That we even call this the post-Katrina era in New Orleans is somewhat misleading. Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans, but it missed the Crescent City. What we experienced was the worst civil engineering disaster in the history of our country. Floodwalls failed without being overtopped. The Army Corps of Engineers has said our flood control infrastructure was a system “in name only” and acknowledged a serious design flaw that led to the failures that flooded the city. The Army Corps should know, since they are the ones who designed and built and maintained the non-system in the first place. So: not a natural disaster but a man-made one.
This is a point that is pretty well understood around here, and by many around the country who have been paying close attention. But the majority of Americans probably still think of the flooding of New Orleans as a natural disaster.
Does it really matter, either way? Isn’t it still a tragedy either way? That’s kind of how I feel about it. But some folks with more political savvy than I seem to think it does matter.
I saw Harry Shearer speak at Rising Tide IV. He made the case quite eloquently that we have already lost the media battle on this point. In our national discourse, the flooding of New Orleans was a natural disaster, not a failure of engineering infrastructure.
When people from other places in the country ask why they should care what happened, Harry answers: “Because you paid to destroy us.” It’s your tax dollars at work. And now that the Army Corps is supposed to build a better flood control system — scratch that, an actual system — wouldn’t you like to see it done right? Again, it’s your money.
For an example of how it might be done better, check out the Dutch Dialogues. When the Dutch came to New Orleans, a city surrounded by water, their first question was, “Where is the water and why is it hidden?” The dialogues between Dutch and Louisiana engineers and hydrologists have generated some remarkable ideas about how New Orleans can live more safely with water.
But these ideas are a far cry from what the Army Corps is actually doing. A lot of people think the fundamental governance model of the Army Corps is flawed, and that without reform we won’t get better results. That’s a tall order, but I suppose people like Harry Shearer have it right when they say it’s important people understand what actually happened here four years ago.
P.S. For some fascinating insight into how Washington relates to our troubles “down here,” read Harry’s blog on “Playing the Inside Game,” an interesting story which he related at Rising Tide a couple days before publishing on HuffPo.