the wall while the bar's managers count the proceeds, every single, every fiver, every ten-spot, counting aloud, one, two, three, four . . . $147. They count again . . . $147. And then hand the loot to Boutte, the son of seven generations of musicmaking New Orleans Creoles.

"I'm rich," Boutte says sardonically, fanning out the bills in his hands like a deck of cards.

Two years post-Katrina, it's like this for the city's musicians: New Orleans may be the music mecca, the birthplace of jazz, the place where you go to get your juice. But it's no place to make money.


Bottom photograph by Matt. More here.


Fran said...

This morning on NPR they spoke to a couple that stayed in their home despite it being in water up to the first floor. They have never left.

And they still - STILL -still do not have phone service.

cognitorex said...

Bush appoints politically correct Commissars to important positions and people die in New Orleans and Iraq due to his institutionalized incompetence.

Unknown said...

Yep the incompatence seems to flow threw the hirricane forced winds good job world.

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Rudi said...

Shaun - I'll always remember the image of Bush pretending to swing a hammmer while helping with either cleanup or temp construction, he gripped it in the middle or towards the top, his patrician backround showed it's ugly head. This was just as bad as Kerry's bird hunting in Ohio, but JK didn't shoot anybody.

I didn't read the Rove story before in Atlantic, if W did a LBJ flashlight walk the perception would have been different, but the results the same.

I haven't commented here in a while, did you always have verification?

Shaun Mullen said...

Hi Rudi:

Welcome back. Yes, we've always had word verification.