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Promotin’ the General Welfare

Anxiety as Hurricane Harvey Arrives on Katrina's Anniversary

Sadly, we were sweating it out in New Orleans this past weekend on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, wondering if Hurricane Harvey would head east once it finished dumping its unfathomable deluge on southeastern Texas. But as we learned prior to Harvey’s hit on Texas, it wouldn’t take a storm of biblical proportions to turn New Orleans’ streets into a series of venetian waterways. All that’s required is one well-placed torrential downpour lingering over us, and parts of the city – if not the city itself – would be disabled.


The news that our city’s pump system was not fully functional came as a shock to all but the most cynical, or realistic, New Orleanians. Judging by the condition of our streets, the snail’s pace of street repairs, the persistent delays in addressing compromised roadways and neighborhoods, and the increasing occurrence of broken water mains, it’d take the blindest eyes not to notice something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.  


It’s been 12 years since Hurricane Katrina. If nothing else, you’d think city leaders would have assessed and addressed ongoing pumping station failures, especially since receiving $150 million from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Program.  


Finding out there were so many problems – and learning the history of these documented problems – is consistent with how poorly city services have been handled. But you’d think after Katrina, which was reported as the most destructive natural disaster on record in the United States, a little bit of CYA was in order. For all the “good” Mayor Mitch has done, for all the accolades he’s earned, this proverbial black eye is a big-time blemish on his way out. At least the next mayor now knows what problems lie ahead.


But let’s stop for a second. Consider the dangers our city is facing each day the pumping system remains dysfunctional.  


Those of us born and raised in the greater New Orleans region, as well as those who’ve lived here long enough, know how quickly water rises when rains fall quickly and persistently over an extended period of time. Regardless of the effectiveness of a system, some victories will always go to Mother Nature.


But now, factor in the knowledge that we’ve been living with an underperforming and poorly maintained system. The recent flooding that inundated The Broad Theater, the greater flooding on Aug 5th that ruined so many homes: forget a direct hit from Hurricane Harvey, imagine one solid band of rainclouds breaking free from that system – where might we be today?


The history of frustratingly stupid behavior that colors the administration of this city over the years leaves many skeptical and cynical. Nothing against optimism, but to survive the awful legacy of ridiculous thinking, or non-thinking, one learns to live with low expectations. Winning the Super Bowl was a real morale booster, but it doesn’t solve problems born from dodging another potential disaster or dangerous episode.


We can make all the cosmetic progress there is to be made, but as long as we look past the foibles of municipal administrators, we as citizens come to embody that old cliché about the definition of insanity.


As the mayor read off the list of problems with our pumping system, I wondered if he appreciated the pathetic irony of that moment:  what good was it to scrub the city of its embarrassing monuments to a racist past when you fail to save it from its even more maddening history of ineptitude?  


Over the last few days, listening to the news about local leaders in Texas ignoring or invalidating meaningful data and research, which pointed to the dangers of overdevelopment as it concerned Houston, the fourth-largest American city – and the implications of making impermeable a landscape which once absorbed floodwaters – I could not help but think of New Orleans failing to heed the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. It should not take a natural disaster dealing a catastrophic blow to impress upon us a need to be more responsible stewards of our environs!  


Thanks to the short-sightedness of current and past leaders and officials, New Orleans remains a city at risk.


Our current leaders have endorsed and undertaken a cosmetic cover-up that is superficial at best, promising to pretty the place up. But how’s about you fix the plumbing before the palace falls apart? All frills and frolic, and not enough attention to the bare necessities, leaves us as ripe for ridicule as an Emperor putting on his latest embarrassment.


So it was these past few weeks as we watched Hurricane Harvey pummel Texas, wondering anxiously what course it would take thereafter, whether our city’s roll of the dice would come up snake eyes. We’ll feel better when city leaders stop gambling with our lives and livelihoods and complete meaningful and essential repairs to our pumping system and other aspects of our failing infrastructure.


In the meantime, welcome to more anxiety! September’s just beginning. Two more months till this vexing season is done.  


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The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender’s Editorial Board.


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