Systemic failure

Rich Tucker

9/3/2005 12:00:00 AM - Rich Tucker

New Orleans is under water. Thousands of people are feared dead. The city may be unlivable for months. This may be the greatest disaster in American history.

Can this really be President Bush’s fault?

Even before we knew just how bad things were, the left began attacking. On Aug. 29, as Hurricane Katrina was still moving across the south, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. dropped a line to HuffingtonPost.com. He attacked the Bush administration for deciding not to treat CO2 as a pollutant, a decision Kennedy says was influenced by Mississippi’s current governor, Haley Barbour.

“Now we are learning what it’s like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence, which Barbour and his cronies have encouraged,” Kennedy wrote. “Our destructive addiction has given us a catastrophic war in the Middle East and -- now -- Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing to our children.”

Okay, let’s call Kennedy’s bluff. Let’s imagine that, in 2001, President Bush had outlawed all automobiles, buses and trucks. And that he had shut down all coal-, oil- and natural gas-fired power plants. Doing so would have marginally trimmed carbon dioxide emissions over the last four-and-a-half years.

Does anyone think this would have done anything to slow down global warming (if indeed global warming is occurring)? Of course not. Even if we had done all that, we wouldn’t have seen any results for a decade at least.

Furthermore, is there anyone who thinks eliminating those emissions would have prevented Katrina, or made the storm less severe? That idea is simply outrageous. There were hurricanes before man started burning carbon, and there will be hurricanes after man has perished from the earth.

Actually, though, had we taken the hypothetical steps outlined above, the entire country would look like New Orleans does today: No power, no transportation, no fresh food, chaos.
Our automobiles and power plants make today’s suburban, air-conditioned, well-fed lifestyle possible. It’s because they’re absent from New Orleans that the city is in chaos.

What the federal government can and should do is make our lifestyle even easier to obtain.
For example, no new oil refineries have opened in the U.S. since 1976. According to Lon Anderson, director of government relations at AAA Mid-Atlantic, “with new environmental restrictions it would probably be impossible to get permits to build a new oil refinery in America.”

Here’s a classic case of the government interfering in the economy. If the market had been left to its own devices, oil companies would still be building new refineries, and we wouldn’t be so dependent on the existing refineries on the Gulf Coast -- the refineries that had to be shut down during Hurricane Katrina.

Instead, in pursuit of the clean environment Kennedy and others profess to want, we’ve shut down hundreds of refineries in the last 20 years. Unless we open new ones, this won’t be the final time we face severe gasoline shortages and high prices.

This storm was predictable in more ways than one. Forecasters knew on Friday that it would hit the Gulf Coast on Monday. And it was also predictable that a storm would eventually hit New Orleans. In 2002 the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote that a hurricane could eventually turn the city “into a lake as much as 30 feet deep, fouled with chemicals and waste from ruined septic systems, businesses and homes. Such a flood could trap hundreds of thousands of people in buildings and in vehicles.” But our bureaucrats failed us.

“Everyone thought there was a plan,” Sydney Barthelemy, mayor from 1986 until 1994, told CNN. “Everyone thought that we could handle most of the problems that would come due to a hurricane. No one ever dreamed that it would … be such devastation.” Well, in the 2002 newspaper report, a Red Cross official predicted between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die in a major storm.

When the tale of this storm is told, there will be plenty of blame to go around. New Orleans should have done more to evacuate everyone. Louisiana should have had more shelters and supplies ready. The federal government should have acted more swiftly to get troops into place and prevent looting. Those trapped in the city shouldn’t have fired weapons at hospitals and rescue helicopters.

President Bush could, and certainly should, have acted more swiftly. But we also need to remember the president, with all his power and influence, is only a man. He doesn’t have super powers. The bureaucrats he leads have failed him, and all of us.

A tragedy always brings out the best in Americans. We’ve already donated more than $21 million to the Red Cross, and in the coming days we’ll donate more. Houston has opened its arms to those flooded out, and people nationwide are volunteering to help. Sadly, in this case, we’re proving to be better than our bureaucracy, which didn’t perform as well as it needs to.

There will be a next time, and we can and must demand better.