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Not-so-natural disasters

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This week, like virtually everyone in the country and many in the world, we look southward at the images of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction with a sense of horror, sadness and increasing anger. We grieve for our brothers and sisters in New Orleans, some of them personal friends and some of them strangers, who have been ripped from everything they hold dear.

Some of the damage can be chalked up to natural forces beyond the control of human agency. Some of it cannot. When we look at the images of those dying in lawn chairs in front of the convention center, clinging to rooftops or huddled in the festering Superdome, they are unmistakably poor and overwhelmingly black. Natural and divine forces do not arbitrarily choose victims; rather the victims were sorted out beforehand by social and political priorities.

We must note that with a death toll figured in the thousands and climbing, this tragedy falls somewhere in the magnitude of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The death toll may indeed be higher; the time required to rebuild homes and families and to get back to work will certainly be longer. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is fighting an increasingly surreal ‘anti-terrorist’ war in Iraq, depending in no small part on National Guard members who joined up to escape poverty in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and who are now sorely needed at home.

It wasn’t a priority to fund the Army Corps of Engineers to reinforce the levees that broke, plunging the city under water. It emerges that the now-beleaguered New Orleans Times-Picayune has been steadily reporting over the past three years on how funding for flood control in New Orleans was being siphoned off to help pay for the Iraq war.

The federal government has been working with local and city officials since the late 1960s to shore up the levees, but around 2003 federal funds began to dry up. Additionally, plans to study how the city would handle a category 4 or 5 hurricane were shelved.

‘“It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay,’” Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish, told the Times-Picayune in June 2004. ‘“Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.’”

It wasn’t a priority for Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco or Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Democrats both, to commandeer every charter bus in the greater New Orleans area and evacuate the poor, elderly and sick before the hurricane hit. It wasn’t a priority to call up the governor of Texas before the hurricane hit and secure the use of the Houston Astrodome.

It wasn’t a priority to preserve some of the wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf Coast that once served as a giant sponge to absorb heavy rainfall that would otherwise be trapped in the geographic bowl that is the city. It might have seemed intrusive to stop developers from draining swamps and building sprawling parking lots, but today we can clearly see the cost of such misguided practices.

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