New Orleans myths: The numbers tell a different story
There will be plenty of time to argue about who was responsible for the slow response in New Orleans this week in dealing with those who did not choose to leave, or were unable to leave the city before the hurricane hit. The catastrophe that followed, when the levees gave way, and 80% of the city, and many of the surrounding suburbs flooded, was far worse than the hurricane itself. Already many seem to have forgotten that New Orleans officials thought they had escaped Katina's wrath as the storm moved north from the Gulf on Monday, prior to the levees giving way.
The nation will have to deal with an extraordinary human tragedy now, with well over a million people displaced, hundreds of thousands of jobs lost on the Gulf Coast, and a cleanup and recovery process that will take many months in New Orleans and Mississippi. This of course has not prevented major broadcast media, from Brian Williams to Bob Schieffer to Tim Russert, from angrily demanding answers for why the show of federal force came 48 hours later in New Orleans than it might have.
Almost everybody now agrees that things changed dramatically on the ground over the weekend. Almost all people in the two big holding centers of the Super Dome and Convention Center have been evacuated, and the lawlessness on the streets has ebbed a bit. Some estimates are that New Orleans is now a ghost town, with fewer than 1,000 residents left of its nearly half million population.
Certainly the human tragedy in the city is and has been gruesome — in the Super Dome alone there were at least 6 murders, and 12 rapes among the enclosed evacuees, and bodies have been seen floating in the flooded streets of the city. The death toll is unknown, possibly in the thousands, and illness afflicting some of those who survived, but were living in or around stagnant and polluted waters will take a further toll over time.
But in retrospect, while those 48 lost hours provided the world and nation some awful pictures, clearly there was a media obsession of sorts in choosing to focus on the Super Dome and the Convention Center, when the havoc caused by the hurricane and the flooding was much more widespread, and encompassed several states. And this obsession fed into some of the quickly emerging story lines — that blacks and the poor were left behind, that the federal government did not care, that Bush did nothing until too late, and so on. Not unexpectedly, the media has been much harder on Bush, a Republican, than it has been on the Governor of Louisiana or the Mayor of New Orleans, (both Democrats) who have been treated as victims of federal mismanagement of the crisis, rather than participants and agents in whatever bureaucratic or administrative errors or failures occurred.
But the real human story of this tragedy will play out in the months ahead: the huge effort to deal with so many displaced persons (many far from their original homes), and so many people out of work, is just beginning. This is a much larger story and much more significant than the 48 lost hours in evacuating the Super Dome, where perhaps 3% of those affected by the storm and its aftermath were temporarily housed. But the pictures and stories of the work ahead will not be as dramatic as those of this past week. Cleanup and rebuilding never is. The highest network and cable TV ratings have already occurred for this story. And the future story does not offer the media as much low hanging fruit in their systematic effort to turn this into their conventional story line — that Bush is at fault.
Some of the coverage and the charges that have been made this week are flat out wrong, or grossly misleading, and deserve attention.
Reality #1: A very high percentage of the population of New Orleans and surrounding low lying areas were successfully evacuated before the hurricane hit. An article in 2002 in the New Orleans Times—Picayune explored the hurricane—induced flooding scenario and estimated that 200,000 residents of the city would be stranded by such an event. A Houston Chronicle article from 2001 estimated that 250,000 residents would be stranded. That is over 40% of the population of the city, which stood at 484,000 in 2000.
A recent poll of New Orleans residents revealed that an even higher percentage, 60%, would remain in the city even if ordered to evacuate with a major storm on the way. The Mayor New Orleans, Ray Nagin, estimated that at least 80% of his city's residents were out before the hurricane hit Monday. In retrospect, this must be considered a major positive achievement. How did it happen? Though you won't hear this on NBC, CBS or CNN, the National Hurricane Center urged President Bush to request that the Governor of Louisiana and Mayor of New Orleans order a complete evacuation of New Orleans. Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin agreed, and this order was given over the weekend, two days before the hurricane hit. All day Saturday and Sunday, as the TV news networks were in the midst of their all Katrina, all the time coverage, the pictures were of bumper to bumper traffic heading out of town in all directions.
If 80% of New Orleans got out before disaster hit, instead of 40% or 60%, that is an additional 100,000 to 200,000 residents who were spared the worst of this week's trauma. For this the President deserves credit, which he will not receive. Remember that the focus all week has been on the slow response to assist the 20% who did not get out. There is plenty to criticize in what happened this week for the 20% left behind, but it does not diminish the achievement in getting 80% of the residents of the city to safety before the storm hit.
