TCS Daily

The Machine Stops

By Thomas Lipscomb - September 8, 2005 12:00 AM

As Lake Ponchatrain's waters began to drown his city, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin had the colossal nerve to shout indignantly "Get off your asses, and let's do something" -- and then continued doing nothing himself, but add to the deluge by bursting into tears.

Having been prodded on Saturday into ordering an evacuation by President Bush and the head of the Hurricane Center and then delaying it for seventeen crucial hours until well into Sunday, Mayor Nagin is directly responsible for the AP picture of over 200 unused New Orleans buses marooned in four feet of water that might have evacuated more than 15,000 in one trip alone. Those were the buses that in the Mayor's own plan were to be used to evacuate 100,000 poor the city has long understood had no other means of transportation.

Nagin is also responsible for failing to pre-position generators, food and water, a medical presence and portable toilets for the two sites at the Superdome and Convention Center that he had proclaimed "emergency centers" for tens of thousands of the more than 30% of New Orleanians that lived below the poverty line. And then the Mayor failed to police them.

The rapes, murders, and needless deaths that took place in those "black holes" of New Orleans are his responsibility as well. Eighty armed policemen were too cowardly to enter the Convention Center after reports of the savagery inside as late as Sunday. Troops finally searching the Convention Center on Monday found an elderly man and a young girl, battered to death, among the corpses. New Orleans's would-be reformers thought they had elected a responsible leader in former cable executive Nagin and instead they got a classic "cable guy" with a million excuses and the same lousy service.

Of course behind all this is a dirty little secret well-known in New Orleans which is also the reason almost 30% of New Orleans police precinct members deserted during the Hurricane Katrina emergency. The police were afraid to try to enforce any kind of evacuations in the violent ghettos of a city that remains one of the most lawless in America. Anyone driving a school bus down a street in one of New Orleans's "projects" trying to enforce the mayor's evacuation order would be risking his life. Had the Mayor ordered police escorts, the desertion rate of the police would have been far higher than 30%. And that is the reason for the current argument between the Mayor and his own Police Commissioner, who still refuses to enforce his "mandatory evacuation" order.

Governor Blanco's ineptitude and indecisiveness was appalling. Her direct orders blocked the Red Cross's heroic effort to pre-position desperately needed supplies at the Superdome before it was cut off by the rising flood waters as well. Attempts by the Mayor, the Governor, and The New Orleans Times-Picayune -- which had extensively reported on the state's and city's similar failures on previous occasions -- to blame the Federal FEMA efforts for failing in its role in the immediate aftermath of Katrina are patently ridiculous.

Under white and black governments alike, New Orleans has always been one of the most corrupt cities in one of the most corrupt states in the United States. Three Louisiana officials were indicted for stealing emergency relief funds prior to Katrina. It should surprise no one that the Sicilian Mafia opened operations in New Orleans before it had a presence in New York. Even the "Louisiana Lottery" put in place by a genuine reformer to raise public funds quickly devolved into scandal.

The great black New Orleans-born blues composer Spencer Williams knew his city well. In his lyrics to "Basin Street Blues" Williams calls it "New Orleans, Land of Dreams." And a "Land of Dreams" it is and has always been. The French dreamt of it as the key to reversing the British conquest of Canada; Jefferson dreamt of it as the key to opening a continent; Aaron Burr was tried for treason for dreaming of using it as the base for his "Empire of the West" that could secede from the fledgling United States; "filibusters" like Samuel Walker dreamt of turning Haiti or Nicaragua into mini-empires for their own enrichment. And most of these dreams were doomed at the outset.

Basin Street itself was an excavation site where water settled after the removal of additional landfill to build up the high land around the French Quarter where the original colonists were smart enough to locate their settlement. And that began the dream that ended with Hurricane Katrina that believed with minimal expense New Orleans could continue to ignore reality and expand below sea level construction indefinitely. And the dream is wider than New Orleans. "Flood insurance" is now being offered that encourages development of the most endangered flood-prone littoral land in the country.

And that is the real problem. E. M. Forster's THE MACHINE STOPS, published almost a century ago, posits a world in the future in which the human race gives up any individual responsibility to an immense computerized system that meets every need -- until it fails.

Those who dream of the perfectibility of human institutions through increasingly, compulsorily collective government will always attack the highest levels of government when it does fail. Republicans and Democrats alike have created huge institutions like the Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and now Homeland Security, built on dreams that can never meet the excessive demands placed upon them.

If we are to learn anything from the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, we will have to review the more practical expectations of the Framers of our Federal system. Local and state government are the primary responders. To keep their powers and responsibility intact the Federal Government is a resource they must administer wisely and decisively. Focusing on the habitual incoherence of Bush Administration communications is beside the point. There is no excuse for ignoring the key failures of local and state government in facing the challenge of Hurricane Katrina. Doing so will only ensure the next disaster.

Thomas Lipscomb is a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future(USC). His family has lived in New Orleans for over 150 years.


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