On my way every day to where we used to live, I drive through a city I love that lies in ruins. The park that lines one side of a boulevard I follow home is now a solid wall of debris 20 feet high. On the other side of the street, desolate houses destroyed by the flood gape back with shattered windows, open doors and ragged holes in rooftops kicked out by families trapped in their attics when the water rose. Every single thing - wrecked houses, abandoned cars, even the people - everything is covered in a pall of gray dust, as if all the color of this once vibrant city has been leached out.New Orleans is home to the largest and most important agricultural port in the country, on the most important natural transport route in the country. The oil and gas pipelines that run through it (as the country has learned) are critical to every consumer and homeowner in 48 states.
And why have we had to face this ordeal? Because, as has been amply documented, the Army Corps of Engineers designed and oversaw construction of levees so defective they are now the subject of criminal investigations by the Louisiana attorney general, the United States attorney here and the FBI.
We New Orleanians would have been back home two or three days after Hurricane Katrina if a manmade catastrophe had not engulfed the city in a flood. Instead, nearly three months later, only 15 percent or so of residents have returned. Most people can't come home. As The Times recently reported, half the houses in New Orleans are still not reconnected to the city sewer system and as many still lack natural gas for heating and cooking, 40 percent have no electricity and a quarter of the city is without drinkable water.
New Orleans is on the verge of death, but still, just as in the days after our levees crumbled, the government dithers, refusing to offer an unequivocal commitment to provide protection against Category 5 hurricanes.
Why is this so critical an issue? After what we have been through in the last three months and face in the coming year, there is not a homeowner or a business executive who will invest insurance proceeds in rebuilding if we are to remain vulnerable to a similar catastrophe every hurricane season. Anything short of protection against Category 5 hurricanes will condemn the city to a slow death.
And yet we are going to let the city die because it is prone to flooding, and we think people who live there are fools who put themselves in harm's way. Really?
Are all our judgments made solely on the basis of economics? Is that the only way we can argue, at all, for the preservation of New Orleans? Because of the port, and the pipelines?
Because if it is, we don't deserve New Orleans. And we don't deserve to call ourselves a "civilized people." If we are just going to neglect New Orleans to death, just turn away and go back to seeking the comfort of our own lives, disappear behind our wreath-bedecked doors and our Christmas trees glittering in the front window, then even the "barbarians" will be better than us. Then even the Romans under Caligula will have been more civilized than we are.
[I]f the United States refuses to protect New Orleans, what will the world - and what will history - make of a nation that let one of its most celebrated cities die?This is the United States; let's be honest, we don't care what the world thinks, and we agree with Henry Ford: "History is bunk." But what will we think? Will we be able to look at ourselves?
I've never been truly ashamed of this country; but I almost am, now.