Reality #2: The basic major media premise all week has been that the 20% who were left behind were all black, and poor and the rich got out of town. This is simply put, nonsense — and racist. New Orleans is a poor city (more than twice the national poverty rate). Most of those who got out of town were not rich, and were not driving SUVs, as Tim Russert sneered on the air Sunday (in a disgracefully—conducted interview with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff).
A little elementary math will address this canard. According to the 2000 census, New Orleans' population of 484,000 included approximately 136,000 whites, and 326,000 blacks. The white figure includes 7,000 Hispanics who classify themselves as white on the census forms. If 80% of New Orleans residents got out early — and this is the Mayor's number — then only about 97,000 residents remained. Assume all of them were black, (which of course they were not). That would mean that 229,000 blacks got out early, and 136,000 whites along with them. In other words, the successful mass evacuation substantially benefited black residents of the city.
At least 70% of black residents of New Orleans got out of the city before the storm (assuming 100% of those left behind were black), and undoubtedly more than that (since all those left behind were not black). It is almost certainly the case that the great majority of those who were left behind were black. There are obvious reasons for this, including the fact that New Orleans is overwhelmingly a black city to begin with.
Another factor is that 35% of black residents of New Orleans do not own automobiles, while 15% of white residents do not. So to the extent that getting oneself to the highway was the best method to get out of out of town, blacks were disadvantaged. That is where local officials failed. With many hundreds of school buses available, the city chose to provide safe shelter for those who did not or could not leave town in the Super Dome. Close to 30,000 people moved there.
These people would have been much safer, and had a much better week, had they been bused out of town. But for this one, you can't blame FEMA, or Homeland Security or George Bush. So too, why move 30,000 people to an enclosed space and not provide enough water, and food for them for a few days?
Louisiana has one advantage over every other state for this kind of catastrophe. A higher percentage of Louisiana residents were born in their state than is true in any other state (79.2%). So many of those who left the city or could have been bused out may have had relatives living elsewhere in the state. This obviously enabled some to get out of town without the financial worry of having to pay for hotels, restaurants, etc. Many in New Orleans may have stayed on because their monthly government check, whether social security or welfare, would come at the start of the month. While this concern would be very real for those living check to check, getting people to safety and housing them in shelters, and having the Red Cross to feed them and provide medicine, would have been a lot better for the residents than staying behind. In this case, the evacuation message was incomplete. Putting the city buses on the road and taking people to specific destinations where help was available, was not communicated as a viable option, and would have been better than taking people to the Super Dome.
As of today, almost 300,000 people are now in shelters in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, just to name five states. Many of these people drove out, not knowing what would await them where they went. So the insecurity about what comes next was still there for many of those who left by car. As to the charge that Bush and his administration did not do enough because they do not care about blacks, as charged by an angry, and obtuse rapper Kanye West on an NBC benefit show, one should not have to dignify the charge with a response, though both Bob Schieffer and Tim Russert felt obligated to repeat this slander on the air while interviewing Secretary Chertoff Sunday.
Reality #3: The destruction from the storm affected far more whites than blacks. This is the ultimate answer to the racism charge that Bush did not do enough because the victims were black. If more whites than blacks were storm and flood victims, and the federal response was slow, than I guess by this logic, the response was insufficient because Bush is a racist towards whites. As James Taranto pointed out Friday, in his opinionjournal.com column, the three Mississippi counties that were hardest hit — Hancock (home to Pass Christian), Harrison (home to Biloxi and Gulfport), and Jackson (home to Pascagoula and Ocean Springs) are among the whitest counties in Mississippi, the state with the highest African American percentage of the population in the country (36.3% in 2003). But in these three counties, the white population in 2003 was estimated at 280,311, and the black population was 71,070, a white to black ratio of 4 to 1, much higher than the overall ratio in the state of about 5 to 3.
Similarly, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana acknowledged, as did Congressman William Jefferson, who represents much of New Orleans, that the storm, and the flooding did not choose victims by race. Four of the five parishes worst hit in the New Orleans area flooding, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Tammany, are majority white (ranging from 67% to 88%). Only Orleans Parish (New Orleans) is majority black (67%).
