President George W. Bush has been rightly lambasted for the bumbling way in which he personally reacted to the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as well as for the inept federal response on the ground, especially the failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Even many of the president’s supporters think the criticism well deserved. Much of the human suffering following Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans was avoidable, and the failure of government—local, state, and federal—to protect citizens has shaken the nation’s confidence. Many of Bush’s longtime critics were quick to point out the parallel between the incompetence of the administration’s actions in Louisiana and the incompetence of its occupation and “reconstruction” of Iraq. In both cases, ideological loyalists and political hacks were put in charge, with predictable results. Bush’s conservative base has been preaching the alleged evils of government for more than a quarter-century. FEMA’s failures now make it clear that many within this administration simply do not believe that effective government is either desirable or possible. FEMA was a target of the administration’s antigovernment ideologues. Under Bush, the agency was subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security, its budget cut, and its administration turned over to political cronies with no experience in disaster management. When catastrophe struck, is it any wonder that FEMA director Michael Brown reacted belatedly, showing himself to be ignorant of the true extent and severity of the disaster even days after the hurricane hit? Now resigned, he should never have had the job.

Faced with the administration’s undeniable failure to perform the most basic tasks of governance in a time of emergency, conservative spokespersons and pundits have begun a public-relations campaign to make the best of a bad situation. Incredibly, they argue that the disaster in New Orleans is further evidence of the inherent incompetence of government itself, and yet another reason to reduce its size and mandate. The circularity of this reasoning is cynical and shameless. Coming from a party that authorized more than $60 billion in relief aid, money the government will simply add to the already staggering federal deficit, this attack on the competence of government is contemptible. (Talk about throwing money at a problem!) With the Republican Party in control of both houses of Congress as well as the White House, it will be a neat trick if Republicans can parlay their own failures of leadership and management into a further justification of the party’s antigovernment, tax-cutting agenda.

President Bush was not the only politician at fault. Government in Louisiana and New Orleans, long Democratic strongholds, showed little foresight or command under pressure. As the plight of many of the city’s African-American citizens made clear, New Orleans is among the nation’s poorest, most segregated, corrupt, and crime-ridden cities. How government, both local and federal, can ameliorate problems of race and economic opportunity is an even more complex question than repairing and upgrading the system of levees that must hold back the storm surge from the next hurricane. Happily, relief from both public and private sources for the victims of Katrina has now reached unprecedented levels. At the same time, the long-term fate of those, especially the poor, who have been evacuated from the city is uncertain. Compassion-fatigue will eventually set in among those not directly affected, and old patterns of neglect and discrimination will return. Without a sustained political movement to articulate and defend the needs of the poor, any effort to correct the social and economic inequities so dramatically exposed by the flood will falter. Without pressure exerted at the polling booth, politicians will be no more willing to act on behalf of the needy than they were willing to assess and act on the risks created by the area’s disappearing wetlands and neglected levee system.

One thing is certain, however. The federal government will play a decisive role in deciding how to rebuild the city and in the eventual return or resettlement of its population. There is no intrinsic reason why Washington can’t help improve outcomes for both survivors and the region. In the aftermath of the first flood of biblical proportions, God made a new covenant with Noah and his descendents, promising never to abandon his people again. A similar covenant exists between a democratic government and its citizens, especially the poor. In a time of emergency, caring for the poor and the weak is society’s first responsibility. In the aftermath of Katrina, the nation and the world saw how government, placed in the hands of those who think it is of little use, acts or fails to act. The anarchy that briefly gripped New Orleans reminded us that social order and civilization rest not only on individual acts but on the collective action only government can undertake. No one imagines that government can or should solve every problem, or even most problems. But it must be there to solve a few of the bigger ones, and no one in public service can afford to forget that.

September 13, 2005

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Published in the 2005-09-23 issue: View Contents
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