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Re: <nettime> A Progressive Response to Katrina
E. Miller on Wed, 7 Sep 2005 23:12:03 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> A Progressive Response to Katrina

Hi all,

Thanks for writing this, Michael.  Though I must say that as I read it, my
progressive thoughts and my former-resident-of-New-Orleans thoughts are
busily thumping one another in my head.  As a result I have some significant
reservations about these proposals & recommendations.

To mention a few:

> Katrina and its aftermath represent what happens when a national leadership
> buries its head in the sand

The federal government maintained the levee system and provides FEMA; the
state is the first responder for disaster law and order in the form of the
National Guard, as well as statewide emergency planning; the local
government is inherently responsible for preparations specific to the
community; and individuals have a responsibility to themselves and to their
neighbors.  At all of these levels there was catastrophic failure.  I don't
know that it's reasonable to point the finger solely at the level most
removed from the catastrophe, even if that level (the Feds) are ultimately
the only ones with the resources to handle the largest emergencies.

It's reasonable to ask if local officials, as the front line defense against
catastrophe, to see if they did everything they could.  According to a
7/24/05 article in the New Orleans Times Picayune, local officials knew they
didn't have the money/people/resources to cope with a catastrophic storm, so
they decided to make a DVD to let people know they were on their own.
Great!  Make a movie, give it to the poorest of the poor, and you've
apparently done all you can.  That's not leadership, that's fundamentally an
abdication of responsibility.  "We can't do it" is not acceptable at any
level of government.  It's their core responsibility to find a way.

I saw it with another large New Orleans institution that I know very well.
After evacuating it became clear that they weren't prepared with an adequate
emergency plan for administration, communication, or coordination.
Thousands of people affiliated with this institution were left in the dark
for a week.  Ultimately it's inexcusable at the institutional level when
you've had decades of warnings.

Large tropical storms and hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast almost every year.
It's predictable, and we know in advance when they are coming.  Everyone at
every level is responsible for being prepared.  We're seeing that failure at
every level.  I dislike the President as much as almost everyone else, but
this isn't a good one to pin solely on him or this particular

> They didn't end the third-world level poverty in the very
> heart of the South. They did not even end vicious racism.

Agreed.  I taught in New Orleans public schools for a short while.  The
segregation is systemic and the racism is real.  And the racism goes both
ways, incidentally, with a lot of resentment of the white socioeconomic
power structure expressed through anger and violence.  It's massively
dysfunctional on a societal level.

> Bush's policies merely exacerbated what is still the shame of both parties --
> Republican and Democratic alike.

Also agreed.  Additionally, I would point out that these extraordinarily
disadvantaged neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans didn't
spring into existence in January 2001 when Bush was inaugurated.  There have
been many unbelievably poor neighborhoods for decades, through Republican
and Democratic administrations alike.  (And overwhelmingly Democratic local
government, I should add.)  Not much has worked to help those people,
whether we refer to a generation of Great Society programs or a generation
of Reaganesque tough love.  Everyone shares the blame.  Let's bear that in
mind when crucifying Bush.

> Finally, one reason for our current problems is the utter failure of the US
> system of education, which has failed to reach, interest or challenge most of
> our citizens. We have to find ways to make education available to all,
> captivating, and rigorous enough so that our citizens are capable of
> understanding the kinds of challenges we face, capable of global thinking and
> understanding, not afraid to tackle hard problems, not afraid to seem smart,
> less susceptible to lies and  spin.

I strongly agree here too.  Education is the tipping point.  But then again,
almost everyone acknowledges the criticality of education and agrees that we
could do more.  It's a broader problem than just curriculums or funding.
It's also a socioeconomic problem; at least in the short term, one of the
strongest correlations with K-12 academic performance is not per-pupil
funding but socioeconomic background and community values.  You can spend
lavishly on education in disadvantaged communities but the biggest factor is
whether or not the students have the baseline resources allowing them to
learn.  This includes cultural values, an emphasis on education at home,
proper sleep, medical care, and nutrition, a stable home life, and many
other critical factors that can't simply be purchased with government funds.
Progressives need to break free of calcified pedagogy and doctrine to come
up with workable solutions to these previously intractable problems.
Otherwise the right is going to continue winning elections by parroting all
that Horatio Alger "bootstraps" bullshit.
> What must our immediate demands be? We can only arrive at that by swift
> networking to develop consensus

I'd respectfully suggest that ad-hoc committees, communities of interest,
and study groups aren't really set up to lead in a dire situation like this.
The "analysis paralysis" of the left seems to keep us from formulating
innovative solutions.  And incidentally, it seems to be losing us a fair
number of elections.

