Monday, September 05, 2005

A Bit Too Easy

I have fond memories of New Orleans but no illusions about the general corruption and incompetence endemic at all levels of government in Louisiana. Going along to get along has been going on for so long that it is a local way of life. Wretched schools, corrupt police departments and politicians on the take are hard problems to fix. It is so much easier to go with the flow.

The general collapse in public order in New Orleans in the aftermath of major flooding was entirely predictable. Public order is always a problem in mainly black, low income enclaves. Watts in Los Angeles, Hunter's Point near San Francisco and East Palo Alto near Stanford University are a few examples from California. Other states also have urban concentrations of poor and uneducated blacks that are just one police shooting, major blackout or disaster away from violent anarchy. Disaster planning for those areas necessarily entails a swift and robust response by police and military personnel. That was notably lacking in the case of New Orleans. If you have trouble maintaining public order when things are more or less normal it should be clear that you will have a major problem if things get very abnormal.

When the whole story is told as it inevitably will be it will be one of leadership and communications failures across the board with the likely exception of the President. George Bush has no magic wand that he can wave to make all the unpleasantness go away. He doesn't control the weather any more than he controls the international free market price of oil. He doesn't spend his days auditing FEMA emergency plans or making sure that Lousiana is well governed by local authorities.

The physical security of New Orleans is first and foremost the responsibility of those who live there. It is their city. It is secondly the responsibility of what passes for a Louisiana state government. It is thirdly the responsibility of Louisiana's elected representatives in Congress charged with bellying up to the public trough of Federal money. FEMA and the National Guard are what you rely on when all else fails. They are supplements to rather than substitutes for effective local planning and action. They can help you help yourself. If you come apart at the seams as New Orleans did it will take a lot more time and effort.


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