Katrina, Our Chernobyl?

Twenty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan was elected saying -- and I am paraphrasing -- that "government is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem" and then initiated a revolution in how Americans thought about government.

Not all of the questioning about the rapid growth in government since the 1960s was wrongheaded and Reagan at least admired Franklin Roosevelt and having experienced the depression first hand understood that government had a positive role to play. But Reagan's imitators ever since, mainly Republicans but also some Democrats, have lacked that historical perspective and have mechanically espoused the view that government had to be lean and mean and, when in doubt, could be underfunded lest money be taken from the pockets of "ordinary Americans," who knew best how to spend it. Underlying this was another, more amoral, message that those who fall behind in this society get what they deserve. For a quarter of a century, we have also been told we could have our cake and eat it, too. Local property taxes could be kept low, state budgets could be balanced and federal taxes could be reduced progressively with nothing but a positive effect on our national quality of living. For fifteen years, we have been told that the US military is large enough to handle every conceivable threat to the country because high technology would allow us to project force more efficiently. For three years we have been assured that our government is reorganizing to ensure that an urban disaster such as we witnessed on 9/11 would not happen again. Many Americans, unfortunately, came to believe these assertions and forgot not only the value of good government but that it costs money.

This week we saw the cumulative effect of these illusions. For six days thousands of babies were starved of formula, countless old people died of exposure and families lived with almost no water and had to defecate in public by a city Convention Center because the federal government lacked the resources, skill and troops to rescue them.

What, after all, are the requirements of government? It would be hard to imagine a scenario better suited to extraordinary action by a President than what we saw this week. In 1952, Harry S. Truman took control of the steel industry to ensure that the US could prosecute the war in Korea. He ultimately got his hand slapped by the Supreme Court, but would anyone have reproved George Bush this week if he had relied on the Takings Clause to requisition the 600 buses that New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said were necessary Thursday to prevent more death at the Convention Center? Why did it take until the weekend for uniformed servicemen to appear in the city? Couldn't the Commander-in-Chief have made some calls? Why, in the aftermath of 9/11, do we still assume that the local and state authorities have to be overwhelmed before Washington steps in to manage an urban disaster, whether man-made or natural?

But to blame the compounding of the tragedy on President Bush alone is to miss the extent of the collapse. After hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in 1965, the US Army Corps of Engineers designed a multiyear plan for fortifying the levees. The plan was supposed to have been completed by 1970. As of the time of Katrina, it still hadn't been finished. Newspaper reports this week have highlighted how the Bush administration slashed water management funding. But what has not been getting as much attention is the responsibility of Congress for the woeful state of the infrastructure and public services in New Orleans and arguably in all of the poorer states of the country. Michael Chertoff performed miserably this week -- his lack of leadership was evident in his mistatements of fact as the situation unravelled in New Orleans -- but did he get all the appropriations he asked for from Congress? How many appropriations committee does the Department of Homeland Security have to satisfy? How much pork was given away? And though they do not control Congress, Democrats cannot escape blame for the underfunding of public infrastructure and homeland security. Didn't Bill Clinton announce that the "era of big government" was over, thus reinforcing the post-1980 idea that government was largely a threat to society. And who was the great "bipartisan" figure who helped President Bush secure enough votes for the first round of budget cuts in 2001? Answer: then Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, a Democrat who knew that the gulf between rich and poor in his own state, let alone the country, had been widening and yet he pushed to reduce the size of the federal government. Aside from Senator Chuck Schumer, how many other Democrats have consistently argued for more money for DHS? How many have stood against tax cuts because of the consequences for national security, a term that should include domestic disaster response?

It is hard to predict social turning points accurately. But there is too much national anger and disillusionment now not to feel confident that a major shift in perceptions is possible in the wake of Katrina. The debate over drug benefits last year illustrated that Americans have not lost their appreciation of safety nets. The drug benefit issue touched only senior citizens or their caregivers, but New Orleans may bring home the importance of a social safety net to people who are 40 years from their first social security check. The chief of FEMA, Michael Brown, played Marie Antionette this week when he made the moronic statement that most of those who died in New Orleans were responsible for their misfortune because they chose not to heed warnings to evacuate. Fortunately, it appears that most Americans understood how wrong Mr. Brown was. There were too many people in wheelchairs and mothers with infants at the Conventional Center or stranded on Highway 10 to believe that only the stupid or the thrillseekers stayed behind. There is a chance that Americans will start to see the deeper causes for the desperation that gripped New Orleans. New York bounced back so quickly in 2001 in part because al Qaeda hit the richest neighborhood of the richest city of the world's largest economy [Rudi Guiliani and Governor Pataki also deserve special mention for their leadership]. Katrina flooded the poorest neighborhoods of one of America's poorest cities. There was no emergency system in place to rescue those who lacked cars and the money for motel rooms.

The Bush administration's response to Katrina -- the official misstatements, the incompetence on the ground, the neglect of the local people, and the lack of planning for a similar disaster-- was reminiscent of the Soviet response to Chernobyl and may have equally profound consequences. The necessary changes in the USSR and what we need now, of course, are fundamentally different [The USSR needed to disappear; we need to shore up our national institutions and provide real opportunity to the poorest among us]. But the New Orleans disaster may similarly serve as a national wakeup call with longterm political implications. As more and more people watch the federal military rescue and see, over the next year, the housing and retraining of the displaced and the rebuilding of New Orleans, many will understand that "government can be part of the solution." Out of this disaster we may then see a bridging of the red/blue cultural divide that has hurt us and our politics for too long.