One can be unhappy with the federal response (and with the local and state response, though if one is in the same political party as the state and local officials, one tends to be quieter about it), and not assume that racism is at the bottom of what did or did not happen. That demagogic route, is always the option of a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton, but this week that view was shamefully echoed by major media voices, who should have known better. For Brian Williams and comrades, the only victims this week were the blacks in the Super Dome and Convention Center, who were forced to wait an extra few days to get out due to bureaucratic incompetence, or worse, an uncaring attitude by the federal government. When a storm like this hits, it will always hit harder those with less mobility: the elderly, the infirm, the poor. These people are more vulnerable, and need help. They do not need the race card.
Reality #4: There were many victims of the storm this week that the media largely ignored. On the Mississippi coast, the hurricane caused damage we expect to see from a big storm, but far worse than last year's Florida hurricanes. Buildings, both commercial and residential, cars, boats, and roads were leveled or destroyed by the powerful 145 mile per hour winds. Many areas of the Gulf Coast have been unreachable, even without the major flooding that occurred in the New Orleans area. In low lying areas of Louisiana near the coast, there are also communities that have not been reached yet, where many likely died.
New Orleans got almost all of the attention this week, in part because it is a major media market, and all the broadcast news reporters were there to report the coming storm. Another reason might be that Mississippi has a Republican Governor Haley Barbour, who could not be relied on for the desired interview sound bytes trashing President Bush. The media went for the easy story, those left behind in New Orleans, and shifted to the 'Bush is to blame' game.
The Tim Russert interview of Michael Chertoff on Meet the Press was all blame game. Chertoff wanted to talk about the immense challenges ahead. Russert wanted to know who would be fired for the 48 hour delay. Chertoff explained that when Bush said the levees bursting was a surprise, he meant that the surprise was that the levees burst after the storm appeared to have passed the city, and spared it, not that the levees could never break down and flood the city under any circumstance. Russert went out of his way to ignore Chertoff's explanation, and instead mock Bush's statement at every opportunity.
This is a guy who some think is a respected journalist? Laughable. None of this is to excuse mistakes that may have occurred at all governmental levels this week. But this catastrophe was on a scale not before seen in our history in terms of population displacement. And there is little chance of the displaced returning to their homes or cities any time soon. A disaster of this magnitude is an enormous and very sad story and a huge challenge for government, businesses, and the citizenry at all levels. This is not the same as relocating lawyers driven from the World Trade Center to new offices in Midtown, some of whom were billing again within days. The people at the Super Dome had a miserable week. So did many others you did not hear about or see.
Reality #5: The lawlessness in New Orleans was more of the same for a city that has always had a very high crime rate. Start with the widespread looting, which the media tended to ignore or apologize for as acts of desperation. This was not entirely simply desperation. Desperation may lead people to steal milk, water, diapers, and medicines. Under similar circumstances as occurred this week, many of us might steal the things needed to feed and care for our families and ourselves. But Nikes, flat screen TVs, and guns are bit different. Both the perpetrators and victims of the violent crime wave in New Orleans this week were overwhelmingly African—Americans.
New Orleans is always at or near the top in the national ranking for murder rate. The rate of murders per thousand residents there has been ten times the national average in recent years. This high murder rate cannot be explained by poverty, and demographics. New Orleans' murder rate is also ten times as high as New York City's, a city once thought ungovernable, which also has a large majority of non—white residents. But New York Citt has managed to reduce its murder rate by 75% in 12 years, and now has overall crime rates much lower than most European cities (where sophisticates spent the week sneering at America's incompetence and racism).
New Orleans has a small police force, only 1,400, and they were unable or unwilling to deal with the outbreak of looting, shootings, and rape, while at the same time trying to help with rescue operations and move people to safety. But the city, in which corruption and crime has always been rampant, was unusually ill equipped to deal with the kind of catastrophe.
Reality #6: There were enough National Guard forces in the region and nation when the hurricane and flood hit, and our commitment in Iraq did not prevent an adequate response by the Guard. This was the first phony charge made by the left when the crisis hit: that Iraq was damaging the Guard's ability to respond. There are over 30,000 National Guard forces plus federal troops in the region at the moment. Somehow the Guard could be found (and did not need to bee sent home from the Middle East), and they are making a huge difference.
Again, James Taranto has laid out the numbers, but in brief, Louisiana had twice as many Guard forces in the state than were committed overseas. The same is true for Mississippi. Louisiana Governor Blanco fumbled the ball by not quickly securing National Guard reinforcements from other states (which were offered), given a governor's role in administering the paperwork required to get other National Guard units from other states to her state's rescue. The New York Times reported on Monday that Governor Blanco has still not signed the paperwork to give federal authorities administrative control of the recovery effort, despite their large presence in the state since Saturday. It will not and should not only be FEMA's head Michael Brown who needs to answer tough questions about what may have gone wrong this week in the first few days after the flooding occurred.
