Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » September 2005 » Prophetic....

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09/01/2005: Prophetic....

An old friend from St. Louis forwarded to me an article published by Scientific American in 2001: Drowning New Orleans.

Some of the article is relevant to some comments we've received:

Why should taxpayers in, say, Iowa, pay for people in New Orleans who choose to live below sea level? The outrage isn't that federal dollars were cut on the levee system, but that even a dime was spent on it in the first place. That's a state responsibility if there ever was one!

The New Orleans government is notoriously corrupt and incompetent. Their lack of planning or failure to follow their plan is on them. They, not the federal government, are the first responders.
It's ironic that the commenter (who, IIRC, lives in Iowa himself) should ask why the taxpayers in Iowa should have to pay for the damages to property and for the losses sustained by people in New Orleans. Iowa is, of course, one of the many states which lies on the banks of the Mississipi River, and of course has benefited through most of its history (as has Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana) from commercial traffic on the Mississippi. As a very informative article in Slate points out, New Orleans wasn't built because of its founders' perverse desire to live in a below sea level soup bowl. The motivation for locating New Orleans where it is is one that should be near and dear to the heart of any free-market conservative: it was a hell of a place to make a buttload of money:
New Orleans' dysfunctional relationship with its environment may make it the nation's most improbable metropolis. It is flood prone. It is cursed with a fertile disease environment. It is located along a well-worn pathway that tropical storms travel from the Atlantic to the nation's interior. From this perspective, New Orleans has earned all the scorn being heaped upon it—the city is a misguided urban project, a fool's errand, a disaster waiting to happen.

But such insults miss why most American cities are built in the first place: to do business. In 1718, when the French first settled New Orleans, the city's earliest European inhabitants saw riches inscribed by the hand of God into the landscape of the vast Mississippi valley. The Mississippi river system takes the shape of a huge funnel, covering nearly two-thirds of the United States from the Alleghenies to the Rockies. The funnel's spout lies at the river's outlet at the Gulf of Mexico, less than 100 miles downstream from New Orleans. In an era before railways, good highways, and long before air travel, much of the interior of the nation's commerce flowed along the Mississippi, fronting New Orleans. The river system's inexorable downstream current swept cotton, grain, sugar, and an array of other commodities to New Orleans' door. Because of the region's geography and topography, many 19th-century observers believed that God—working through nature, His favorite medium—would see to it that anyone shrewd enough to build and live in New Orleans would be made rich.

So, people built. Some lived. A lucky few even got rich. Many others, usually poor residents, died. They were carried away in floods. They were battered by catastrophic storms. They were snuffed out by yellow fever epidemics, like the great scourge of 1853 that killed nearly 10,000 people in the city. Over time, New Orleans developed a divided relationship with the environment: Nature, as embodied by the Mississippi, promised a bright future. But it also brought water, wind, and pathogens, elements of a fickle environment that in the past as now turned cruelly chaotic.

Geographers refer to this as the difference between a city's "situation"—the advantages its location offers relative to other cities—and its "site"—the actual real estate it occupies. New Orleans has a near-perfect situation and an almost unimaginably bad site. It's because of the former that people have worked endlessly to overcome the hazards of the latter.
So why should Iowans (or Missourians, Illinoisans, etc.) help pay? Well, those folks upstream on the Mississippi (not to mention those on the navigible tributaries of the Mississippi, like the Ohio River) have certainly benefited by the existence of New Orleans and its port facilities (without which there would have been no river commerce). Getting back to the SciAm article my friend forwarded to me, the loss of New Orleans isn't just a blow to the New Orleans area, but to the rest of the U.S. economy as well. As "Drowning New Orleans" notes:
As if the risk to human lives weren't enough, the potential drowning of New Orleans has serious economic and environmental consequences as well. Louisiana's coast produces one third of the country's seafood, one fifth of its oil and one quarter of its natural gas. It harbors 40 percent of the nation's coastal wetlands and provides wintering grounds for 70 percent of its migratory waterfowl. Facilities on the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge constitute the nation's largest port. And the delta fuels a unique element of America's psyche; it is the wellspring of jazz and blues, the source of everything Cajun and Creole, and the home of Mardi Gras. Thus far, however, Washington has turned down appeals for substantial aid. [emphasis supplied --LRC]
Trying to lay the blame for lack of preparedness on state and local authorities is tempting, but ultimately that gambit fails when one considers not only the historical, but the current importance of river commerce to the national economy, and the fact that Federal involvement in the maintenance of navigable waters isn't just some recent "liberal", New Deal program. The Army Corps of Engineers has been involved in the maintenance of transportation (including, of course, river navigation and transportation) since approximately 1824, when the United States Supreme Court ruled (Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 US 1 (1824)) that regulation of interstate commerce, including river navigation, was the prerogative of the federal government, per the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. And don't try to kid yourself that New Orleans, along with other associated port facilities in southern Louisiana, isn't important to commerce:
The Port of New Orleans handles about 145 million short tons (132 million tonnes) of cargo a year and is the largest faction of the Port of South Louisiana, the latter being the largest and busiest shipping port in the western hemisphere and the 4th busiest in the world.

About 5,000 ships from nearly 60 nations dock at the Port of New Orleans annually. The chief exports are grain and other foods from the Midwestern United States and petroleum products. The leading imports include chemicals, cocoa beans, coffee, and petroleum. The port handles more trade with Latin America than does any other U.S. gateway, including Miami.

New Orleans is also a busy port for barges. The barges use the nation's two main inland waterways, the Mississippi River and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which meet at New Orleans. The port of New Orleans handles about 50,000 barges yearly.
The levee system in New Orleans isn't the sole responsibility of the local authorities; to the extent that they are necessary to the maintenance of the Ports of New Orleans and South Louisiana and to keep the Mississippi River navigable, a significant responsibility for them is borne by the U.S. government.

The bottom line, as implied in my earlier post, is that given limited resources (i.e., money), you have to manage them wisely. Bush decided to fritter away large amounts of money in a war in Iraq, which simply resulted in promoting terrorism across the globe, and preparing the way for a theocratic, Islamic republic which will be closely tied to our "friends" in Iran. Meanwhile, in the face of that waste of money, he persists in promoting tax cuts the nation can't afford, and which have done little (if anything) to stimulate the economy. As a result of those foolish fiscal policies, there wasn't money to provide either the Corps of Engineers with sufficient funds to provide for preventive measures, or to allow FatherHomeland Security and FEMA sufficient resources to deal with the disaster as it unfolded.

Bush liked to style himself as "the CEO President". If any CEO in any decently run business demonstrated the kind of incompetence Bush has demonstrated, s/he'd find her/his ass out on the street looking for another job in short order.

Pity we can't have such an "accountability moment" in government.

Len on 09.01.05 @ 09:53 PM CST

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