How one responds to a natural disaster like Katrina says a lot about one's character and motives.
If you're a now-obscure "civil rights leader" like Randall Robinson, you write on a Web blog, "Black hurricane victims have begun eating corpses to survive." How did he know this? "It has been reported," he claimed, without revealing his source so the assertion might be fact-checked. Robinson later retracted his remarks.
If you're a fading, but not yet obscure "civil rights leader" like Jesse Jackson, you blame President Bush, because this gets you TV time. This race hustling should be condemned and would be if politicians and the major media had any guts.
The quickest way to avoid responsibility is to blame someone else for your own shortcomings. Before assigning blame, it is helpful to be reminded of the state's checkered past.
Louisiana and New Orleans have a long history of corruption. In the late 19th century, a Louisiana lottery scandal led to the abandonment of lotteries in every state that had them. Mobster Frank Costello brought illegal slot machines to the state thanks to a deal he made with Governor Huey P. Long. Then there were the illegal, but wide-open casinos in St. Bernard Parish in the 1940s and '50s.
Five years ago, Gov. Edwin Edwards was convicted of racketeering and conspiracy for taking political bribes over the awarding of riverboat casino gambling licenses. It was Edwards who, in 1983, uttered these immortal words: "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy."
Why is this relevant to the current disaster in New Orleans? Because in the past, the levee board has played fast and loose with the funds it was given, as one former top state official told me.
In a May 21, 2001, article for the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, Amanda Furness quoted Stanley Riley, a plaintiff in a suit against the Orleans Levee District (OLD). Riley and his uncle, Harry Jones, have had a long-running legal battle with the OLD over some disputed land they say is theirs, but the OLD claims for itself.
Riley alleges in the Furness story that the OLD literally gambled away a lot of money -funds that might have been used to shore-up the levee system and prevent the disaster caused by Katrina: "The levee board spent $20 million on (a) casino," Riley alleges. "Now they say they can't pay it back 'cause it's going to break them? That's not our problem." There have also been allegations of cronyism by board members who allegedly have diverted levee funds to friends and relatives.
The federal government must share some of the blame for not being properly prepared for the storm, says former Republican Governor Mike Foster. In a telephone interview, Foster told me, "The Feds cut us short. Louisiana supplies a lot of the nation's oil and gas and we get no consideration in return." He means federal help in shoring up the wetlands area, which serves as a buffer between Southern Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico has been eroding.
Foster says despite his pleas when he was governor (1996-2003), Washington refused to provide the money needed to fix the erosion problem. Still, he says, there is probably nothing that by itself would have prevented Katrina from severely damaging New Orleans and coastal Mississippi and Alabama.
The City of New Orleans knew it was vulnerable. As recently as last October, National Geographic magazine published an article titled "Gone with the Water." It reads like a biblical prophecy foretelling disaster. The scenario laid out by the magazine was fulfilled last week. (http://www3.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0410/feature5/index.html)
Investigations will - and should - be conducted. But government rarely indicts itself as an institution. The size and bureaucratic nature of government is the problem - not racism and insensitivity to the poor.
Too many who should have acted did not act because Louisiana officials, who saw the hurricane coming, apparently could not decide who was in charge. If the size of government is the main problem, then investigations that produce more layers of bureaucracy will compound, not solve the problem.
The ultimate culprit, though, is Mother Nature and no one has yet figured out a way to control her.
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