Notwithstanding the obvious observation that 3 weeks is far too little time for government – local, state and federal – to overcome the systemic failings that we observed with Hurricane Katrina, there are significant differences that can’t simply be explained by the sequencing of the hurricanes.
While it’s true that the two hurricanes hit at different intensity levels, the important differences can best be described as a tale of two cities – New Orleans and Houston.
No two neighboring towns better embody the differences between the two main political philosophies competing in the U.S. today – Houston, Texas which is the embodiment of the Lone Star State’s can do spirit of limited government and self-reliance versus New Orleans, Louisiana, aptly nicknamed the “Big Easy” and perhaps the embodiment of welfare state dependence in the South.
It’s not just that Texas is run by Republicans and that Louisiana is run by Democrats. While that’s true, Texas’ even before its recent GOP domination was essentially a conservative state across the board. On the other hand, Louisiana has experienced a cultural and political divide over the last 25 years to the point where New Orleans alone is the powerbase for leftward politics.
And these political and cultural differences showed up starkly in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Consider: in Texas local and state officials coordinated their efforts taking responsibility for protecting citizens and property. Harris County government executive Robert Eckels and Governor Rick Perry worked hand in glove to ensure the efficient and safe evacuation of the 5th largest city in America. Meanwhile Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin bickered during the onset of Hurricane Katrina exacerbating an already disastrous situation. Tragically they continue bickering even now. Yet media reports imply that if the two Hurricanes had been reversed, the story would be different.
Houston (a town five times larger than New Orleans) was able to evacuate nearly 100% of its citizen – credit regular drills and planning by County Executive Eckels and government officials in Houston and a much more mobile and independent population for this result. Unfortunately, such planning couldn’t take place in New Orleans. Earlier this year, a Louisiana a federal grand jury returned two separate indictments charging three members of the emergency relief agency responsible for New Orleans with misuse of federal disaster funds, and then there was the unfortunate political breakdown which prevented the buses from being deployed to assist the immobile New Orleans population. But the conventional view is that things worked out well in Texas only because of lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina.
Can lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina explain why Harris County Executive Bob Eckels and Houston Mayor Bill White stayed behind to oversee the largest population evacuation in modern history, while New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin relocated to the new home he and his family bought in Dallas?
Were the looters running throughout New Orleans the only reason why Houston police officers risked life and limb to stay on duty in order to protect the property of homeowners who had evacuated to safety. And if Hurricane Katrina had come second would there be any accusations of New Orleans officers participating in the looting or would 200 officers still have abandoned their duty stations during the storm? The answers are pretty obvious, yet the received wisdom is that all would be different if only the timing were changed.
Even now as the onset of rescue and reconstruction occur in Texas, her citizens eschew the victim mentality. Texans have been working together to bring back electricity and habitability to their state as quickly as possible, while Louisianans with few exceptions are seen making demands for government compensation bordering on outrageous.
Is there any surprise that while Texas (and Houston in particular) has experienced a significant economic boom over the last 20 years, Louisiana has seen much of the opposite? In fact, just in the last 10 years the state’s economic downturn was so comprehensive, Louisiana experienced significant “outmigration” (bureaucratese for people moved away).
There is much irony in all of this. You see, for much of its early history Louisiana was a trading and financial mecca. The fertility of its land made it one of the richest regions in America in the 19th century and many Louisiana landowners were among the wealthiest men in America. At that time it was Houston that was the backwater. Now the tide has shifted and it’s Houston that is the economic powerhouse. But if we’re to believe the media reports, the only lessons to be learned are about how government can better respond to natural disasters. But the larger lessons are there for all to see, and it is a tale of two cities.