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The Unlearned Lesson of Katrina

By Robert Tracinski

In the press coverage of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we expect a fair bit of the usual throwing around of blame for political advantage, but to my surprise that has not been the main theme of the coverage (though Ted Kennedy couldn't resist a crudely partisan tirade). Instead, the dominant theme of the anniversary coverage is what is not being mentioned. Having reported the wrong story about the flooding of New Orleans one year ago, the press is trying to protect its distortion by excising from history the events that gave many Americans their greatest shock.

What shocked many of us was not the hurricane itself, nor the response of the federal government--outrage against the Bush administration was cultivated later. What shocked us first was the response of the people of New Orleans themselves: the immediate looting, the collapse of the city government as demoralized local police walked off the job in the middle of an emergency, and the thousands of people wallowing in squalor while demanding that someone else come to help them. These are the facts that the mainstream media has downplayed or just plain ignored.

Ironically, it was the press itself that first brought this story to our attention, by focusing its reporting on the crime and squalor at the Superdome and the New Orleans convention center in the days after the levies failed. But the press soon began to backpedal, realizing that they had miscalculated. They showed us too much of the squalor, too much of the rampant looting and lawlessness, and too many ungrammatical ravings by foul-mouthed New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. The American people began to lose their initial reaction of sympathy and to wonder instead why so many inhabitants of New Orleans were more eager to blame others for their plight than they were to lift a finger on their own behalf.

The media had hoped for an opposite reaction. They wanted to induce guilt, telling the rest of the nation that the wretchedness of New Orleans was somehow our fault. For example, New York Times columnist Frank Rich lectured us that the poor people of New Orleans "were left behind to suffer and die when the people of means began sprinting toward higher ground. They are the ones who are always left behind, out of sight and out of mind, and I'd be surprised--given the history of this country--if that were to change now." Didn't we understand that the story was supposed to be about America's heartless indifference to the poor?

Let's take a critical look at the events, from a year's perspective, and see what the real story was.

The left is correct on one point: the story is all about federal spending and the welfare state--but not in the way that they think.

Frank Rich and company claimed that people were trapped in New Orleans because they had been abandoned for decades by a stingy government that denied them an adequate level of welfare handouts. In fact, New Orleans received a higher per-capita rate of federal welfare spending than most cities--a full 78 percent more than the national average--and the districts hardest hit by the flooding contained some of the city's largest public housing projects. The welfare state had showered its largesse on New Orleans, but with what result?

In fact, the disaster in New Orleans was caused, not by too little welfare spending, but by too much. Four decades of dependence on government left people without the resources--economic, intellectual, or moral--to plan ahead and provide for themselves in an emergency. I stated the lesson at the time:

What Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological consequences of the welfare state. What we consider "normal" behavior in an emergency is behavior that is normal for people who have values and take the responsibility to pursue and protect them. People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don't sit around and complain that the government hasn't taken care of them. And they don't use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men....

People living in piles of their own trash, while petulantly complaining that other people aren't doing enough to take care of them and then shooting at those who come to rescue them--this is not just a description of the chaos at the Superdome. It is a perfect summary of the 40-year history of the welfare state and its public housing projects.

In the week after the disaster, a New York Times reporter profiled two New Orleans families and their different reactions to Katrina. The main difference was not money; neither family was well-off. But one was from the lower middle class--people who are used to working for a living and providing for themselves--whereas the other family fully represented the welfare state mentality. The first family pooled their efforts with their extended family to drive out of New Orleans before the storm hit and stay at an inexpensive hotel farther inland. The other family didn't leave New Orleans until the flood waters reached their own home--and along the way, they blew their "last $25 dollars to buy fish and shrimp from men grilling them on the street"--with apparently nary a thought for what they would live on after dinnertime.

The main difference between these two families was not money but responsibility. That is also the difference between the people in New Orleans who stockpiled necessities like food, gasoline, and bottled water before the storm hit, and those who waited until after the storm and looted whatever they needed--which apparently included televisions, jewelry, and DVDs--from the local Wal-Mart. Many of these looters, especially those who struck within hours after the storm passed, were not in any kind of desperate need. As one of them explained to a reporter, "People who have been repressed all their lives, man, it's an opportunity to get back at society."

