We’re told the 9/11 attacks ushered us in to a new, more dangerous world, where we can no longer afford old illusions. If we take its full lessons, Hurricane Katrina challenges us more profoundly.
The 9/11 attacks were horrific. But for most in New York City normalcy quickly resumed, although with an overlay of loss and fear. Although deaths in New Orleans were fewer, most of the city is now a wasteland. Its residents are exiled from their homes, many losing everything they had. It’s an open question whether most will ever be able to return to resume their lives. To rebuild New Orleans so it becomes more than just Disneyland with better music is an undertaking unlike any our nation has ever undertaken.
9/11, we were told, required Americans to place unprecedented trust in their president and his advisors, and to scrap longstanding rules of international law and domestic liberties. It justified war against Iraq, and Bush’s re-election, despite all his failures. Of course 9/11 might never have occurred if the US hadn’t supported bin Laden to begin with, or if our policies hadn’t so embittered the Islamic world that some people were willing to murder thousands of innocents. But we would all agree the attacks had a profound global impact.
So what are the lessons of New Orleans? We may call hurricanes acts of God, but Katrina was a level 1 storm, the lowest category of hurricane, until blistering temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico supercharged it to level 5. The storm’s virulence was likely related to global climate warming, much like the recent forest fires that ravaged Southern California, floods that covered much of Bangladesh, and European heat waves that killed 35,000 people two summers ago. Ironically, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour played a key role, as an energy lobbyist, in convincing the Bush administration to break its campaign promise to support limits on the carbon dioxide emissions that fuel global warming.
This catastrophe built on the slow-burn disaster
that’s been hitting America’s poorest communities for decades. The
wealthy and comfortable could evacuate New Orleans and did, though
their lives were severely disrupted. But in one of the nation’s poorest
cities, vast numbers of citizens had nowhere to go, and no
transportation or money with which to leave. They were the people left
desperately trying to get out, while much of the Louisiana National
Guard were deployed in Iraq. And they will be forgotten when the
floodwaters eventually recede.
New Orleans will not be the last of America’s great cities to collapse in desperation and ruin. Immediate relief efforts are critical, but we also need to address root crises: global warming, runaway development, deterioration of critical infrastructure, and a malign neglect that leaves more Americans poor and desperate.
A year ago, the world’s second largest reinsurance company, Swiss Re, warned that the economic costs of climate-related disasters threatened to reach $150 billion a year within 10 years. We’re already seeing storms of exceptional violence accompanying the heating of our oceans by a single degree. Given that New Orleans may cost as much as $100 billion, what will be the level of destruction as global temperatures continue to increase?
The development that destroyed Louisiana wetlands is happening throughout America, with the support of an administration intent on removing all limits on private economic activity. The aging levees are part of a deteriorating national infrastructure that will take billions of dollars to address. The poverty that leaves people helpless to respond to disasters of whatever kind continues to grow, accelerated by government policies that transfer resources away from the poorest.
9/11 indeed changed our world, though the brief window of discussion it fostered quickly closed, and we were left with myths about war between ultimate good and ultimate evil. We now have a chance to heed the lessons of New Orleans and Katrina, with consequences potentially far worse than 9/11. We can discuss how to move forward in a way that honors the exiled and addresses the disaster’s complex roots. We can call for accountability from our media and political leaders. We can treat this tragedy as a call to commitment. It’s up to us how we respond to the power of its warning.
Paul Rogat Loeb is author of Soul of a Citizen.
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