Why You Should Care About New Orleans

On the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall near New Orleans, all the ink was about the progress, and lack thereof, in restoring the city and the rest of the Gulf coast.

We live in an era of failed leadership. Corrupt and incompetent politicians. Thieving CEOs. Priests as pedophiles. Media monopolies. A president’s unpopular, intractable war. Steroid-enhanced sluggers.

Two years later, Ron Fournier says it’s time to start learning the real lessons of Katrina, and they’re not about wind or water.

We need to wake up to the fact that we are all just one big storm or disaster away from being one of those people whose calls for help were answered by voice mail.

Katrina is old news, right? New Orleans — who cares? It’s just another big city with big problems, bad luck and bad weather. Get over it.

Actually, please don’t.

Don’t ever get over the tragedy of New Orleans. It’s your tragedy, too.

What happened to this historic city two years ago is more than the obvious cautionary tale of what might befall your community after a natural disaster or a terrorist strike. It’s also a sad reflection of what’s happening now — today, in your hometown and across an anxious and ailing nation…

If this country can’t help New Orleans rebound — if we and our leaders break the promises made to its citizens — what are the odds your health care will ever get cheaper? Your bridges safer? Your schools better?

“New Orleans is an incubator for all our nation’s ills,” said historian Douglas Brinkley, author of “The Great Deluge,” a book about Katrina.

“If you study what’s going on in New Orleans, it’s just an exaggerated version of what’s hitting us in many areas of the country,” he said. “Just pick your topic.”

OK, let’s start from the top.

For Your Health

Katrina made a bleak health-care system worse in New Orleans…Dr. Atul Gawande, a local surgeon and author, said the city’s medical system is in a “death spiral” that is more rapid — but no less certain — than the crash course the rest of the nation is on.

It goes like this:

People rely on employers for health insurance. They lose their jobs. They lose their insurance. They can’t afford their pills. They put off doctors’ visits. Minor illnesses become major. They go to the emergency room. The emergency overflows with uninsured patients. The hospital loses money. Insurance rates skyrocket. The hospital shuts its emergency room. Uninsured patients crowd other ERs. Doctors leave town. Businesses leave town. Jobs are lost. Repeat.

New Orleans is just one city in a country with more than 43 million uninsured, a figure that increased 2 million from 2005 to 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 20 percent of working-age Americans did not have health insurance in 2006…

“What you see in New Orleans is the extreme of what happens when you live in a flawed health care system. And all of us do,” said Gawande, author of “Better,” a book about the system’s failures. “It’s a slow-motion train wreck.”

No Roads Home

The homeless population of New Orleans has nearly doubled since before Hurricane Katrina. Many of the poor, mentally ill and drug-addicted are squatting in the city’s estimated 80,000 vacant dwellings.

Tens of thousands of other people are a bit luckier, living in badly damaged homes, government trailers and out-of-state apartments…

Nationally, ill winds are stirring up a crisis that sharp eyes saw coming. The combination of higher interest rates and weaker home values has clobbered homeowners, especially those with higher-risk subprime mortgages.

Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of borrowers, stand to lose their homes while Washington and the media obsess over the impact on Wall Street.

Bridges Falling Down

The New Orleans levees were not built to withstand a sizable hurricane, a historic lapse of judgment and competence topped only by this: The levees are still not ready for the next serious storm.

The city’s 3,200-mile system of water and sewer lines were old, leaky and in need of repair long before the hurricane…Miles of New Orleans streets were destroyed or damaged by the storm, and remain in disrepair because the city failed to give the federal government a to-do list.

This can’t be much comfort to the people of Minnesota, where the collapse of an Interstate 35W bridge killed at least 13. President Bush toured the site, promising to cut red tape and rebuild.

Just as he toured New Orleans, making promises to be broken.

From New York to California, cities are raising utility rates and issuing bonds in hopes of modernizing public works systems straining under increasing populations. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $1.6 trillion is needed over a five-year period to bring the nation’s water systems, runways, dams and roads and bridges to a good condition.

Government agencies have set aside just $1 trillion for infrustracture improvements in the next five years, and those budgets are historically raided for other purposes…

It’s a Crime

Military police in their Humvees still patrol New Orleans streets, where the murder rate has doubled, the number of police has declined and crime suspects walk free because of legal system that was at the brink of collapse before Katrina.

Nationally, a lull in violent crime has come to an abrupt halt. The murder rate jumped by more than 10 percent in large cities since 2004. Robberies also spiked, as did felony assaults and attacks with guns.

Who’s in Charge?

Nobody. At least that’s the prevailing view of most Americans.

Katrina showed governments failing to prevent a crises, moving sluggishly to respond to it and refusing to be accountable. Charities, churches and other institutions couldn’t fill the vacuum.

We live in an era of failed leadership. Corrupt and incompetent politicians. Thieving CEOs. Priests as pedophiles. Media monopolies. A president’s unpopular, intractable war. Steroid-enhanced sluggers.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Or Harry Truman?

A recent Gallup Poll shows that the public is losing confidence with the institutions that make up the fragile fabric of society. The military, police, churches, banks, the U.S. Supreme Court, public schools, the medical system, the presidency, TV news, newspapers, the criminal justice system, organized labor and Congress — all lost ground from 2006 to 2007 in terms of the public’s confidence.

More than 7 of 10 Americans think their country is headed in the wrong direction.

Katrina is old news, right? New Orleans — who cares?

You should.