This fellow acquired his sense of ethics from the welfare state--and from its spokesmen, like Frank Rich.

This sense of victimhood and entitlement brings us to the other mainstream media claim about Katrina: that it unmasked America's institutionalized racism and showed, as one rapper proclaimed, that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." (It could be argued, incidentally, that "rap music" is itself the most insidious form of institutionalized racism today, peddling a debased view of blacks as thugs and whores that exceeds the wildest slanders of Ku Klux Klan propaganda.) But what are the actual facts about Katrina and race? The Coast Guard and National Guard toiled relentlessly for four days to rescue thousands of people from their roofs, saving as many as 50,000 people--most of them black. And an analysis of deaths from the hurricane showed that mortality rates were slightly higher for whites than for blacks. So much for the myth of the racist hurricane.

But that doesn't mean race was not an issue. Katrina exposed the virulent racism of many blacks, who are raised on a culture of victimhood and grievance and think the rest of the nation owes them a prosperous living. On September 10, for example, Fox News Channel broadcast a live interview with a Katrina evacuee in Houston, a self-parody of the Angry Young Black Man who demanded a $20,000 debit card from FEMA and shouted at the camera: "We didn't ask to come on that bus.... It's like a slave ship. It's just like, you know, back in history, you know, they put us on a slave ship.... Just give us what the f--- we deserve."

What was he describing as a "slave ship"? The buses sent to rescue people from New Orleans--the same buses whose absence in the first days after the flood were considered evidence of nationally institutionalized racism. There is certainly prejudice involved here; this young man has prejudged America as guilty, and he simply grabs at any rationalization that will confirm his bigotry.

Like this young man, the media has blamed Hurricane Katrina on a massive failure of government--which is also true, but again not in the way that they claim. It was not primarily a failure by the federal government, which is not supposed to be the first responder to a natural disaster. The first responders are supposed to be the state and local governments--who failed utterly.

Mayor Ray Nagin failed to devise or administer an evacuation plan--remember that famous photo of dozens of school buses that were left to be swamped by the flood waters instead of being used to evacuate flood victims?

Instead, Nagin spent the entire crisis complaining about what other people weren't doing to save his city. When asked where he was during the crucial moments of the disaster, Nagin snapped back, to the world at large, "Where were you?"--as if a random resident strolling the streets of Buffalo bears more responsibility for the plight of New Orleans than the city's own mayor.

That Ray Nagin is still mayor of New Orleans, one year later, is the worst possible indictment of the city's corrupt culture. In 1979, the people of Chicago voted out their mayor because he failed to ensure the timely plowing of the streets after a heavy snowstorm. Ray Nagin presided over an unprecedented collapse in city government, and the people of New Orleans re-elected him. A large number of New Orleans voters are still stuck in the fantasy of holding everyone responsible for their lives except themselves.

William Jefferson also represents the local political culture well. He's the congressman whose home district is in central New Orleans--and he's also the congressman recently caught hiding $90,000 worth of bribe money in his freezer. Nagin and Jefferson are typical political products of the welfare state. Their job is not to protect citizens' lives and property, but to dole out vast sums in vote-buying patronage to their supporters and constituents, and occasionally to skim a little off the top for themselves.

And that brings us to the role of the federal government. The federal government's problem is not lack of spending. Over the decades, Louisiana's congressional delegation has funneled billions of dollars to a vast system of canals and levees, which failed--not because they were inadequately funded, but because they were inadequately designed and built.

And what about federal spending on the rebuilding of New Orleans? The federal government, far from ignoring the Gulf Coast, has pledged the astonishing sum of $120 billion dollars, far more than for any previous natural disaster. Tens of billions have already poured out of the federal coffers--largely to disappear into the unreformed swamp of Louisiana political corruption.

Yes, this is about a failure of government, all right. It's about the failure of big government and the welfare state and the whole philosophy behind them. It is about the vital necessity to move away from government handouts and toward personal responsibility and private initiative. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that the moral difference between self-reliance and dependence on government is ultimately the difference between life and death.

The only institution for which the press has any praise on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is, naturally enough, the press. They have spent much of this week congratulating themselves on what a marvelous job they did--which is the surest indication that they have completely missed the real story.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and

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