From the Ground Up

Even in the face of disaster, life finds a way. But how long can we afford to flout forces beyond our control and live on unsteady ground? And what are we willing to pay? Our writer sends a dispatch from New Orleans.

Except for rescue crews and media, downtown New Orleans is empty. But driving along Convention Center Boulevard only days after rescuers lifted the last of the center’s refugees to Houston and points beyond, I see evidence of teeming, desperate life—hundreds of orange-cushioned chairs taken from inside and placed around folding tables or arranged in rows to provide some semblance of beds. Stacks of diaper boxes, cans of baby formula, empty wheelchairs, and toppled walkers remind me that the thousands of people who gathered here came in all ages and conditions. I cannot imagine the stench of rotting food, sewage, and sweat being any stronger, and yet it has had days to disperse. And silence—save for a few ragged scavengers picking through the detritus, the boulevard is quiet.

It is impossible, right now, to see the aftermath of Katrina in all its immensity, from Mobile, Ala., to Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish. It is much easier to parse the destruction into two separate catastrophes: the annihilation of the northern Gulf Coast and the drowning of New Orleans. But if a taxonomy of disaster is what we’re after, we have to subdivide further. The drowning of New Orleans also includes the aqueous entombment of much of Plaquemines Parish, a sinuous region that spreads like a pie piece southeast of the city toward the mouth of the Mississippi, some 100 miles away. Entire towns in the parish remain under water, and where the water has receded there is little to recover—homes washed far from their foundations, caskets lifted from their graves, churches smothered in fetid muck. New Orleans will return; Plaquemines likely will not.

The Mississippi coast is equally multifarious. In Gulfport, a floating casino the size of a city block sits 300 yards inland and five-ton rolls of brown paper lie scattered across the landscape like marbles. But in nearby Long Beach, the marks of the storm are not as recognizable, because so much is simply gone, reduced to splinters or washed out into the sea.

So many different images of destruction. How can we come to terms with it all? In one sense, there is no sense—disaster happens. But if there is no “why” or “how” to Katrina, there is a tentative “what.” Katrina—for lack of a better word, and right now there is no better word for what happened, nothing like “the attack” or “the invasion” to neatly encompass all of what occurred—has exposed what New Orleans and the Gulf Coast always expressed: the immense power of nature and man’s titan efforts to resist it. An enormous river held in check by an enormous levee system. Coastal towns built, and continuously rebuilt, in the face of nature’s annual onslaught. Nature pushes, man pushes back.

Government failed not because it is inept, but because we have made grand commitments that, when the bill came around, we refused to pay for. There has been much commentary since Katrina’s landfall on the lack of logic in building a city so dependent on constant undergirding and brilliant engineering for its survival, but the region is hardly unique. As historian Mike Davis has repeatedly diagnosed, Los Angeles is an artificial city dependent on a distant water supply. San Francisco could be literally wiped out in an earthquake, and Sacramento could likewise disappear should its own levees give way. As surface temperatures increase, the hard ground under many Alaskan towns softens, and they begin to settle into the mire.

We can tell ourselves that such cities are unreasonable and that we should not allow them to be constructed so, but cities are not the result of a single decision. New Orleans was founded on a rise of high ground; who knew then the dangerous growth it would later undertake? We expand against nature not because we enjoy risk but because we believe we can control it. This has been the story of America, perhaps more than any other country. Blessed with a wild but bounteous land, we have spent 400 years trying to control it, tame it. We hem its rivers with levees and lace it tightly with rails and highways.

But in recent decades, having come so far and made so many commitments, we have been pulling back. After constructing the greatest highway system in the world, we have cut taxes and boosted pork-barrel spending to the point at which 13,000 deaths occur annually thanks to poor road maintenance. Having built thousands of dams to hold back floods and water our fields, we renege on their upkeep and in doing so endanger the budding communities found in the now-tame downstream. And having built an enormous seaport around the mouth of the Mississippi, we fall behind in ensuring it is protected, and then balk at the cost of rebuilding when faced with dire need.

In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks wrote, “Liberals who think this disaster is going to set off a progressive revival need to explain how a comprehensive governmental failure is going to restore America’s faith in big government.” But this is a set-up, a conservative con. Government failed not because it is inept, but because we have made grand commitments that, when the bill came around, we refused to pay for. And Brooks’s question can be thrown back at him: Conservatives who think this disaster is evidence that big government fails need to explain how else we are going to maintain the vast, nature-defying social system we have spent so many decades constructing. Big government? Nature is bigger. We’re already warring against it, and what Katrina shows us is that if we want to continue living as we do, we have to start by honoring our commitments to ourselves.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen