The Lessons of Katrina

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It’s been about a week since the waters of Lake Pontchartrain inundated the city. The levees have been patched up and the draining of New Orleans has begun. The refugees — now called evacuees — have been taken to twenty different states, with about a quarter million people in Texas alone. Baton Rouge has doubled and Cape Cod is geting ready for a few thousand of its own. Erstwhile Red Sox pitching ace Curt Schilling has stepped in: he’s paying for a family of nine to live in Boston for the next year.

It’s time for us to step back and think about the long-term reverberations of Katrina’s aftermath.

There is no shortage of questions for our guests — who have yet to be determined — and for you: What is the role of government in the context of a disaster on the scale of Katrina? What about private citizens and groups? Or faith-based initiatives? Are we on the cusp of a sea-change in terms of our civic expectations? Will “big government” become more of a wish than an epithet?

And then there are the indelible — and shameful — images that played around the clock on U.S. televisions and throughout the world — images that have immediately brought to the fore the beginning of a new dialogue about race and poverty. By that I mean that, if nothing else, the words “race” and “poverty” have acutally been mentioned recently in the news.

So the largest question, and the one that perhaps would demand a sooth-sayer as much as a truth-teller: If Katrina has changed the way you view race, or poverty, or the role of government in America, what — if anything — will change as a result of it?

Alan Wolfe

Professor of Political Science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

Marion Orr

Professor of Political Science at Brown University.

Author of Black Social Capital: The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore, 1986-1998 and The Politics of School Reform: Race, Politics, and the Challenge of Urban Education.

Grover Norquist

President of Americans for Tax Reform.

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  • Nikos

    To paraphrase a letter in the NY Times: you get the government you pay for. Selfishness has governed the voting whims of this nation for decades — thus the polity votes for politicians who promise tax cuts. Never mind the chicanery involved in justifying such eviscerations of the public treasury: no matter how such favors to the wealthy are justified, the tax cuts weaken the country. “Bleed the beast dry”, they say. And so they have.

    Meanwhile these same opportunistic politicians come to believe the arguments used in their chicanery: that the federal government is inherently destructive. They dismantle social justice programs instead of repairing these when the need for repair arises. Eventually vital programs and agencies become the repository for election-campaign cronies.

    Thus they appoint horse show judges to lead FEMA.

    America, you get what you pay for.

    If you want a responsive, caring, nurturing government, vote for it. Yes, you might pay more in taxes, but had the levees been repaired, had the wetlands been spared, you just might have incurred a much smaller debt than one we’ll run up now.

    Your small-minded selfishness is reaping its inevitable reward.

  • FishguardBoy

    A bit off topic: I think it’s a bit too soon–and perhaps even a bit cruel–to use erstwhile to describe Curt Schilling.

  • Pingback: Couros Blog » Blog Archive » Kayne West On George Bush()

  • KenLac

    Oh please oh please oh PLEASE have the balls to ask Grover whether he now regrets his imagery of “drowning government in a bath tub.”

  • Just minutes into this evening’s program and Alan Wolfe has it wrong. Is he pining for a socialist utopia? What’s really wrong with a little Jeffersonian philosophy? Apparently it’s in short supply over at Boston College. And where’s Professor Wolfe’s spine? He certainly has America wrong. One natural catastrophe and he wants to remake the Republic. And to blame everything on tax cuts is ridiculous.

    He seeks another age of Enlightenment wow! I just hope he makes it past the Po-Mo crowd.

  • What does Professor Wolfe suggest as a solution for social security’s future aside from attacking the President. He’s obviously in the dark. What shoudl we do? Just keep denying there’s a demographic problem.

  • Christopher Lydon libels George Bush. Did Bush ever say to New Orleans drop dead. For christ’s sake’s he’s the one who made the call urging people to evacuate the Big Easy. Play fair Chris Lydon. We’re listening!

    So far no talk about the buses and the incompetence of the city’s mayor. I wonder why?

  • Where’s Grover this show is starting to sound like it’s in a time warp from the 1960s.

  • shpilk

    “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Grover Norquist.

    Someone needs to tell the good people of the Gulf they have been selected to make the sacrifice, and take one for the team.

  • shpilk

    It’s simple, really – Norquist’s calculus is:

    You can have Government for the rich, or you can have Government for the rich.

    The goal is that delay in responding is cost effective as long as possible, so there will be fewer survivors. It’s cheaper to bury paupers in unmarked graves than to house and feed them.

  • shpilk

    It’s not just the fault of Blanco and Negin – there are plenty of dead and dying [needlessly] in MS as well – and they are not wealthy folk driving SUVs, either.

  • shpilk

    GW Bush was in FL Lickety Split in Sept 2004 when Frances hit. The National Guard was on hand before the storm even cleared, while it was still raining, and GW Bush himself w/ brother Jeb handed out ice and MREs two days after the storm hit.

    5 people died in FL after Frances.

    Do the comparison – look at the titration of the Federal response to Katrina and how it comapres.

  • BB

    It is ridiculous for Norquist to suggest that the local police and other city & state services should have been adequate to meet the needs of New Orleans after Katrina. This is the largest natural disaster to face the country, how can anyone reasonably expect that it could be dealt with on a local level?! For Norquist to suggest otherwise shows that he obviously cannot see beyond his own very narrow political beliefs to really understand the social and economic devastation, and, fundamentally, to have *any* sympathy for the all those whose lives are completely destroyed.

  • I;m sitting here eating delicious spicy barbecue takeout, and then comes Grover Norquist. Where’s the Maalox?

    At least we know what the Bushies’ spin is. Mississippi is okay, but Louisiana and New Orleans couldn’t handle it. It’s not a Federal problem, it’s a local problem. Except that even Trent Lott is kicking the stuffing out of some FEMA nerd who was keeping shipments for Mississippi parked in Atlanta. The Mississippi National Guard is in Iraq, and FEMA wouldn’t release the relief supplies to anyone except the MS National Guard! Doesn’t that say everything?

    Norquist and Bush are all heavily invested in sinking local government under reduced revenues and increased mandates and responsibilities. Just like No Child Left Behind, they want local government to fail to advance the privatization paradigm. Only trouble is that the television images this week illustrated the consequences all too well.

  • JTK

    This was to be “The Lessons of Katrina”. Instead it was a berating of our president by an Alan Wolfe who has little respect for facts. Also an opportunity to call someone who happens to disagree a racist with no foundation.

    The title of professor does not entitle such acrimoneous misstatements.

  • Abby

    One of the things I think that we ought to have noted is how important the Port of Louisiana is to the rest of our economy.

    That’s why the Federal government needs to be involved, because what happens there affects all of us. Even if you don’t care about the dying, you ought to care about midwestern famrers being able to ship grain and our fuel supplies.

  • shpilk

    “Also an opportunity to call someone who happens to disagree a racist with no foundation.”

    I agree. Not fair at all.

    I think that Norquist really is color blind.

    In Norquist’s calculus, it really is cheaper to bury paupers, than to house and feed them, whether they are black or white.

    To all the poor people of the Gulf – I repeat – you have been asked to take one for the team. Just shut up and die, like you are supposed to do.

    And let’s get back to shopping.

  • Potter

    Chris summed it up in the beginning: “Feebleness of FEMA, Fumbling of Forecasts” Do we have any reason to believe that this was not the goal?

    “Will there be an enlightenment? ” Good question.

    “Civilization transforms the worst of us into the best.” I hope. We need some.

    “A thousand points of light” are wonderful, but there are certain things that only governments can do ( the Great Wall of China, the Roman Aqueducts, Landing on the Moon”). It would have taken a more aware ( Alan Wolfe says adult),moral, caring leader to have paid attention to New Orleans well before Katrina ( there was warning) and to place priority on the great project that needs to happen now, that needed to happen awhile ago, Now it will be many times the price, now that we are bleeding ourselves dry in Iraq and giving ourselves tax cuts..

    I am astonished to hear blaming the victims, burdened by poverty, as though they themselves placed their city there yesterday. I heard no acknoweldgement of the service this city performed as a port for midwestern grain export, fishing grounds, host of offshore oil and gas industry- all vital to the country. This is not to mention the contribution to our culture and spirit. Let’s also not forget that the governement, the Army Corps of Engineers and the oil and gas industry it was that exacerbated the problems, hastening the sinking of the city and the destruction of the barrier marshes.

    It was amazing to hear Grover Norquist get stuck in the policemen who left their jobs to tend to their families or who left out of despair.

  • joel

    Here’s a lesson to be learned:

    Katrina Evacuation

    Why are the citizens of this country hearing about people who could not leave the area to be affected by hurricane Katrina because they did not have automobiles? What happened to the mass transit systems? Why did the federal government not press into service every railroad, bus service, and airline? Surely the entire population without automobiles could have been removed in bulk, in every train coach as well as freight car, flat car, and gondola, as well as commandeered school busses convened from hundreds of miles around and formed into escorted convoys for prioritized, emergency, unimpeded access to highways to inland areas convenient to food warehouses and distribution centers, hospitals and other facilities and utilities with capacity to handle emergency quantities. The people could have been removed to where comandeered empty truck trailers were being collected and converted into dormitories, field kitchens, first aid stations and sanitation facilities as well as house trailers on sales lots. The armed services certainly have the ability to accomplish all of this in one day since one of their main stocks in trade is to set up support systems and utilities on short notice in difficult circustances in any location as troops move all over a countryside on whatever maneuvers are required in a war, in which this country seems to love to meddle. Why are not all those practiced skills and abilities put into a useful operation for a change?

    Even more difficult to understand is, since New Orleans has got to be one of the largest termini of barges and towboats in the world, why were they not used, indeed, why are they not being used today, to transport huge numbers of people upriver far beyond the reach of the storm surge? The barges could have been brought alongside the levees from which people could embark easily and simply. A raft of barges a quarter of a mile long and over a hundred feet wide could move the equivalency of the entire population of a small town. The military could have used their helicopters to drop the components of field kitchens for food handling and distribution in one of the barges, sanitary facilities in the way of “portapotty” latrines, washing facilities and holding tanks for gargage and wastes in another, a first aid station and/or field hospital in another, and cots, bedding and other comfort and shelter facilities in the rest of the barges to serve as temporary dormitories. The barges could then be transported out of the untenable circumstances and conditions in New Orleans and taken upriver to other municipalities or smaller towns and moored alongshore where other provisions could be attainable for longer durations till the people could be provided with places around the area on land where they could live more normally.

    Regarding the rescue operations going on presently in New Orleans, where are the hovercraft landing craft which the military have? The US Coast Guard is trying to extricate people from flooded areas, areas littered with demolished buildings and where roads are unusable. This operation is involved with plucking people, several at a time at the most, with helicopters which can hold not many before needing to return to a safe place to unload the rescued people and then search for more people. The hovercraft can go over a skim of water or deep water, even with a sea running, and overland, roads or no roads, and can probably even climb over piles of debris (they can negotiate pressure ridges in the arctic ice, after all) to get to the people. It can then take in many dozen people before, at high speed, finding a safe place to deposit them. And the government, we know, has them, but we don’t see much evidence in the news that they are using them elsewhere presently for any reason more important than rescuing people in the devastation of hurrican Katrina.

    Most people having limited resources to deal with change and uncertainies want to continue with the familiar status quo. Hoping for the best or praying is often the only actions they KNOW they are capable of. But, even on Monday, 050829, when the magnitude of the storm and its path were realized by all, even with the storm almost upon them, railroads should have been able to suspend their normal operations and, within hours, put together special trains with dining cars, pullman cars, coaches, baggage cars, etc. and to have got them into the city before the water got to the point of threatening the levee. When the people referred to above realize that suddenly they had a resource upon which they could depend, my guess is that many, if not most, of them would have jumped at the chance of worrying only about their property and possessions and not worry about their personal bodily welfare… their health and comfort and survival. I think with the proper effort, the local authorities could have persuaded the people to take advantage of such resources. The fact that this country has essentially NO mass transit system except the limited access of air travel for the wealthy is the essential problem. Railroads that no longer provide passenger service should be required, in return for their franchise, to maintain such equipment as would be needed for such special services for people as mentioned above and be ready on instant notice to side track merely commercial freight service and implememt immediately such emergency service. Such suspension of normal commercial operations and implementation of emergency service should, as well, be required of all forms of transportation such as bus companies, airlines and maritime and inland shipping. Our interstate highway system was conceived primarily as an emergency transport system for the military and secondarily for the public. But that was in the ’50s when the population was somewhere in the range of half what it is now. It is absurd not to realize that all the pavement that has been laid down in the last 50 years to provide access for individual automobiles has not remained adequate to move portions of the population en masse. The growth of population of people and automobiles seems to be now such that as soon as a new highway is opened, it is obsolete.

    But, though railroads for passengers barely exist anymore, the freight barges and towboats on the Mississippi certainly do. Every one of the dozens and dozens of towboats could have built a raft of empty barges within a day, I should guess, and be ready when such a blow is coming ashore. The military certainly must have the equipment ready to go to provide support systems of potable water, food, medical care, shelter and communications which could be readily loaded onto each of these barge rafts to provide for the care of evacuees being carried away from imminent danger. Incompetence and gross neglect of duty are the only conditions to preclude such an operation.


    And, now, about a mass transit system for Cape Cod……. And how about the evacuation route for Cape Codders when the nuclear power plant upwind there in Plymouth starts leaking radio activity …….. ?? The only one at present takes one from the lower Cape at least 30 miles directly toward the nuclear reactor and then past it at a crawl during tourist season.


  • Potter

    If there is any hope for enlightenment it will come, I think, from the images we have been seeing.

  • Potter

    and the stories.

  • hs

    Wolfe’s overt hatred of Bush disqualified many of his assertions, besides narrow utopian views are never going to sell in this country. Few observations, thousands of poor unable to leave New Orleans for lack of transportation or resources and yet there were scores and scores of school buses standing in the water up to their roofs. Instead of marshalling and utilizing these we “have to wait” for the Feds to rescue people one by one from the rooftops via helicopters at an enormous cost and danger to everyone. Getting elected to office requires rhetoric (similar to Mr. Wolfe’s) not management skills. Mayor of New Orleans is no Guliani, that’s obvious. Putting Wolfe on you program as a setup guest degenerated your program to the level of Firing Line.

  • Hs says it well.

  • bmazur

    I’m still really concerned about one thing that seems to go unanswered in all the news I see. I work for an airline. My airline got a flt into the New Orleans airport on August 30. This was 2 days before the trucks arrived in New Orleans carrying the new supplies. The government had those trucks on the road for days before they arrived on the scene. My question is why weren’t they flying relief supplies in? Why did those people have to suffer for days longer when they could have landed flights at the New Orleans airport carrying much needed life sustaining supplies?

  • Nikos

    I cannot beleive that anyone can give creedence — let alone a radio booking — to reactionary kooks like Norquist. What do I mean by reactionary? In my five decade lifetime this country has gone from the 20th Century to the 12th. Norquist and his ilk have led the regression. He’s entitled to his viewpoint, but in this country so are Nazis. Do we honestly care to air this sort of disinformation? Sheesh!

  • So far anyone who opposes the blame Bush meme is a racist (Wolfe) or a reactionary (Nikos). Such is discourse in America in the 21st century even in the rarified blogosphere of Radio Open Source. Thank goodness that Chris wanted a diverse viewponit and had the courage to invite Grover.

  • I was really hoping to hear Norquist on the air and clarify his bathtub comment– to ROS’s credit for booking him.

  • KenLac

    Forest for the trees, people: it’s not exactly what the Feds did or did not do. It’s that they apparently didn’t even *try* to do anything until two days had elapsed.

    Scenario: a Category 5 hurricane — the highest category there is — is approaching the continetal United Sates. *No matter where* this thing hits land, there’s going to be a major emergency to deal with. Why isn’t FEMA *ready to go* the moment the thing has passed through? Why are the resources not already prepared? Why is the president not in Washington? The team should have been reassembled BEFORE the hurricane even touched land.

    Forget NOAL — let’s pretend the Mayor managed to evacuate every single person from N.O. Biloxi was still wiped off the map, for cryin’ out loud. This was a massive disaster. Where was everyone on the federal level?

  • It will take another few weeks– months, maybe– to get a full sense of whose responsibility was where, and we may even get a minute-by-minute timeline of what our elected leaders were doing. In the meantime, certain facts are indisputable:

    1. One jurisdiction will end up footing most of the bill for the recovery — the feds.

    2. One administration ran a re-election campaign based on the projection that their leader has experience in confronting disasters, and would be able to do so again.

    3. The people of New Orleans no longer need to rely on Mayor Naggin for their safety. The people of America, on the other hand…

  • kirkgrem

    Most of the stuff talked about above is trying to fit poverty into the picture, when the picture is of a(n) (avoidable) tragedy.

    Just for the record, its not like anyone who lived in low-lying areas of N.O. was ignorant of the flood problem. Every time there is even a heavy thunderstorm the place floods a bit until the pumps get going.

    Why didn’t poor people leave the flood zone? Because they did not have money? Well, if I had no money, but I still had feet, I’d walk my butt out of the city. They had 3 days notice! Now, “no feet” is a valid excuse, but most of the people at the Superdome seemed to have feet.

    In truth, NO ONE should be living in the flood zones. They were dried out for the purpose of farming the flood plains, rich in aluvial soil. But the levies were good! So the soil petered out (no more spring floods) and it became “safe” to build homes there. Well at some point the federal gov’t had to balance the safety of the potential residents, with their freedom to do any fool thing they wanted to, so they made provisions for every home buyer to KNOW that they were buying in one of the riskiest, most flood-prone areas of the known world, but still people bought there!

    Now why would poor people do that? Well, prices down there were pretty cheap! The USA has programs to build affordable housing, and this was a grand example of how to build such cheapness. If home pricing nation-wide were not on this incredible free-ride, perhaps the risk of living there would not have been so palatable. What drives the price of land up? P-o-p-u-l-a-t-i-o-n! Too many people.

    No, I don’t buy that this was predjudice against poor people. They should have known, caveat emptor! Then they should have figured out their own method of getting out (feet work, even 4 hours of walking gets you out of the flood zone.)

    I’m sure that some people had no knowledge of the approching storm, or genuinely had no way to move, and no one to call on for help, and so they got stranded. But the majority of people stuck at the Superdome were just plain not thinking! We should have helped them as quickly as possible, but at what point do we stop pointing fingers at gov’t and leaders and start pointing fingers at ourselves and ask the question: ” How stupid is too stupid to be given the choices and responsibilities of franchise in a democratic society?” We are each responsible for our contribution to the profit or loss (financial or otherwise) of our society. We must guide our actions such that we minimize our cost to others due to our own carelessness. And if we don’t, then we should admit our mistake, and not accuse those who try to help us (at all) of lackluster performance.

    I lived just north of N.O. for 36 years. I know whereof I speak.

  • Potter

    It’s amazing how cold and heartless “thinking” people can be.

    There is great propensity is to stay with your home and hope for the best with your family, your pets, your possessions, all that you love until you know must leave. There is a certain amount of hoping, risking and denial. It’s not hard to imagine. There were also those who did not have feet that would move in the way described above because of age, young and old, and /or infirmity, or who were too reluctant or afraid, or who would not leave those loved ones who could not manage the walk and so on. It was also amazing to see people pushing others, young and old, in carts, wheelchairs, anything that had wheels and with plastic bags full of a few things they had chosen, to the dome or the convention center. There were no cars, or gasoline,for those. Listen to the stories. read the stories.

    At some point some people simply battened down the hatches, move to the attic and hope for the best. How many times before this did that work out okay?

    That’s when you depend on some organized effort to get, to coax, people out. That’s the civilization that civilizes. Where were the buses going through the streets with bull horns for those who wanted to get on them before the storm? or the boats or helicopters until too late?

    Kenlac said it: why weren’t things ready to go at FEMA well before the weather forecast?

    On the other hand was it not government responsibility to have those levee’s secure ? Weren’t people in responsible positions risking lives of others in their cost benefit analyses? What/whose thinking decided that a category 3 hurricane was all that New Orleans should or could defend itself against and then hope for the best?

    Sure people should not be living in a lot of places that they are the Pacific palisades, Cape Cod-Nantucket-The Vineyard, the Florida Keys,the Islands off the Carolinas,or on the San Andreas Fault line, or near Mount St. Helens for that matter…..

    Are we wrong to expect that a government of the people by the people would care about it’s people? This episode shows just how disconnected the government has become from the people.

    When Bush, who has lost all credibility, says he is not interested in the “blame game” you can expect that we are going to get blaming, not self examination. We are laughing at that one.

    That’s where you start looking at the philosophy and influence of Grover Norquist. Having him on the show – even with a poor cell connection- exposed the very serious poverty at the top. Not that we needed more proof.

    Back to reality-Grover Norquist and defenders look at the picture on the front page of today’s New York Times: a New Orleans firefighter leading a man in flood water from his blazing house in the 7th Ward.

  • I’m no Norquist fan (particularly after that profile in the New Yorker), but I thought the show did a real disservice to its listeners by not treating his point of view more substantively. Looking at the comments above, many just seem like “I told you so!” with variation only in the amount of venom. Wolfe in particular mimicked the type of polemicizing for which right wing talk radio has become infamous. His response to Norquist wasn’t an argument, it was a rant.

    The people on the right aren’t just idiotic fanatics, they’re actually very smart. They craft their messages well and are masters of political organization. If we want to build a progressive movement in this country, we really can’t afford Wolfe’s ravings and insults.

    Nor can a progressive show like Open Source BLOW such a spectacular opportunity! That’s the enraging thing about the Norquist segment. The facts are all there: the way that global warming has contributed to a massive increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes; the fact that folks in New Orleans saw this type of thing coming years ago, but the federal dollars that could have shored up the levees weren’t available for any type of disaster that wasn’t a terrorist attack; the bumbling of the feds in getting relief supplies to New Orleans. It’s one of the few priceless moments when current events strip a warped perspective of the world absolutely bare. Instead, we got name calling and a truncated debate.

    Norquist blames much of the disaster on LA Gov Blanco, but listen to Mayor Ray Nagin’s interview on the BBC website. To him, the notion that the President can defy the UN and blow into Baghdad, but suddenly be deterred by the Governor of Louisiana is LUDICROUS. This was a pissing contest and people died.

    What’s most breathtaking about Norquist’s perspective is how IRRELEVANT it is. It’s the “state’s rights” perspective taken to its most absurd extreme. We have to respect state sovereignty to the point where thousands of lives are lost, thousands of homes are lost, thousands of jobs are lost, priceless cultural heritage is lost. The question I’d like to have heard someone ask Grover is “How can the right possibly govern in an age of technology and globalization, when it can’t even fully understand the 19th century concept of the NATION STATE?”

  • MaxEntropy

    Perhaps some “poor people” couldn’t find the means to get out of Katrina’s path, but hardly all. The film of gasoline spreading over New Orleans flood waters has been oozing out of gas tanks of submerged autos. Whose cars are they, and why didn’t their owners use them to get out when they had the chance?

    People’s motivations for staying in the city aren’t simple, so please let’s not simply blame poverty or racsim for their current plight, OK? They are individuals who made wise/foolish/informed/uninformed decisions for reasons we cannot easily know.

  • Ironies, two years ago Prof Wolfe “wasn’t comfortable” about talking to Chris.

  • Patriot365

    Well done shpilk. Someone had to point out the hypocrisy here.

    And it;s worth repeating..

    – – – – – – –

    # shpilk Says:

    September 6th, 2005 at 7:49 pm

    GW Bush was in FL Lickety Split in Sept 2004 when Frances hit. The National Guard was on hand before the storm even cleared, while it was still raining, and GW Bush himself w/ brother Jeb handed out ice and MREs two days after the storm hit.

    5 people died in FL after Frances.

    Do the comparison – look at the titration of the Federal response to Katrina and how it comapres.

  • avecfrites

    Where is the MP3 stream of this show? I missed it live and I want to hear it. Thanks.

  • Bannock

    That was a pretty unbalanced show. Lots of Bush-bashing and platitudes about poverty but little useful new information.

    Speaking as a non-American, I was hoping to hear something about how natural disasters are managed. What were the communication mistakes, the logistical mistakes, the bureaucratic mistakes. Instead it was mostly “we shouldn’t have voted for Bush”.

    If Kerry was president, New Orleans would still be underwater, and the poor would still be the ones most hurt by this.

    I feel sorry for you folks, but I’m certain your country will recover.

  • shpilk

    “If Kerry was president, New Orleans would still be underwater, and the poor would still be the ones most hurt by this.”

    that’s quite an assumption on your part

    – with proper funding, the USACE night have been able to maintain the levees and prevent some if not all of the flooding.

    – with a properly functioning FEMA there would have been far less death and suffering of the poor.