Katrina, One Year Later
Most of a major American city, New Orleans, is now gone forever.
Almost 500,000 of its former residents live somewhere else;
of those who remain, 70,000 families are in 240 square foot
FEMA trailers. Not a single dollar of federal housing repair
or home reconstruction funds has actually made it to New Orleans
yet, for complicated reasons of course. The city’s levees
today are weaker than they were before they failed last year.
Until they’re fixed, most homeowners are afraid to rebuild,
even if they could afford to which they can’t.
We’re still finding the bodies, though at less than a
dozen a month now. The confirmed dead and missing, well over
3,000, is almost identical to the number lost in 9-11. How many
are attributable to the storm and how many to equally disastrous
government response we’ll never know.
We do know the disaster continues. There’s no more public
housing. 5,000 units are about to be demolished and the sites
turned over to private developers. Public health care is a nightmare.
Last summer there were 22 hospitals with 53,000 beds, today
there are 7 left with 15,000, not a single one a public hospital.
The city’s water system pumps 135 million gallons a day.
People actually use 50 million, 85 million disappears through
leaks. This costs the city $200,000 a day, but it doesn’t
have the $1 billion it’ll take to fix things. The public
school system is basically gone. Of 115 public schools, today
there are just 4 left, plus two dozen or so new charter schools,
publicly funded but privately run, mostly by churches.
What’s happened in New Orleans is a window into a post-apocalyptic
picture of many things that could go wrong, given half the chance,
anywhere in our country. Of course Katrina profoundly shook
our confidence in our current government’s ability to
handle disaster. But for many it also raised larger questions
of how we prioritize what government can and should be doing.
We don’t seem to have any trouble when our friends run
low, delivering laser-guided bombs halfway around the world
and faster than FedEx. But getting people in our own cities
out of harm’s way when we knew that was coming, that somehow
proved impossible just a year ago. It wasn’t impossible
of course, it just reflected choices about what was important
and maybe who was important. And the simple fact is that hundreds
of thousands of New Orleans’ poor, the same people left
behind when it was evacuated, are also being left behind in
So what does it mean when the administration of our federal
government almost literally abandons one of our great cities,
in part at least and regardless of what anyone says, because
it’s largely poor and black? We think it’s a clear
sign but only one of many that something’s terribly wrong.
Because when some people count more than others, we’re
not living in the America we think we know anymore. And the
prime example of that is what happened in the 2004 presidential
election, when one party’s operatives in Ohio, Florida,
and other states managed to make close to 2,000,000 mostly black
and Democratic votes and voters disappear, through massive fraud
and other electoral manipulation.
This is, or should have been anyway, the most important news
story of the past 20 months. Had it happened in any other democracy
in the world, it certainly would have been for them. The fact
that it isn’t and wasn’t for us speaks volumes about
the cowed state of American journalism and especially our broadcast
media. Because the effective theft of an American election represents
a threat to our way of life and our system of government at
least as great as any posed by, say, Islamic terrorism.
Some of the people who made these kinds of things possible like
Rep. John Sweeney who led the 2000 “Brooks Brothers Riot”
that prevented the Miami-Dade recount of the Bush-Gore election,
are still working hard to insure that every vote cast in America
does not count the same. And if they’re successful you
can bet that every vote cast in future presidential elections
will be tallied on machines made by one of four companies, the
largest of which, Diebold, made good on its 2004 promise to
“deliver Ohio” for the Bush campaign, with no recountable
record of any kind, and hardly any trace left behind.
Of course people can still choose, or try and choose, whether
America in the future is a representative democracy or a banana
republic. Fair national elections and a president elected by
a majority of its voters are usually pretty good indicators.
But if these things aren’t worth fighting for, it would
be hard for us to figure out what parts of our founding fathers’
vision would be. We’re not sure what liberty and justice
mean without fairness and respect for the rule of law. But we’re
also not ready to accept that one man equals some-portion-of-a-vote,
that some segments of We, The People are more equal than others,
or that an electronic coup d’etat is less dangerous to
our democracy than a military one.