I’m profoundly tired of thinking about the divide between the civics-textbook American institutions and what we actually have. Because it’s just not clear how much people care whether they work or not. Perhaps this is just how politics operates in a fractious democracy: The degree to which institutions function or fail is often a matter of luck, or transient political circumstances. I admit, my expectations may be too high, or at least they used to be. We’re not Russia, or Guatemala, after all. But we should wonder, with the rapidly-moving new threats we face, from global warming or our own technology, whether we have the tools to anticipate the risks, and prepare for them.
After a catastrophe, you want someone with authority to grasp the overall scope of the problem, find what went wrong, and deal with it. Maybe the President appoints a 9/11-style panel to get to the bottom of what happened, blame some and exonerate others, and recommend fixes. Then Congress and the executive branch can hash out some reforms. But this didn’t happen after Katrina. Instead we got bureaucratic hash: competing House, Senate, White House, Corps, and independent engineering assessments. Was the problem FEMA? Homeland Security? The Corps? Local levee boards? The President, Governor, or Mayor? Do you have a good sense of this today? Probably not, especially if you haven’t lived it.
One reason for the mush is, “Katrina” (for lack of a better overarching term) was just one hell of a mess, nature playing havoc with faulty man-made systems already on the edge of collapse. But another, probably better reason is, it’s a mess nobody wanted to take, or to assign, responsibility for. As a nation, we moved on—as is our wont—without any serious accounting of what happened, or accountability for it. Just as our pre-Katrina investigation pointed to some serious problems, but only scratched the surface of something rottener, the post-Katrina “process” (or whatever you want to call it) got nowhere near the knotty dysfunction that set us up for disaster. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.
Yes, some things have improved; FEMA is no longer a parking place for the president’s third-tier political supporters. The Corps is using computers. But those were some of the easier fixes. George W. Bush took a major political hit, of course, but that means next to nothing today, other than raised eyebrows when he shows up for the anniversary. The Corps of Engineers admitted, “we made a mistake.” But rather than being forced to endure any serious cross-examination, let alone shakeups or reforms, it was just sent went back to work on the next generation of levees. (Read Mike Grunwald’s tweetstorm on the Corps’ imperviousness to examination or reform.)
I don’t want to belittle or underplay all the good work that so many people have done to rebuild the city, its infrastructure, its houses, its levee system, and the Louisiana marshes. In the days after Katrina, what we have today was almost unimaginable.
But the forces pushing us back toward the edge of various disasters, there and elsewhere, are formidable, and growing. New Orleans is a canary in the coal mine for the 21st century; its anomalous location at or below sea level means it will bear the brunt of rising seas. We ought to be confident it will still be there in 100 years. We are not.
This article appears courtesy of Medium as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.