In the years since Hurricane Katrina, it has become a given to blame the federal government for the disaster. The levees that broke, after all, were built by the Corps of Engineers, and what they provided was obviously inferior. We suppose that is a fair criticism, though it should be acknowledged that we are part of the federal government. We vote on its president and on its local members of Congress. We pay taxes to it. As activists, editorialists, lobbyists and interested citizens we can work to have our voices heard. The more intensely we believe in a cause, the louder that voice can get.
There were some groups that were worried about the quality of our levees, but among public issues that was not high priority. The levees were just another environmental concern along with coastal erosion and hazardous chemicals.
Yet, we would have never survived, much less recovered, without the federal government. Coast Guard helicopters rescued people from the roofs of flooded streets. The Corps hauled off a city’s worth of mildewed debris. Security was provided by the military. Of all federal agencies the most maligned was FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The office had been created by the Carter administration in 1979 to coordinate emergency response. FEMA fumbled badly in the early days of the disaster. Its director, Michael Brown, seemed to be overwhelmed; nevertheless the agency would become the central force in the recovery beginning with channeling Road Home money and then paying for repairs and rebuilding throughout the region.
Today we rejoice in our recovery but, to be fair, we did not pay for it. The only tax increase approved by voters was the recent library millage. Look around, and all that is good in our recovery was paid for through FEMA, some other federal agency or independent support groups.
Yes, we know, New Orleans is a globally important city and it is in the nation’s interest to keep the city viable, yet even if we were not as important we would have demanded no less.
Strangely, one day when people look back at this city’s history during the past 10 years they might conclude that it was blessed by two tragic events. One was Katrina, which created a money flow that would have probably not been available to fix many preexisting problems. The other is the BP oil spill, the cash outlay from which will provide local governments with funds they would have never had and which will likely provide more dollars to combat coastal erosion than would have ever been available.
There is a lot to be thankful for this month. One is for having survived our disasters in better condition than before. And another is for being part of a powerful nation that made it possible.