> * The poor must be rapidly and humanely compensated for their losses, receive
> adequate medical attention, and be reunited with their families and friends;

Agreed, obviously.  And I'd go a step further: structure the compensation to
help rebuild communities and institutions as well.  Which, incidentally, in
this case means federal funding for building socially conservative
African-American Baptist churches which were cornerstones of these
communities.  We OK with that?
> * The levees must be restored much stronger, adequate for a much more intense
> hurricane;

Environmentally speaking, rebuilding the levees as they were would be
disastrous.  Building a walled city on the river delta made economic sense
in the early 19th century but it doesn't make environmental or (much)
economic sense now.  Decades of environmental studies, ongoing land mass
loss, and local experience points to a need for a smaller human footprint on
the Mississippi delta.
> * All citizens of New Orleans and neighboring areas must be restored to their
> homes, with those of the poor adequately cleaned up, made safe and sanitary
> according to the occupants needs;

These were historic neighborhoods with strong communities.  They were also
crime-ridden, filled with substandard housing, enforced de facto
segregation, and helped institutionalize a lack of opportunity for the
underclass.  I'm not sure that building reproductions of pre-hurricane New
Orleans underclass residences (avoiding the term 'ghetto' here) would a good
idea any more than I'd be keen on rebuilding a cloned copy of Cabrini Green
if it had been gutted by a fire.  We'd be enshrining a monument to 'benign

> * The damage must not be used as an excuse for re-development schemes that
> deprive previous residents of their homes;

Don't know if many Nettimers have seen those homes.  As homes, to the people
they were the foundations of their lives and their communities.  As houses,
however, they collectively represented some of the worst housing in the
nation, and we should be ashamed that we abandoned the poor to these
neighborhoods for as long as we have.  We need to balance the urge to
rebuild against two major factors: the environmental arguments against
substantial rebuilding in the Mississippi delta, and the social arguments
against re-creating some of the worst residential institutions of poverty
and inequality in the United States.  And if we did cast aside these
concerns and we just rebuilt what was there, within a century it would be
catastrophically destroyed because of the ongoing degradation of the
storm-surge buffering river delta and the sinking of the city's ground
level.  It just doesn't make sense to rebuild what was there.
> * The Mississippi must be ecologically restored in a more sustainable manner;

Not easily done without removing the levees, which would substantially
reduce the buildable area in the region.  It's not really about the river so
much as it's about the entire delta ecosystem, which has been ravaged by
human development, Corps of Engineers 'management', and the unintended
ecological consequences of levees.
> * Emergency measures to equitably reduce oil and gas use must begin at once;
> * The US must at once sign onto and ratify the Kyoto accords, and immediately
> seek to go beyond them to start crash international programs of research into
> not only lowering carbon emissions but reversing current greenhouse effects;
> * Tax cuts for the rich must be rescinded at once to help pay for this and
> other measures.

Arguably, oil and tourism are the two economic pillars of the region.
Tourism is now dead for the forseeable future...reducing the oil industry in
the state would cripple the other economic engine.  I'm all for reducing oil
consumption in the US, but these actions would have economic consequences in
the area now least able to handle it.  See "Baath Party, removal of."

> * FEMA and other federal agencies must be strengthened and made effective in
> fulfilling their intended missions, which must include detailed protection and
> evacuation plans that take into account the needs and limitations of all
> citizens;

Agreed, with the caveat that FEMA needs to work jointly with all levels of
government to ensure comprehensive planning and disaster response.
> * Cronyism in government offices must be firmly opposed;

Agreed, of course.  And I'll point out that Louisiana has long been one of
the most corrupt states in the US; whether governors (Huey Long and Edwin
Edwards spring to mind), local officials, and law enforcement.  I could tell
you some stories.  It's not just the horse-loving FEMA director that needs
to be examined here.
> * We must stop wasting our nation's and the world's resources on military
> adventures that cannot succeed;
> * Specifically, we should bring the troops home from Iraq at once.

This opens up another whole discussion.  For now, suffice it to say that the
Louisiana National Guard would have probably been better prepared to respond
if a large percentage of them weren't in Iraq.

And as an afterword: I loved many aspects of New Orleans -- the culture, the
diversity, the food, the music, the lifestyle, the beauty.  But I was mugged
at gunpoint, constantly threatened with violence, victimized by property
crimes on a regular basis, depressed by the institutionalized dysfunction of
schools and communities, appalled by the racism and bigotry, and saddened by
the lack of opportunity.  Personally, I just hope that we can restore some
of what made New Orleans great while starting to address some of the
problems that made New Orleans a tragically flawed city.

New Orleans resident, 1990-1995

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