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Hurricane Katrina and Covid point to the same government failures

Years after Katrina, New Orleans needs more government help than ever. Don’t let Covid tell a similar story.
A volunteer rescues New Orleans residents during Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 31, 2005.ERIC GAY / ASSOCIATED PRESS

As a dangerous Hurricane Ida approaches the Louisiana coast on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it’s important to remember the many ways that the federal government allowed a bad situation to be even worse.

Two weeks after that 2005 storm, as dead bodies were still being pulled from attics, then-President George W. Bush said, “Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility.”

To argue that the federal government failed during Hurricane Katrina, one first must believe that the Bush administration was committed to minimizing suffering.

Some people may have heard that remark as a mea culpa, but many New Orleanians heard it as the leader of the world’s richest, most powerful nation deflecting blame onto a governor and mayor with a fraction of the nation’s money, equipment or logistical capabilities.

But what New Orleanians thought mattered little. The “failures at all levels of government” phrase became the popular, superficial explanation for why Katrina wasn’t just a storm but a catastrophe.

Failure, though, can only follow a good-faith attempt to succeed. To argue that the federal government failed during Hurricane Katrina, one first must believe that the Bush administration was committed to minimizing suffering and not — as the book of Republicanism commands — committed to tamping down public expectation that the government act on behalf of its people.

Sixteen years later, there’s a greater need for aggressive governmental intervention now than there was in New Orleans during Katrina. Without aggressive intervention — such as mask and vaccine mandates — people will continue to die. Yet Republican leaders across the country are dogmatic that it’s not the government’s job to save people; it’s the job of the people themselves.

As the delta variant of the novel coronavirus was imperiling the people of his state, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote in a July 29 executive order that “the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates.” He followed that with the preposterous claim that “Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of Covid-19.”

Sixteen years later, there’s a greater need for aggressive governmental intervention than there was in New Orleans.

The seven-day average of new Covid-19 cases in Texas was 7,812 the day Abbot issued his order in Texas, and on Friday it was 16,212 — 113 percent higher. Between July 29 and Aug. 25, the number of Covid hospitalizations increased 138 percent from 5,846 to 13,932.

In the meantime, Abbot got infected. His office announced that news the day after the governor was seen at a political fundraiser packed with unmasked people. Are these the folks Abbot claims have “mastered safe practices?”

After Katrina, as the federal government was taking its time getting to New Orleans to rescue the stranded, many of those in need of rescue were accused of being pathologically dependent on the government. Even New Orleans homeowners who fled the city before Katrina’s arrival were called fools for living in a floodplain.

In his book “Katrina: A History, 1915-2015,” Tulane University historian Andy Horowitz argues that there were nine decades of bad government decisions that preceded the storm, including policies that let oil and gas companies rip up the wetlands that had buffered New Orleans from storms and policies that made it easier to get mortgages in drained swampland than on the city’s highest ground.

Add to that, people in New Orleans were convinced that they had flood protection that they did not. The Army Corps of Engineers had spent almost the entire 40 years between Hurricane Betsy and Hurricane Katrina building a flood protection system, but months after those floodwalls collapsed, the corps acknowledged in a report that "the hurricane protection system in New Orleans and southeast Louisiana was a system in name only."

Personal responsibility is no match for bad public policy. It isn’t a match for government incompetence. It isn’t a match for government officials who believe that government shouldn’t be helpful, let alone a match for government officials whose words and policies actually harm.

During the last regular session of the Republican-controlled Louisiana Legislature, lawmakers spent a significant amount of time encouraging more development from Big Oil and the petrochemical industry, the same industries that have left the coast in shreds and contributed to the warming climate that’s making for more monster storms.

When we're tallying up the costs of Ida, Americans would do well to remember how policies have continued to favor those destructive industries before they blame individual homeowners for being in the path of storms

As for the pandemic, years from now, when it's finally behind us, there are going to be people who attribute the needlessly high American death toll to the failures of government. But that analysis won’t get at the complexity of what’s been happening.

It should be more properly attributed to a deadly philosophy that a government shouldn’t heed the cries of its people. The number of lives lost shouldn’t count as a failure to save the people but as failure to really try.