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Sam Smith: The Second Battle Of New Orleans

The Second Battle Of New Orleans

By Editor Sam Smith

THE SECOND BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS is already underway: a struggle over how to respond to the greatest natural disaster of our history. It is far too early to draw conclusions but soon enough for a few questions:

- What will be the iconographic role of this disaster? Will it - as it should - eclipse 9/11 as the central moment of contemporary history, or will it be subtly reduced to second place so the business at hand in Washington - i.e. whatever war it is conducting - can continue to retain semiotic hegemony? What is the relative importance of 16 acres in New York City versus tens of thousands in Louisiana?

- How much will we be willing to pay to restore one of our major cities and its citizens compared to what we have paid to create a manmade disaster in Iraq or to end constitutional government in the wake of 9/11? Current estimates of pending special appropriations set the number at something less than 10% of what we are spending annually in Iraq. If that how we value ourselves?

- Will the meaning of this disaster, like 9/11, be repeatedly distorted by various parties of interest in a manner that blasphemes the memory of its victims and perverts its history?

- What effect will the fact that many of the victims of 9/11 were white and powerful while many of the victims of New Orleans' disaster were black and so poor they couldn't get out of town alter the story we come to tell of the event? Does the mayor's decision to remove police from search and rescue so they could fight looting suggest a demographic subtext? Is the marketplace worth more than life itself? In what ways would the response to this disaster have been different if it its major victims had been lighter and wealthier? If the stranded had been in Palm Beach, what would we have done?

- If FEMA put a Category 5 hurricane in New Orleans on the same level as a terrorist attack in New York City or an earthquake in San Francisco, why did the White House and the Department of Homeland Security only show substantial interest in, and fund remedies for, the New York version of potential catastrophe? Does this qualify as criminal negligence?

- If everyone knew that New Orleans was an accident waiting to happen why were so few precautions taken? As just one example, why were not residents encouraged to have or provided inflatable rafts and life jackets in their homes along with the sort of food supplies promoted following 9/11?

- Why does the government and the media persist in the notion that a major disaster requires centralized control - if not martial law - imposed from Washington? It is clear already that the most competent response to this disaster came at the local and state level and that the feds weren't even able to provide food, water, shelter and other logistical supplies in a timely matter. Both common sense and the 10th Amendment dictate that in a major disaster control should devolve to the governors, not to some covertly selected cabal in Washington. It is interesting to note that while FEMA and the Pentagon were still trying to get their act together, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell called the governor of Mississippi to say that 2,500 of his National Guard troops were on their way. In other words, a Democratic and a GOP governor from vastly different states got matters coordinated even as the monolithically incompetent Bush regime was still figuring out what to do.

- What lessons can be learn from the fact that the Coast Guard was the best organized federal agency - rescuing 2600 people in few days with only 4,000 personnel? As Jim Ridgeway notes in the Village Voice, "it was the Coast Guard commander in New York who organized one of the most extraordinary operations maritime rescues since Dunkirk on 9-11, pulling together, ferries, tugs, yachts, and all sorts of other boats to evacuate half a million people from downtown New York." One explanation: the Coast Guard is highly decentralized (like local fire departments) with a lot of authority vested at the local level. It also places a high emphasis on competence, again like fire departments. When you are in a disaster your best friends are highly qualified rescuers who can make decisions without waiting for headquarters to tell them what to do.

- Will we finally learn from this experience that we - despite our invasions and our Ipods - are still part of nature, and must respect and work with it rather than ignoring and exploiting it? Or will we continue to view nature as just another problem for FEMA and the Corps of Engineers to solve?

- Will we finally suppress the pathological arrogance that has gotten us into such trouble in recent years and try a little well-founded humility for a change?

- Will it matter? The first Battle of New Orleans was fought several weeks after the Treaty of Ghent was signed. Maybe this battle will prove too late as well.

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