For decades, it was well known in Washington, in Louisiana, in every US capital where the state economy relied on the Port of New Orleans, and to every US business dependent on the port and every American interested in civil defense that the City of New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen.
So there can be no going back to normal in the wake of Katrina. Not until Americans, as a nation, face the implications of a vital American city wrecked because of decades of negligence.
At root the nightmare that arose in New Orleans is about the abandonment of long-term comprehensive planning in the United States. The tragedy played out in New Orleans removed arguments for long-term planning from the abstractions of economic and political theories and put them in concrete, simple terms. So now, everybody understands.
The neglect of long-range planning has been across the board: in education, jobs retraining, energy exploration, maintenance of critical infrastructures, land/water management, civil defense, the list goes on.
If the disaster that befell New Orleans teaches us nothing else, it teaches that. For it is plain to see there can be no repairing storm-damaged New Orleans and moving on. The city must be built anew and in such way to prevent the next hurricane season from leveling it again.
It is also plain that disaster assistance is not enough to mend many of the lives shattered in New Orleans. Many evacuees were on public assistance or working in dead-end jobs at the lowest end of the pay scale for the gambling and tourism industries. The lives must be built anew. For the American work force cannot hope to remain competitive in the globalized markets if entire regions of our country are on the dole or working as croupiers and waiters.
Many causes led this country to drift from long-range thinking; among them:
- The two-party system of politics, which became a literal industry serving its own needs at the expense of the national welfare.
- Pork barrel politics: localities elected officials not for their foresight and governance skills but for what they could do, short-term, for a business faction or voting bloc.
- Over-idealization of democratic principles: obsessive focus on the Right and Left to ramrod ideals about freedom into legislation at the expense of basic, critical national needs.
- Abuse of the concept of federalism, which transformed many US state governments into a virtual duchy.
Meanwhile, a car industry wedded to an interstate highway system and cheap oil, and a population in love with car transport, plugged their ears and built and bought gas-guzzlers. The two-car family became standard in many regions.
Meanwhile, the oldest and most important cities creaked from lack of repairs to bridges, tunnels and other critical public works. The country's electrical grid system became a duct-tape affair.
Meanwhile, a permanent American underclass arose, at a time when China and India and other hardscrabble nations cranked out engineering PhDs with state sponsorship.
The two-party political machine way of doing things began to creak and groan two decades ago under the pressures of the modern era. The machine is now broken. Any doubts on that score, consider the squabbling in Congress these past days about the makeup of the Goat Commission to fix blame for what happened to New Orleans -- the very commission Congress called for.
Face this: the aftermath of a hurricane is sweeping away an era in American politics. If the Congress does not confront the failure of long-term planning they will lose the American public. Then the Democrat and Republican parties will find themselves facing a third party candidate by 2008.
The candidate will not be Ralph Nader or a Green Party type -- one easily blocked by Democrat and GOP machines at the state level. It will be a candidate representing the tidal wave of public outrage. The American workforce is among the hardest working, if not the hardest working, in the world. And hands down, we are the busiest people in the world. We don't have time for verbal sleights of hand from elected officials.
The American people as a whole have facing-up to do as well. The outpouring of donations and volunteer help from millions of Americans in the wake of Katrina is filling the yawning gap created by incompetence at the federal, state and city levels. Yet quite simply this heartwarming show of kindness amounts to treble taxation.
Last week, as the horror in New Orleans unfolded before the television cameras, ABC gave the nation a respite by airing the screwball chopsocky comedy, Shanghai Nights. At one point his dizzy partner shows Jackie Chan a hastily sketched football-type diagram, replete with arrows and dots, for how to break into a heavily fortified castle.
“It’s the old Hail Mary play,” he explains. “Plan B is we dig a tunnel.”
Perhaps the greatest warning given by Katrina is that it’s time for Americans to focus more on long-range planning and leave the Hail Mary plays to the divine.