The New Orleans Mental Health Crisis, Exposed

Sometimes, journalism consists of "discovering" things that everybody knows -- at least, everybody in the affected area -- but that have slipped off the national radar screen. Such is the case with a remarkable three-part series this week in -- wait for it -- the Washington Times.

Yes, the paper owned by you-know-who has reported on one of the two long-running crises in New Orleans that have been ignored by the national media since so-called Katrina fatigue set in: the mental health crisis among the city's population. (The other long-running crisis, in affordable rental housing after the flood damaged or destroyed 80,000 units, remains undiscovered by outsiders.)

The Times stories focus on all the salient points of the mental health mess: the long-term depression of many Katrina survivors, the degree to which the crime rate is swelled by mentally-disturbed people acting out, the heroic efforts of police crisis units and volunteer organizations to find and help people who can't seek out help themselves, and the increasing disparity between the need and the resources available for care and help.

All this is welcome, if overdue, and admirable.

And yet...Even from three reporters who've been in New Orleans for weeks researching these articles there is a remarkable lapse: a failure to explain why the disaster happened, why the city was inundated. Instead, in addition to the numerous references to "Katrina's floodwaters", there is, in the series' second article, this strangely bland sentence:

"City, state and federal agencies have pointed fingers at one another for four years, seeking to lay blame for the failure of the levees that allowed the floodwaters to wash over the city."

In two words, not true. The United States Army Corps of Engineers, in its June, 2006 IPET report, acknowledged what had already been amply documented in the ILIT and Team Louisiana reports, namely, that Katrina was not a natural disaster in New Orleans (as it was on the Gulf Coast), but rather a massive, catastrophic failure of poorly designed and constructed levees and floodwalls -- a project under the supervision and control of the ACE. Odd that a paper in Washington, home of the Corps, would choose to ignore, and obscure, these facts.

Do we have to wait four more years for a non-New Orleans newspaper to discover them?

What the city, state and feds have been fighting about, in fact, has been the fate of downtown's large and iconic Charity Hospital, flooded but (according to doctors who worked there) not destroyed. Closed since the flood, it's been the subject of a tug of war between LSU, which ran the Charity Hospital system and which desires to build a new hospital in a new location, and FEMA, which has resisted paying the tab for the replacement. (And the Bush Administration actively sought the closing of hospitals like Charity, part of a "two-tier" system that specifically served the working poor and indigent -- for ideoglogical reasons) Charity, many knowledgeable people report, could be reopened more cheaply than the cost of the new hospital LSU wants. While this fight goes on, the folks once served by Charity (including the mentally ill) go ill- or un-served.

And the Obama Administration's response to all this? Are those crickets I hear?

Yes, I know, he's "only been in office six months." And, of course, the presidency gets less complicated as you go along, doesn't it?