Water, water everywhere, and many lessons, too

As the floodwaters recede, the first priority is taking care of the displaced; the second is recovering, identifying and burying the dead. Then comes rebuilding New Orleans and, one hopes, retrieving from the slime and debris some common sense about the lessons of this catastrophe. For some people, the matter is already settled: President George W. Bush is a moron. This instant analysis has two virtues: It is immediately available and doesn't require thought. On the downside, it can't withstand thought. Decades of highly public, expert warnings that New Orleans was not ready for an inevitable major hurricane were ignored by authorities at all levels, many of whom weren't even slightly George Bush.

So first, a little perspective. What's with complaints that five entire days after a major American city was submerged beneath the ocean not everything was totally fixed? To some extent, it simply reflects the running headline "Bush reels as [<insert today’s news>]." But it also reflects a peculiarly tenacious modern spirit that expects man's will to dominate reality (including nature) and leads to over- reliance on the politics of outrage.

That is not to say government has not failed. (Celebrities also underperformed, and Sean Penn should probably resign.) Real conservatives are skeptical of government, not just government by the other party. It is foolish either to exonerate Mr. Bush entirely or to blame him for everything. Intelligent people, and the United States Congress, must doubt whether his departure from office in January 2009 will necessarily eliminate every institutional obstacle to proper emergency preparedness.

The political response at all levels was initially feeble. State and local governments are the first responders (and no, the entire National Guard was not in Iraq). Why didn't city officials use school buses to evacuate thousands of citizens? Why weren't state authorities ready with shelter and bottled water? Maybe politicians are bad at reality. In any event, a partisan response is inappropriate.

The engineering response was also feeble. The flood defences of New Orleans were classically "brittle." By that I do not mean they were likely to fail in the face of a predictable threat, though they were. I mean they were likely to fail badly if they did fail. Plan A: The hurricane misses. Plan B: We die. Politicians devised these plans, but did engineers advise them properly?

A city below sea level ought not to be defended by only one layer of dikes. If the main defence is breached, individual neighbourhoods should be individually protected. Of course it's not easy. But you're below sea level. Work hard. And environmentalists and their adversaries should put aside past differences, agree that it is better even for human purposes to work with nature than against her, and restore wetlands and enhance coastal islands to protect the entire Gulf Coast.

Another lesson, I predict, is that reconstruction will not take as long as pessimists say. This is the United States of America, which critics knock at every opportunity for its energetic, dynamic can-do spirit that promptly confounds most of their criticism. I do not deny the tragedy, and lives lost cannot be recovered. But if you think Americans will let the birthplace of jazz die, you don't know Americans.

Many paid commentators apparently don't. Especially those who swiftly declared the breakdown of order in New Orleans was the predictable and unpleasant result of American individualism. Haven't they heard of Alexis de Tocqueville? One might dispute his claim that America proves individualism and co-operation are complementary, or argue that they are eroding there. But one can hardly ignore it.

Especially because of what well-intentioned big government has done recently to American inner cities, including, dramatically, the one in New Orleans. I do not deny that poverty made it hard for many inner-city residents to avoid getting trapped in the hurricane's path, nor do I deny the role of racism in making them poor and hence susceptible to welfare dependency. But whatever combination of historical forces led to their plight, and whatever shadow it casts on America's glory, it is ridiculous to suggest it was classic rugged individualism, and obscene to gloat over it. Besides, Katrina spread death and devastation along the coast, but only in New Orleans did we see a partial lapse into barbarism.

Finally, hailing the violence as a liberating response to poverty or racism is, as G. K. Chesterton said, a slander on the poor. And on blacks, a majority in pre-Katrina New Orleans, most of whom either evacuated in an orderly manner or coped in an heroic one, and neither sought nor seized an opportunity to behave badly.

Partly because the looters were neither numerous nor representative, New Orleans will rise again. So may common sense. After all, this is America.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson