This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

May 4, 2009

14 One Hundred Days

Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 11:04 am

Grove Parc has become a symbol for some in Chicago of the broader failures of giving public subsidies to private companies to build and manage affordable housing – an approach strongly backed by Obama as the best replacement for public housing. [Source; Dubbed “Obama’s Katrina” in this 6/30/08 Slate piece]

A CHARMING visit with Jay Leno won’t fix it. A 90 percent tax on bankers’ bonuses won’t fix it. Firing Timothy Geithner won’t fix it. Unless and until Barack Obama addresses the full depth of Americans’ anger with his full arsenal of policy smarts and political gifts, his presidency and, worse, our economy will be paralyzed. It would be foolish to dismiss as hyperbole the stark warning delivered by Paulette Altmaier of Cupertino, Calif., in a letter to the editor published by The Times last week: “President Obama may not realize it yet, but his Katrina moment has arrived.” [Emphasis added; Source]

Will swine flu turn out to be President Obama’s Katrina times a thousand? [Emphasis added. Source]

I am not one for making political predictions. But I will make an exception this once. The “swine flu” will not be President Barack Obama’s Hurricane Katrina. His past affordable housing policies will not be his Katrina either. Nor—as important and intractable a problem it may be—will the national economy.

Instead, Katrina may be Barack Obama’s Katrina.

Let me back up:

The “Obama’s Katrina” meme reminds me of the ever popular (in some quarters) claims that “_______ is the new Black.” In this case, there really is no “new” there. We haven’t solved racial issues involving Black folks in such a way that it is so passe that being gay, being (a White) female, being disabled, or being anything else has replaced Blackness as a new symbol for bias, discrimination and hate. (Although they may rightly be called different symbols of bias, discrimination, and hate all their own.) Thus, the old Black remains the symbol for the new Black.

“Katrina,” too, has become a symbol. Probably, much to the chagrin of people who happen to posses that same name as the 2005 hurricane. It has become a symbol for two things: first, how government—at all levels—can so comprehensively and so visibly fail our citizens following a national crisis, and second, how key representatives of government (especially, in this case, the President) can react to the crisis in a manner that reveals such a lack of empathy, competence, and awareness.

It is important here to say that the economy or swine flu containment or public housing cannot be “Obama’s Katrina” not because these are human-made and Katrina was a “natural disaster.” On the contrary, it is clear to most of us if we are honest that the impact of Katrina on New Orleans was also human-made. NOLA largely survived the hurricane. It was devastated by the levee breaches and the numerous failures in planning and response. The city’s devastation was aided by longstanding approaches to poverty, education, and race relations that left a city’s city within, isolated and abandoned. Furthermore, the issues with the city design of New Orleans had been documented for some time. Not just the spectacularly inadequate levee construction for a city below sea level, but the eroding of coastal ecosystems that may serve as natural protections against severe weather conditions such as hurricanes.

No. Swine flu or the economy or any other problems cannot be the new Katrina for the similar reason that other -isms cannot be the new Black: the old Katrina problem is not yet resolved.

Then-President Bush’s response to the post-hurricane levee breaches was singular not just for revealing an administration out-of-touch, but for making us Americans look bad in the eyes of the world. Even if the administration did not care about poor and (largely) Black people in the 9th ward, for example, it could scarcely afford to look inept in the international news. Already, before August of 2005, some around the world and in our own country were starting to question the mission in Iraq. Even some who had previously supported the armed response to the Hussein regime. More than two years after President Bush declared “mission accomplished,” many were questioning why resources were still over there when they might be better used over here.

“Bush’s Katrina” was, then, a failure on multiple levels. Our response to poverty and race. The way in which we plan, long term, for our nation’s infrastructure and environmental protections. The ability of our leaders to appear to be in touch with us. Our standing on the international scene. “Katrina,” then, is now a symbol for all of this failure.

Obama’s Real Katrina:

President Obama seems, so far, not much closer to righting George W. Bush’s—and many other presidents’ before him—legacy that resulted in Katrina-as-symbol.  Thus, without action that is a lot more specific than the vague goals on the White House website, Barack Obama may end up sharing Mr. Bush’s legacy regarding the Gulf Region generally and NOLA specifically.

I generally do not subscribe to the “100 Days” of a presidency nonsense. It is an arbitrary marker that does not recognize the complexities of the issues a new president must face, nor the need to prioritize goals. Having said that, though, I do believe this: of all of the things the the new administration needs to tackle, post-hurricane levee breach restitution and rebuilding in NOLA  should be high on President Obama’s priority list. Barack Obama won the election in large part because he was running against George W. Bush. Righting the Katrina levee breach failures is, thus, a key symbol of failed Bush policy and governing. Not to mention the fact that relief and rebuilding efforts touch on every area of policy that President Obama has held up as dear to his heart: health care (the continuing long-term medical problems faced by survivors, including as a result of “relief efforts” themselves), urban policy, the environment, crumbling infrastructure, response to potential terrorist attack, and on and on.

Here is a sketch of Obama and administration progress with this issue so far:

That was then…

We’re gonna have to do some hard thinking about how we could have failed our fellow citizens so badly, and how we will prevent such a failure from ever occurring again.

It is not politics to insist that we have an independent commission to examine these issues. Indeed, one of the heartening things about this crisis has been the degree to which the outrage has come from across the political spectrum; across races; across incomes. The degree to which the American people sense that we can and must do better, and a recognition that if we cannot cope with a crisis that has been predicted for decades – a crisis in which we’re given four or five days notice – how can we ever hope to respond to a serious terrorist attack in a major American city in which there is no notice, and in which the death toll and panic and disruptions may be far greater?

Which brings me to my final point. There’s been much attention in the press about the fact that those who were left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and African American. I’ve said publicly that I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was racially-based. The ineptitude was colorblind.

But what must be said is that whoever was in charge of planning and preparing for the worst case scenario appeared to assume that every American has the capacity to load up their family in an SUV, fill it up with $100 worth of gasoline, stick some bottled water in the trunk, and use a credit card to check in to a hotel on safe ground. I see no evidence of active malice, but I see a continuation of passive indifference on the part of our government towards the least of these.

September 6, 2005
Statement of Senator Barack Obama

Well, “we” must do a lot more than think hard. We Americans are not really that good at thinking hard for any length of time. So unless another category 4 or 5 storm comes whipping through the Gulf Region, Katrina’s NOLA is not likely to be back on our national radar any time soon.

Timeline, Barack Obama’s record on rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, September 2, 2005-February 16, 2008:

It is nice that everyone is giving speeches and putting out ten-point plans to commemorate Hurricane Katrina. However, I’m more interested in knowing what people have been doing when the cameras were off. What is your record on this issue? [Source, including time line]

In January, 2009, at least one person is hopeful:

President Obama’s inaugural address Tuesday also did not mention Katrina, but his passing reference to Americans’ duty “to take in a stranger when the levees break” was a siren call clearly aimed at the Gulf Coast in general and New Orleans in particular to let us know we had not been forgotten. By the time the new president finished his inaugural address, the official White House Web site had already been updated with the Obama agenda for Katrina relief. In unusually blunt terms (which, predictably, infuriated conservatives), it began: “President Obama will keep the broken promises made by President Bush to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.”

How Obama proposes to translate talk into action remains to be seen, but there are two obvious places to start: Category 5 levee protection and a fully funded coastal restoration plan. The administration does not promise that, but in his campaign Obama did promise “a levee and pumping system to protect the city against a 100-year storm by 2011.” We’ll hold him to that.

…Louisianans hope for swift action on other campaign promises: the immediate closure of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has promised to complete by June 1), the appointment of a FEMA director who will serve a single six-year term and report directly to the president, and the establishment of a “Cops for Katrina” program to help rebuild damaged law-enforcement agencies. We see no reason why the first two can’t be accomplished by the beginning of hurricane season, if not sooner. [Emphasis added. Source]

A month later, an executive order:

“We must ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated,” President Obama said in a statement today, announcing the extension of the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding and his decision to send two cabinet members to the region.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan are heading to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in early March to evaluate firsthand the progress that’s been made and assess the region’s needs.

“The residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who are helping rebuild are heroes who believe in their communities and they are succeeding despite the fact that they have not always received the support they deserve from the Federal government,” the President said. “This executive order is a first step of a sustained commitment by my Administration to rebuild now, stronger than ever.”

New Commitment to the Gulf Coast,
The White House Blog

Accountability and a Way Forward:

So the President’s first 100 days are past and everyone has issued their “report cards”—for whatever these are worth.

Meanwhile, 14 one-hundred-day periods will have passed this summer on the anniversary of 2005’s levee breaches in New Orleans. What kind of report card will the people of the Katrina diaspora be able to give the Obama administration then? Who will hold President Barack Obama and his administration accountable for seeing that the “first step” leads to many others? How will we make sure that such “active malice” or “passive indifference” will not happen again?


  1. Well Ms. PPrscribe, you’ve done it again, you killed this one. This was an excellent post!

    This about sums it up: “We Americans are not really that good at thinking hard for any length of time”

    I’ve heard it said that one of the hardest things for man to do is engage in solid hard thinking. This post would make all the national commentators/”talking heads” a little jealous. My god, you do have skills …and smarts too *smile*.

    Take me out of my misery. Tell me this post took days to research and write. It was longer than your normal posts and it was a pure pleasure to read. I am nobody but I know good when I see it and this was the bomb.

    Comment by careycarey — May 4, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

  2. Hey, I’d like to submit this to my local newspaper with your permission? Something on the order of a guest commentator. They are not the most friendliest folks to Obama but I’d like to give it a try.

    Comment by careycarey — May 4, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

  3. LOL. Yes, CareyCarey, this post took a while to complete. I have been working on it off and on since my post a while back on the doc “Trouble the Water.” My first attempt was full of rage and naughty swear words. A ‘drafts’ folder is a good thing.

    Anyway, thanks for your kind words. You can send your paper a link if you like, but I am sure there are posts from NOLA insiders about this topic that would be better. In fact, I was just about to drop a line to NOLA’s own Verite Parlant to ask her to review this for me and give me some additional links. (Check her blog out here:

    Comment by pprscribe — May 4, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

  4. I think he’s doing a better job than his predecessor, which is easy to do, and he must since he used rebuilding New Orleans as one of the planks in his platform while the Republican opposition mentioned it only through gritted teeth.

    I think his new Office of Urban Affairs will benefit not only NOLA but also urban areas around the nation.

    But we do need to keep an eye on him because it’s easy for politicians to compromise and let all good intentions drain from their veins leaving no power for the real work. What we need to watch most is the money shuffle, especially since for appearances sake most of the recovery will be called “Gulf Coast” money and not “New Orleans” money. Will it continue to flow more toward Mississippi?

    With the economy as it is, the “we ain’t got no money” could be both excuse and truth. What we have to watch for is whether New Orleans is put a the bottom of the priority list while the same good old boy network projects get money.

    The governor here is resistant to Obama succeeding so look for state level blocks to progress. Seems dumb, but I wouldn’t be surprised if projects face partisan blocks.

    And we’ve got some local mismanagement issues here. We’ve had money just sitting in accounts and not being used for lame reason.

    This is an excellent piece, PPR. Well-thought out and provocative. I have no objections b/c I can’t think of any shining example of something Obama’s done, other than housing money gesture, which again was better than that other guy’s gestures.

    But Obama needs to find something to do that’s more substance that symbol by August 29. That’s the Pub. Rel. person on me talking. 😉

    Did you see Trouble the Water?

    Comment by Verite Parlant — May 4, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

  5. Verite, I really really appreciate your feedback. Yes, I did see “Trouble the Water,” writing briefly about it here:

    I still plan to do a follow-up to that post about the documentary specifically. At that time, with your permission, I’d like to highlight some of your comments here.

    Thanks again!

    Comment by pprscribe — May 5, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  6. […] And I am still thinking Katrina will be his Katrina. […]

    Pingback by An Unhappy Anniversary: NOLA Four Years After the Katrina Levee Breaches « This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life — August 31, 2009 @ 7:13 am

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