Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Anatomy of a failure

My column this week pulls back from the who-did-what-when debate surrounding Katrina and looks at the big picture.

For Louisiana, the story of Hurricane Katrina is a story of failure. But it’s not a failure of imagination. Disaster planning studies anticipated the aftermath of a strong storm. It’s not a failure to evacuate. Getting 1.2 million people out of harm’s way was no small feat. It’s not a failure of the human instinct to help. Stories abound of heroes who rallied resources to help rescue people from New Orleans and who still help support ongoing relief and relocation projects. It’s not a failure of passion. The emotional pleas of private citizens and state representatives help sustain sympathy and attract the federal tax dollars needed for rebuilding. Louisiana’s Hurricane Katrina story is one of government failure. The first article of the state constitution reads, “All government, of right, originates with the people, is founded on their will alone, and is instituted to protect the rights of the individual and for the good of the whole. Its only legitimate ends are to secure justice for all, preserve peace, protect the rights, and promote the happiness and general welfare of the people.” In fulfilling those fundamental duties the state of Louisiana failed years before Hurricane Katrina appeared on any weather radar. Now Hurricane Katrina is simply an opportunity to tell the story about a government that failed to provide the fundamentals necessary for moving out of isolated neighborhoods. It’s about a failed education system, a failed justice system and a failed health care system. It’s about a government that made a political constituency out of those trapped in poverty by those very failures. It’s about government that ignored this disaster for years and lacked the political will to fix it. It’s about voters who failed to hold elected officials responsible. It’s about everyone who still believes they deserve some piece, however small, of Louisiana’s government largesse, whether in the form of a gubernatorial appointment or a state job or a special legislative project or free health care. The failure of Louisiana’s government to meet the needs of the people began long ago. Blame it on populist politics, the good old boy network and other staples of Louisiana political lore. But the uproar over the hurricane’s impact on the state shouldn’t be about who made what decisions when in the 72 hours before the storm rolled ashore. The uproar should be about the consistent pattern of public policy negligence that led government dependency to become the prevailing attitude in New Orleans and in Louisiana as a whole. If the focus remains on who did what when immediately before, during and after the storm, then Louisiana is missing an historic opportunity to ask fundamental questions about its myriad public policy failures. The only meaningful discussion at this point will address how the government of Louisiana meets (or fails to meet) the basic needs of its people. Any other discussion is beside the point. The truth is, by the time Katrina arrived Louisiana’s public policy disaster was already well underway.