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.
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 â€” 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 â€” today, in your hometown and across an anxious and ailing nation…
If this country can’t help New Orleans rebound â€” if we and our leaders break the promises made to its citizens â€” 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 â€” but no less certain â€” 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 â€” 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 â€” who cares?