Reality #7: While the news media have focused on a few modest appropriation cuts for New Orleans levees and water control, they have largely ignored the fact that the major reconstruction project that would provide more than a temporary fix to the city's sinking condition, has been stalled for years. The big problem, as even the New York Times admits, is that the Louisiana coast is disappearing . Almost 2 million acres have disappeared in 75 years (the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined). And this has not been caused by global warming, or greenhouse gases, just as the number and severity of hurricanes are not related to these two twin towers of evil either. Each year, an area the size of Manhattan disappears. As the Times explains:
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: the Louisiana coast, its protective fringe of barrier islands and coastal marshlands, is disappearing. Over the last 75 years, 1.9 million acres have vanished. Every year, another 25 square miles, an area roughly the size of Manhattan, sinks quietly beneath the waves. In some places, the coastline has receded 15 miles from where it was in the 1920's.
The soil in the delta compacts and sinks naturally. Historically, however, the Mississippi replenished the loss with sediment gathered from its many tributaries and then deposited like clockwork in the delta with the spring floods. Or so it did until 1927, when Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to find ways to control the floods so as to make the river safe for farming, homes and commerce.
As it would later do in the Everglades (with equally disastrous results for the Florida ecosystem), the Corps then proceeded to construct a network of dams, levees and canals throughout the river basin. The upstream dams reduced the river's sediment load well below historical levels; the sediment that remained, while considerable, was then routed away from the Louisiana coast by a system of levees and navigation channels. The effect of all these engineering changes was to hurry the river along and, at its mouth, propel its contents deep into the Gulf of Mexico, as if shot from a cannon, bypassing the coastal marshes and barrier islands that most needed its nourishment.
Add to all this the demands of a growing population, plus thousands of miles of pipes and canals dug through the marsh for a booming oil and gas industry, and the result was inevitable: a shrunken, degraded and essentially defenseless landscape.
Congress has a $14 billion proposal designed to reverse this process, to restore the wetlands that provide buffers against storms. This would also help keep the city of New Orleans from continually sinking further below sea level. But Congress has chosen other big projects as worthier of its attention. The Big Dig, a $15 billion project to bury two miles of a highway in central Boston was the favored public works project that President Clinton awarded* Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. The Everglades has a $7 billion project to accomplish some of what needs to be done in the Mississippi River basin.
It makes little sense to rebuild New Orleans and have it remain as vulnerable as it has been. Chicago learned from its great fire of 1871, and San Francisco built new structures differently after its earthquake in 1906. To solve New Orleans' real issues will takes many billions and a lot less corruption than normal in the state. Quibbling over small budget changes has been another opportunity for some to accuse the Bush Administration of causing this disaster, as is now the comically—predictable standard operating procedure in the MSM. For the record, the levees which broke had recently been reinforced and repaired.
The mythology on Katrina is now out there: only blacks were victims, Bush ignored the city because of this, the levees broke because of Bush budget cuts, the response was inadequate because the National Guard was in Iraq. In all case, these are new urban legends.
For some, what happened this week is a big plus. It has weakened the President politically, and that is all that matters. The President and his team are certainly not blame—free. But if some people think that dealing with what happened this week could have been straightforward, clear, clean and quick, they are divorced from reality. America has never lost a major city before.
If all of New Orleans had been evacuated before the storm hit, there would still be horrendous human suffering. The city is now one of ghosts, but many hundreds of thousands need help in temporary homes and shelters around the country, getting their lives back in order, dealing with the interregnum until they can decide whether to return to the home region and start life anew, assuming the city and surrounding areas are safe and open to them sometime in the future. Federal, state, and local regulations will require extensive and expensive clean—up of what now amounts to a massive toxic waste site in the flooded areas of New Orleans. Let the talking heads discuss how to deal with this reality.
*An alert reader has pointed out that the Big Dig was first authorized in President Reagan's administration. President Reagan,after a long battle, signed the apporpriation bill for the Big Dig after it was passed by a Democratic majority Congress in 1987. The Democrats regained control of the Senate in the 1986 elections, and with their House majority, were able to get the Big Dig included in the 1987 appropriation bills.
Richard Baehr is the chief political correspondent of The American Thinker.