7 Responses »

  1. GarryInNola August 29, 2007 @ 9:31 am

    Excellent entry. I live in the New Orleans area & was displaced for a month due to having no power or running water for an extended period and my employer took awhile to get up and running. However, my problems was insignificant when compared to my brother & his wife & daughter who lived in Chalmette/St Bernard Parish on the east side of the city. Their house was completely submerged by the storm surge and lost all their possessions & 2 vehicles which floated down the street for blocks. When they decided to return in June 2006 their health took a turn for the worse. My brother was diagnosed with esophagus cancer and shortly thereafter his wife went into cardiac arrest in the FEMA trailer. She lapsed into a coma and died Labor Day weekend 2006. He underwent chemo, radiation & surgery for his cancer but died June 2, 2007. Now only his daughter is left & she is living in the now renovated house. But my brother’s & his wife’s doctors & the hospitals are now hounding her for money for the co-pays. She may end up losing the house due to these avaricious health care providers. Do I think Katrina had something to do with their deaths? Yes. I think the enormous stress of the entire disaster, poor relief effort and a woefully inadequate health care system were largely responsible. Now their daughter (my niece) is all alone, fighting the hospital creditors and living in a house that may go under again due to the still-inadequate levees. The above is all true. Trust me, I am not exaggerating one bit.

  2. Trish August 29, 2007 @ 11:30 am

    Gary, that is an amazing (and I mean that in a bad way) story! First, my sympathy on the loss of your brother and sister-in-law. Second, have you told your elected representatives about this, and if so, what are they doing? Third, did your sister-in-law already have heart problems, or do you suspect it was the toxic fumes in her FEMA trailer that caused her death? And last, can you lose your home in Louisiana if you go bankrupt? Here in Florida (motto: “Move here and buy a big oceanfront home if you’re rich and want to shield some assets before you declare bankruptcy”), you can’t have your primary residence taken away. While many people do abuse that, hence our motto, it also protects some legitimate cases like your niece.

  3. GarryInNola August 29, 2007 @ 12:07 pm

    Trish,
    I really don’t know about the law. If Louisiana law isn’t the same as Florida’s it certainly should be. My niece is 32 y/o but had never moved out of the house prior to Katrina. In other words, she never had her own apartment nor did she get married so she is probably not very good at handling running a house. I also know that her whole world was completely turned upside down. All of her personal effects, photos etc. were lost. She wants me to move in with her but it would be a difficult commute for me and the area is still visibly devastated. Not much rebuilding. In fact many houses have been demolished with only their foundations still in place. She is trying to settle the estate but there wasn’t much of an estate to settle and, I understand that creditors can go after an estate of people who are no longer alive if money was owed, this disaster notwithstanding. And while this situation is even more extreme than most, a pall of death hangs over the area and almost everyone knows at least one person who didn’t survive Katrina. So there isn’t much extra sympathy to go around if you know what I mean.

  4. GarryInNola August 29, 2007 @ 12:23 pm

    Trish,
    I just realized that I failed to answer 2 of your questions. Sorry. We have not contacted our elected representatives. I will find out who they are for St Bernard Parish. But as I said earlier, almost everyone knows someone who didn’t survive Katrina so there isn’t much extra sympathy to go around.
    If my sister-in-law had heart problems prior to Katrina, they had not been diagnosed. She just suddenly went into cardiac arrest in the FEMA trailer the day she brought my brother home from his initial hospitalization. Due to the lack of landline phones in that area a cellphone was used to call 911 and the fact that there was no operating hospital for miles around it took the emergency medical personnel more than 10 minutes to arrive and by that time she had suffered anoxia and brain damage. She never awoke from the coma and died 6 weeks later in the hospital. I really think that she had undiagnosed health problems that were exacerbated by the stress of being displaced, loss of all personal effects and memorabilia & the lack of available medical care & her husbands recently diagnosed illness.
    I believe that the initial death toll of 1,600 will balloon into the thousands over the next few years as the effects of displacement, lack of healthcare and the emotional toll continues to add up. Already there are reliable statistics that show that alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence & suicide have skyrocketed in this area. Is there any wonder why?

  5. Trish August 29, 2007 @ 12:52 pm

    But you know about the toxic trailers, right?

    http://www.sierraclub.org/pressroom/releases/pr2007-07-25a.asp

    Maybe someone’s considering a class action suit. If not, they should be. Everything that happened to you and your family is inexcusable in the country we were brought up to believe we lived in. Maybe that land is gone and no one wants to admit it. Good luck.

  6. GarryInNola August 29, 2007 @ 1:23 pm

    Trish,
    Yes, I heard of the toxicity in the trailers and all that FEMA has agreed to do; and that was only after major public outcry, was to stop selling the trailers that have already been used. Who knows what the formaldehyde level was in the trailer they were using? Even though it took FEMA nearly a year to deliver their trailer they picked it up just 2 weeks after my niece told them that she no longer needed it. Thanks for your concern and best wishes. I really appreciate it.
    And here’s one final FEMA anecdote. A woman I worked with at the time Katrina struck lived with her parents in their home just 3 blocks from the 17th Street Canal breach in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. They evacuated prior to the storm’s arrival but when they tried to come back and found out that the water level had been up to the roof of the house & that a car crashed through a wall and came to rest in their living room they called FEMA for assistance. They gave the FEMA rep their address and explained as best they could what had happened and the extent of the damage. FEMA told them that they did not have enough damage and were not eligible for any assistance. Only on appeal were they granted FEMA assistance. They had a car in their living room but that wasn’t enough for FEMA!

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