New Orleans: a long history of suppressing disaster talk
class=img_thumbleft> When they got round to laying blame for the dismal performance of governments at every level last week in New Orleans, all the reporters invoked some reference to the traditionally "corrupt and inefficient" governments of the city and of Louisiana. True enough, but New Orleans itself has always manifested a more specific and finance-driven schizophrenia regarding the question of looming storm or flood disaster. On one hand, city fathers always wanted more and better reinforcements to the levee system safeguarding their lives and property from Lake Pontchartrain on the north and the Mississippi River on the south. At the same time, any public discussion about evacuations or flood contingencies was avoided through most of the city's history, and any alarming news withheld from New Orleans papers, to forestall panic--not among the citizenry, but among investors in the city's financial and industrial ventures.
As it happened, the book I was reading the week before Katrina hit was John M. Barry's Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. It's a fine and gripping history of the largest disaster to strike that part of the country pre-Katrina, and far and away the best historical account one could possibly read for purposes of understanding the circumstances that now face the Gulf Coast. Here's a passage in which Barry describes the deliberation of New Orleans leaders, and of the city's newspapers, as the Mississippi River rose to their south:
Hecht raised another point. Even if no river water entered New Orleans, the flood could destroy the city financially. People were building boats, tying them to their porches, stocking groceries. To liquidate inventories, wholesale suppliers were cutting prices in half and begging customers around the country to buy. Daily, hundreds of thousands of dollars were being withdrawn from banks. If the fear grew great enough, if a run developed on a bank, it would hurt, and perhaps even destroy, weaker banks. Short-term credit was disappearing, period. Long term, if the nation's businessmen lost confidence in the safety of New Orleans, serious damage could result. Rival ports were hungry. The Illinois Central recently had--for the first time--shipped a load of molasses from Gulfport, Mississippi. U.S. Steel was planning to ship exports out of Mobile, Alabama....
Three men determined what went into newspapers in the city. None of them cared about the news per se; they used their papers like artillery, to pound their enemies and advance their own goals.... Yet [all three] cooperated on one thing: suppressing news unfavorable to the city. In 1924, when a Greek sailor with bubonic plague was cared for in a New Orleans hospital, all the papers helped the New Orleans Association of Commerce control the flow of news both within and outside the city. In 1925 the papers helped the Association of Commerce circulate seventy-two different articles boosting New Orleans, including one claiming that it was one of the healthiest cities in America. In 1926 the newspapers and the Association of Commerce again agreed "to refrain from publishing anything in connection with" a controversial port policy.
On April 8 , as the local Red Cross began building boats, [one of the publishers] called a meeting of the Safe River Committee... "to avoid the dissemination of incorrect or alarming information." The next day every paper ran a reassuring page-1 story. The headlines in Thomson's own paper read, "River Warning Not Alarming; Levees Can Care for Stage Expected to Exceed 1922 Level." The idea was to calm the city.
So it was hardly a surprise, after the storm, to learn that the city had never gotten together a civil disaster plan of any substance: Merely to discuss the possibility of a major disaster was always deemed bad for business and therefore bad for New Orleans.
Pre-Katrina, the city's lack of an evacuation plan was no secret. Just a month before the storm hit, the Times-Picayune wrote of a DVD local officials had prepared on the subject:
City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans' poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you're on your own...
In an interview at the opening of this year's hurricane season, New Orleans Emergency Preparedness Director Joseph Matthews acknowledged that the city is overmatched. "It's important to emphasize that we just don't have the resources to take everybody out," he said in an interview in late May.
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