31 August, 2009

Nothing natural about this disaster

There are at least some places where the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has not passed without comment - and one of the most misleading comments is that New Orleans was struck by a "natural disaster." It was not. New Orleans weathered the hurricane pretty well. The disaster was caused by the flooding and the flooding was as a direct result of substandard levees, and a knock-on effect of degraded wetlands. Both are man-made problems. The term, "natural disaster," carries an inference that no-one is to blame and it couldn't have been avoided.

I have no special insight. Most of what I know, I have learnt from the brilliant Harry Shearer, another satirist who puts the 'serious' media to shame by doing their job better. I can do little more than 're-tweet' some of his comments below.

This isn't to say that Katrina was not a devastating natural disaster. There are whole towns in Mississippi that ain't dere no more because of Katrina. They were completely blown away, with only a few, seemingly incongruous slabs of concrete to suggest there was ever a town there. They are the victims of the natural disaster. What followed in New Orleans was something different.

At the beginning of Mardi Gras 2006, Harry said that New Orleans is back, and it's on its back, and explained how the two statements can both be true. Equally, New Orleans is both the forgotten disaster and the squeaky wheel - because whenever people talk about Hurricane Katrina, they mean New Orleans, even though the disaster they describe had little to do with the Hurricane, and Mississippi is forgotten. Perhaps it's time to stop using the K word when referring to the catastrophe that struck New Orleans in 2005. It makes it too easy to conflate the Hurricane with the levee failure.

Anyone can make a few cheap shots about maintaining a city below sea level, but the reality is that there are 28 states in the US that rely on similar levee systems, with many of those levees in similar states of disrepair. If the old-Europe cheesesmiths in the Netherlands can work out a way to manage things without human tragedy and international embarrassment, one wonders why the World's Only Superpower® finds it such a challenge.

Harry Shearer: Does Obama care about New Orleans?
Playing the Inside Game -- A Cautionary Tale


  1. "one wonders why the World's Only Superpower® finds it such a challenge."

    There are many differences between Netherlands and US. The climate is not the same. One is first world while the other has the biggest economy of the world and is socially inequal. Being above the sea level is the only thing these 2 places have in common.

    Dutches trust their government to do what they think is right. Unitedstatians don't.
    Dutches will give up everything including their individual rights to help, Unitedstatians won't. Dutches will spend a lot of money, give up property, they will do everything they can to control the flood and Unitedstatians don't have that kind of money to give and won't give up their significant properties.

    Drainage methods won't help any city to get rid off floods in few days. You can get rid off floods someday but the Hurricane season will come and the same houses made of wood will be destroyed again. I don't know why people build wood houses in a country full of tornado and hurricane.

    Netherlands worked hard and united for a long time and they're still working to keep what they got.

    People blame the government but are they ready to help and give up things?

    If the population don't help the government, the government can't help the population.

  2. In a country (USA) where litigation is king, what government is going to want to accept any responsibility. People lost their lives and livelihood, oops, but the White House is still standing. I like what Michelle said, "If the population don't help the government, the government can't help the population."

  3. You're right that admitting liabilities could be expensive - far more so than making the levees sound in the first place. Even now, four years later, they're no better than they were when they failed. And they will fail again.

    Much as it pains me to use a term coined by John Howard, the principle of "mutual obligation" applies. There's a weird kind of libertarianism sweeping the US at the moment that seems to be, "government should keep out of our lives until we want them to be there for us." It's a bit like expecting all the service of a 5-star hotel while paying 2-star rates and still expecting a refund if you choose not to use the spa.

    Even the Texas governor has made idle threats to secede. Leaving aside the fact that it's a misreading of the constitution anyway (Texas does not have the option to secede, it has the option to split into five states), I say that if they're prepared to raise their own taxes, have their own currency, manage their own defence and border security, then they can go for it. Take Alaska with you while you're at it.
    But the week after the governor mouthed off about secession, swine flu hit, and he was begging for federal money. You can't have it both ways, Rick! That sudden turnaround was so lame that it makes the Quebecois separatists look positively dignified by comparison.

  4. For all the times they say it can't happen here and it does you'd think they'd know better by now.