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12/11/2005 Archived Entry: "Bill Bradford's last article"

This is Bill Bradford's last article. Hurricane Katrina, Who's Really to Blame by R.W. Bradford, [Liberty magazine, November 2005. Volume 19, Number 11

If insanity is repeating a mistake and expecting different results, Americans' response to Katrina is insane. The most bizarre thing about Hurricane Katrina is the public's reaction. Look what happened.

New Orleans was founded in 1718 on the bank of the Mississippi, about 100 miles from the river's mouth. The east bank is high at that point, so it seemed relatively safe, but the very next year, New Orleans suffered its first flood. During the next century and a half, it experienced the ups and downs typical of a port city in a tropical hurricane zone: occasional floods, followed by rebuilding. But like most cities in the New World, it suffered more from fire than from flood. During this period it suffered even more from military invasion and occupation than from fire and flood combined, and more still from tropical disease.

About a century and a quarter ago, federal, state, and local governments began to take charge of safety matters. They drained swamps and built and maintained levees, allowing the city's population to grow substantially. This growth was not willy-nilly: the city had adopted tight zoning and land use regulation. By the mid-20th century, state and local authorities, with the help of huge amounts of money from the federal government, extended and improved the flood management system, and New Orleans was touted as one of the safest and healthiest cities in the world.

So just how could Hurricane Katrina wreak $200 billion in damage and kill hundreds - possibly thousands - of human beings? How diddid it become, as we have heard over and over on television, "The Worst Natural Disaster in U.S. History"?

It happened because people gave too much responsibility to government. It is no overstatement to say that the Katrina disaster is purely the fault of the government, at local, state, and federal levels.

Nearly all the damage resulted from flooding in areas that are below sea level. Homes and businesses were built in these preposterously dangerous locations because government programs drained these areas and planners decided to build there.

These locations could have been made reasonably safe by building levees high enough to protect against the storm surge from Class 4 hurricanes (hurricanes with winds over 130 mph). On average, between 10 and 18 Class 4 hurricanes occur each year in the Caribbean and the Gulf. It was obvious, even to government officials, that this was a very dangerous situation. So Congress appropriated money to build up the levees. And the local authorities spent it on other projects. (Last year, for example, they spent $2 million building a computerized musical fountain by the levee board's headquarters.) And the homes were built at government direction in areas that even the government realized would inevitably flood on a grand scale.

How did the perpetrators of this almost unfathomably vast disaster react to it?

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that government didn't do much of anything until days after the inevitable floods happened, the hundreds (or thousands) of people died, the billions of dollars worth of damage occurred. The politicians responded at first by ignoring the whole mess, then by blaming each other, and then by making grandstanding proposals to give government even more resources and power to deal with the problem. In some ways, government suppressed relief: for days, the governor of Louisiana refused to allow the Red Cross into the stricken area.

It was weeks before the Bush administration responded more than perfunctorily, and then its response was . . . throw huge amounts of money at the problem. Republicans in Washington say that they expect to spend $200 billion to undo the damage. That amounts to $400,000 for every man, woman, and child in New Orleans. Yes, I know: a lot of damage occurred elsewhere on the Gulf Coast. But remember: a third of New Orleans wasn't flooded, most residents of the Big Easy who were flooded had left the city before the flood, and many had flood insurance.

But what's most interesting about this whole sorry mess is the reaction of the American people. Virtually nobody put any blame on the government for the flooding, even though damage would have been almost trivial if government had acted in anything like a prudent fashion during the century prior to the flood.

Instead, people - especially media and politicians - blamlamed the government for failing to respond quickly enough and with enough money. On one level, this makes ? sense: after all, government did fail to provide any meaningful help, and even retarded private efforts.

But think about it for a minute: why on earth should you expect the perpetrator of such a disaster to provide timely and meaningful relief? Did the survivors of Stalin, Mao, or Hitler expect those dictators to provide them relief after their friends and family had been massacred?

? The local authorities didn't squander their appropriated millioons to build the levees a few feet higher because they wanted people to die (and adding a few feet to the levees was all that was needed to prevent the flood). No. They figured that the chances of a major flood during the next few years were remote, and that the snazzy computerized musical fountain at their headquarters was something that could benefit them now. Dealing with the levee problem could wait.

But this is all the more reason not to expect government to offer meaningful relief in a timely fashion, or to expect it to respond by any means other than smothering an already afflicted area in tax dollars.

Like a horse that is led from a burning barn, then heads back to the barn as soon as it is turned loose, Americans are hard to fathom when they start thinking about disasters. How can you explain the self-destructive behavior of the American public? The explanation, I suspect, can be found in the displacement of traditional other-worldly religion with the secular religion of state worship. A hurricane is no longer perceived as an "act of God." It is now seen as an act of government. That's why Bush's approval rating fell when Katrina hit. That's why so many people believe, in the absence of evidence, that his refusal to sign the Kyoto Accords, which would dramatically affect U.S. energy usage and have a substantially unfavorable effect on our prosperity, somehow makes hurricanes more frequent and worse.

And that's why people expect government to solve the problem of natural disasters. On earlier occasions, government was hardly involved even when the disasters were much worse, such as the hurricane that killed 10,000 residents of Galveston, Tex. in 1900, or the fire that destroyed central Chicago in 1871, or the flood that descended on Johnstown, Penn., in 1889, or the earthquakes centered in New Madrid, Mo., in 1811 and 1812 - the worst quakes ever recorded on this continent . . . but in this modern age of progress and rationality, people's faith in the state is so strong that even the manifest failure of government to respond to the breaching of levees has not undermined it.

What is needed, obviously, is a crisis of faith [in government]. But there is little or no evidence of any such storm on the horizon.

R.W. Bradford was founder, editor and publisher of Liberty, magazine.

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