Douglas Brinkley: The Reckless Abandonment of New Orleans

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Douglas Brinkley is a history professor at Rice University and the author of "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast."]

... New Orleans appears to be largely abandoned by the Department of Homeland Security, except for its safeguarding of the Port Authority (port traffic is at 90 percent of pre-Katrina numbers) and tourist districts above sea level, such as the French Quarter and Uptown. These areas are kept alive largely by the wild success of Harrah's casino and a steady flow of undaunted conventioneers.

The brutal Galveston Hurricane of 1900 may be a historical guide to the administration's thinking. Most survivors of that deadly Texas storm moved to higher land. Administration policies seem to tacitly encourage those who live below sea level in New Orleans to relocate permanently, to leave the dangerous water's edge for more prosperous inland cities such as Shreveport or Baton Rouge.

After the 1900 hurricane, in fact, Galveston, which had been a large, thriving port, was essentially abandoned for Houston, transforming that then-sleepy backwater into the financial center for the entire Gulf South. Galveston devolved into a smallish port-tourist center, one easy to evacuate when hurricanes rear their ugly heads.

To be fair, Bush's apparent post-Katrina inaction policy makes some cold, pragmatic sense. If the U.S. government is not going to rebuild the levees to survive a Category 5 storm -- to be finished at the earliest in 2015 and at an estimated cost of $40 billion, far eclipsing the extravagant bill for the entire Interstate Highway System -- then options are limited.

But what makes the current inaction plan so infuriating is that it's deceptive, offering up this open-armed spin to storm victims: "Come back to New Orleans." Why can't Bush look his fellow citizens in the eye and tell them what seems to be the ugly truth? That as long as he's commander in chief, there won't be an entirely reconstructed levee system.

Shortly after Katrina hit, former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert declared that a lot of New Orleans could be "bulldozed." He was shot down by an outraged public and media, which deemed such remarks insensitive and callous. Two years have shown that Hastert may have articulated what appears to have become the White House's de facto policy. He may have retreated, but the inaction remains.

The White House keeps spinning Bush's abysmal poll numbers by claiming that his legacy will rise decades from now the way Harry S. Truman's did. But Truman had a reputation for straight talk and bold vision. If Bush wants history to perceive him as Trumanesque, then he must act Trumanesque.

Bush's predecessors moved mountains. Theodore Roosevelt set aside 230 million acres for wildlife conservation (plus built the Panama Canal). Franklin D. Roosevelt began a kaleidoscope of New Deal programs to calm the Great Depression and Truman oversaw the Marshall Plan rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II. Bush could seize the initiative and announce a real plan to rebuild, a partnership between the government, Fortune 500 companies and faith-based groups....

How we deal with New Orleans's future will tell us a lot about our nation's future. In 2008 it should really be an up or down vote. Category 5 levees or not? An independent FEMA or a FEMA still ensconced in Homeland Security? Do we pour $40 billion into grandiose Louisiana engineering projects or do we instead put up "no trespassing" signs in the areas below sea level? All are hard choices with various merits and pains.

The important thing, however, is for America to decide whether the current policy of inaction is really the way we want to deal with the worst natural disaster in our history.
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