America is paying a price. New Orleans was a disaster that was foreseen, but appropriations to prevent it were diverted for other purposes.
Today one of America's crown jewels, New Orleans, lies in ruins, its citizens homeless, its people dispossessed.
Nature is fickle and no one can blame any administration, present or past, for the category five hurricane that destroyed so much. Category five hurricanes come and go and sometimes they hit cities and sometimes they don't.
In the aftermath, after numbness wears off and the toll is fully understood, someone will call for an investigation. It has always been so. Something bad happens and people want to find the guilty party or parties and punish them. Sometimes culprits are found; other times the investigations are travesties. Deep down we know that in this case, America itself is to blame.
We can cite the statistics of the Corp of Engineers who said the chances of New Orleans surviving a category three hurricane were iffy. A category five hurricane like Katrina was not out of the question. Monies were requested and ultimately shifted for other things. Certainly there are only so many tax dollars to go around.
Some of us will blame the current administration or past administrations. Alas, in my view, the problem lies far deeper. In lies in the heart and soul of America which simply has stopped investing in itself.
When did this happen?
When did Americans stop investing in America? When did it become okay not to spend money on America's infrastructure, its citizens, its future? Certainly it did not happen overnight. It's been long in coming. It's not just money diverted from the Corp of Engineers for earthworks. America has stopped investing it itself in far more ways than that and rushing to shore up a breech in the dike is almost symbolic.
We have stopped investing in the health of Americans. We have stopped investing in the education of Americans. We have stopped investing in each other. We have stopped investing in ourselves. We are told this is "tax relief." We are told the government is bloated and that bureaucrats create nothing, so the earthworks that surround the Big Easy are left to sit. The private sector is ill-prepared to take on such projects and so they are left undone - leading to our own undoing.
Free-markets are touted as the only markets, but as one wise teacher of history remarked, "free markets work best for free goods," meaning non-vital things. Vital things - food, water, sewage, disease control; the case of these, it is less clear how free-market forces do a better job.
Do I need a free-market fire department? A free-market police department? A free-market military? Everyone seems to agree that enforcement is not a free-market thing. Yet, protecting our cities against natural disasters? That is an investment that sometimes is made. In recent years St. Louis survived the Mississippi by a foot when the river rose to epic proportions in a hundred-year flood-crest.
Some of us are shocked to hear our fellow citizen dismiss the plight of those caught in the flood. "They had it coming - they're all on welfare. They deserve it- they were given plenty of time to evacuate. They're all a bunch of homosexuals, anyway. It's a multiculture city - God sent that storm to make a point." And sure enough, the camera paints a picture. The sea of faces is mainly black.
It is difficult to speak about collective moods or collective attitudes. Nevertheless, the events of the last several days, years, and decades reveals something: America's collective heart has hardened.
In the 1930's the Okies, as they were called, left the dust bowl of Oklahoma and migrated away when winds and weather turned once fertile land into dust. Many will recall "The Grapes of Wrath." The dispossessed all too often were not treated charitably. Will we see a new migration like that of the 1930's? Can a major city be simply emptied without a ripple going through the nation?
Since 9/11 - a day we are about to mark again - Americans have been told that their homeland is not as secure as it once was. We have been given a color barometer to warn us while the real barometer has been falling. We have mobilized our resources to topple foreign governments and deployed our National Guard units and their equipment a half-world away to protect our security at home.
Yet the devastation and dislocation of a class five hurricane has shown our homeland is not vulnerable just to terrorists. We have invested in preventing another 9/11. Will people be ready to invest in managing another hurricane Katrina?
Certainly there will be a clamor for rebuilding, but if 9/11 taught us, when something comes down, it is not replaced with what once was and the city will never be the same, despite of the official statement that this is all for the best. People have died. Lives have been ruined. New York was back in business in no time. Will the same be said for New Orleans, when the time comes?
While we have been chasing Al-Qaeda, Godless Communism, Welfare Shirkers, and government bloat, our infra-structure has been going along on borrowed time.
Homeland security should indeed focus on madmen who want to harm people. Few would seriously argue that it should be otherwise, but it was ironic that with all the preparedness against attack, how poorly the government has performed and the private sector is hardly a paragon, although much can be said for corporations and individuals who have donated money and blood.
Katrina was a category five and the alert was raised beyond even the highest terrorist alert. The order was given to actually evacuate. This is beyond severe in the terrorist rating system. Had this been a terrorist act of some magnitude, and not a class five hurricane, would the homeland security people have responded better? Faster? More effectively? Or is this a example of what we would get?
Another irony is that the first major visible challenge that the homeland security people have faced was a class five hurricane and not Al-Qaeda.
At this point in an essay of this type comes a moment of prognostication - of hope or condemnation and despair. Americans are resilient; or Americans no longer have what it takes - but that merely invites the Curse of Cassandra.
For a generation, now, perhaps since World War Two, Americans have shifted their collective thinking. In the Great Depression, business was the villain and Uncle Sam was there to get America moving again through establishing social programs.
In the aftermath of the last oil crisis, Uncle Sam was the villain and business was there to get America moving again through dismantling social programs.
Earlier I suggested that free-markets work best when it comes to trading goods that are not necessities, but when it came to the necessities, it is a different story. Can free-markets determine the value of protecting New Orleans? Obviously they have.
The American infrastructure is crumbling as surely as the 160 yards of levy that broke and flooded the New Orleans. In the coming days people will be in front of Congress, conferences, and Town Meetings to evaluate their own preparedness. Much of the preparedness will have to do with costs, probabilities, and likelihoods and it will be a big tab.
Yet, for all that, I am left with a haunting image of babies in the pediatric unit of New Orleans hospitals that died. I wonder about the fact that the right to life seems to be focused on wombs, but yet when faced with a throng of mothers fighting to keep their children alive following a disaster, that a nation seems completely paralyzed. Is the paralysis physical or mental? That is, is it a matter of money or a matter of will? Are we as a people so cynical as to write-off all those who were too poor, too weak, too old, too tiny. too sick, or too disenfranchised to flee the wall of water?
Has our homeland been defended, or has it been abandoned - not by those in Washington, but by ourselves?
Note: Katrina was category five as it approached the land and was downgraded to category four as it moved onto land.