Monday, September 03, 2012

Don't Talk About Politics During a Disaster

I didn’t drown this week. I didn’t lose all my possessions. I didn’t have to use a hatchet to cut my way out of my own apartment, or help my neighbors cut their way out of theirs. I didn’t have to commandeer a boat and float neighbors and pets to safety. I didn’t have to find family and friends who had done the same amidst a mass exodus of people. I didn’t have to see dead bodies floating in the flood waters and wonder who they were.

Today, I am not mucking mud out of my house, wondering if I should all just pack it up and leave.

Tomorrow, I don’t have to help family and friends do the same. I won’t have to do my time cleaning out a restaurant walk-in cooler that is full of rotting food in the 100 degree heat without power and flooded with street water.

Instead, this morning I woke up in an air conditioned house, accessed my in-home internet and checked my email, took my girlfriend’s bratty dog for a walk around the bock, and walked up the street to buy donuts at a locally owned and operated business. Happy Labor Day.

I got to do all of these things today by the Grace of God, and because the United States government spent $14 billion in tax dollars to reinforce the New Orleans levee system.  One of those is a factor of my personal faith, and is something that can’t be proven. It is difficult to reconcile with the idea that, while I am high and dry (this time), so many of my neighbors in Louisiana are not. The other of those is a stone cold fact – if you are willing to spend government money on effective infrastructure, and you stay vigilant about making sure that money is spent the right way, you are able to mitigate risks that could otherwise be catastrophic.

Do I have to draw a clearer picture than this? Because this is a story I’m not hearing many places. I guess everyone got the memo: when there is a disaster, you aren’t supposed to talk about politics.

It doesn’t matter that a disaster lays bare the relationship between the community and the government in ways that go beyond the normal bullshit you hear every day all day on cable news, the internet, and talk radio. You aren’t supposed to bring up who voted for what when people are still being picked off their roofs by rescue workers. You aren’t supposed to point out that, back when something could have been done about mitigating risk, other priorities had support. That would be considered a crass “scoring of points” or playing the “blame game,” and there are reasons we feel that way as a community. Politicians and the media often take the opportunities disasters afford people far away to do just those things. And because people don’t want to hear that crap when they’re emptying their refrigerator of spoiled food, we “don’t talk about politics” during a disaster.

But we never get around to having that conversation later. Not the important parts, anyway. Mostly, all we do is postpone the blame game and the point scoring. The conversation never really gets to the uncomfortable but necessary relationship between politics and disaster.  

Seven years ago, what passed for that conversation took an ominous tone. New Orleans is below sea level, they said. New Orleans simply cannot be defended, they said. We might as well bulldoze that city back into the swamp, they said. Why would anyone chose to live there, they said. Why should we spend money to defend that city, they said, and still say.

That was what America heard seven years ago. That was our “conversation.” It didn’t matter that so much of it was absolutely wrong. After Hurricane Isaac, we have definitive proof.

New Orleans can be protected from catastrophic flooding. Taxpayers invested in infrastructure, and it worked. And what did that $14 billion dollar investment protect? That would be over $110 billion worth of infrastructure, which included funding to help protect almost a quarter of domestic oil production and half of the nation’s refining capacity, and one of the top 10 ports in the world. You think the price of gasoline is high now? Let’s lose access to the Louisiana Off-Shore Oil Port, or any of the Louisiana refineries and see what you end up paying at the pump.

Of course, I shouldn't have to list all the positives like that. I don't know why I can't just say that $14 billion was a good start on the investment needed to protect a great American city, and be done with it. We never have this conversation about Miami or San Francisco or North Carolina, but when it comes to New Orleans, we need a cost-benefit analysis. (But don't talk about politics during a disaster!)

I’m no mathematician, but I’d say this nation makes $10 off every $1 tax dollar invested in infrastructure and protection around New Orleans. At least. And if I have to draw an even clearer picture for you that the taxpayer investment to protect New Orleans is not only worth it, but working, let me go one further. Without that money, New Orleans would have flooded catastrophically from Hurricane Isaac. We know this because a lot of our neighbors outside the federal levees flooded catastrophically.

I don’t think this means that the stronger levees in New Orleans caused the flooding elsewhere. I don’t think this means we can ignore the important work of restoring Louisiana’s disappearing coast. I don’t even think this means New Orleans could have survived a stronger storm without flooding. Yet. What I know, deep down in my bones, is that if investing in Southeast Louisiana’s infrastructure brings at least a 10-to-1 return on investment for the taxpayers of this country, this nation can afford to invest in stronger protections for more residents down here, and get to work rebuilding this coastal resource.

And that's going to require talking about politics and how it relates to disaster. That's a conversation that needs to get started right now.


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