When the Levees Broke

Hurricane Katrina unravels the threads of a fragile New Orleans society

Meanwhile, the city's middle and upper classes have been forced away for weeks. For now, they are anxiously monitoring the destruction of their homes and wholesale trashing of their property values from Holiday Inns in Houston and Houma. A whole lot of people have roots and will come back and stay if it's possible. But how many educated young people, new transplants, and boomer retirees will grab their insurance settlements and leave?

New Orleans has always exerted an extraordinary psychic pull on the rest of the country. But even if you have no friends or relatives or ex-lovers there, even if you've never tasted the oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's in the French Quarter (its wall blew in yesterday) or caught a Saints game at the Superdome (now a failing emergency shelter and the scene of at least two deaths), there are good reasons right now to be anxious, angry, or prayerful according to your bent.

An MIT meteorologist published an article in Nature last month that the Los Angeles Times said "concluded that the destructive power of hurricanes had increased 50 percent over the last half a century, and that a rise in surface temperatures linked to global warming was at least partly responsible." This is not yet majority scientific opinion. But Katrina got big fast because the water it sucked up from the Gulf on its way over was warmer, not colder, than the rest, adding "high-octane fuel to the fire," says The New York Times .

Water pours through a break in a levee.
photo: UPI Photo/Vincent Laforet/Pool
Water pours through a break in a levee.

Two months ago, Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu begged President Bush to come across with billions in federal funding to restore the state's ravaged wetlands and dig a more natural path to the sea. She got half a billion. You've probably read by now how pure hubris, and the Army Corps of Engineers, have hastened this day of reckoning by reining in the river; the state loses 25 square miles of coastline a year.

Finally, thousands of National Guardsmen and women can't be there to help their neighbors. Forty percent of Mississippi's National Guard force and 35 percent of Louisiana's are in Iraq, totaling around 6,000 troops. They took a lot of equipment with them that would be pretty useful right now�high water vehicles, Humvees, refuelers, and generators. A general warned early this month that this might be a problem in event of a natural disaster.

Of the 3500 Louisiana Guard troops who are on duty, many of them have just returned from combat. "Officials maintained," said Reuters, "this had not hurt the relief effort in those states, hardest hit by the hurricane."

But who can say, at this point? So much remains unknowable.

Last night, there was a shadowy, frightening report in the Times-Picayune about looters attempting an assault on Children's Hospital, Uptown, with 100 sick kids inside. The paper said looters stood outside trying to break in the locked hospital, with flood waters rising: Governor Kathleen Blanco �has been told of the situation and has informed the National Guard. However, [spokeswoman Denise] Bottcher said, the National Guard has also been unable to respond."

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