Tulane University professor Lawrence Powell, in a widely circulated speech, encapsulated the fear many residents and people who love New Orleans feel: “Will this quirky and endlessly fascinating place become an X-rated theme park, a Disneyland for adults?”
The best hope for New Orleans might lie in a couple of French phrases long associated with Louisiana’s Crescent City: laissez-faire and laissez les bons temps rouler. Let it be (or let it happen or leave things alone) and let the good times roll.
It can be difficult to imagine good times rolling in a city still devastated and depopulated. But New Orleans people are resilient. If officials and planners can resist the urge to squeeze reconstruction into a predetermined mold, the good times will surely roll again.
The other side of the laissez-faire freedom coin, of course, is being willing to take responsibility for the results of the actions you take or permit, and at the same time showing some tolerance for people who choose to do things differently than you might prefer. Considering the response by the federal government to Hurricane Katrina, the incompetence of which is becoming more apparent despite White House refusal to turn over some documents to congressional committees, taking more local and personal responsibility would be prudent not only for people from the Gulf Coast but for all Americans.
Just in the past week or so the Government Accountability Office issued a sharply critical report on the federal government’s bungled response to Katrina, pushing blame toward the very top of the Bush administration. It has come to light that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has rightfully received the bulk of criticism for dithering as Katrina gathered force, made a White House
presentation two days before the storm hit, predicting it “could greatly overtop levees and protective systems.”
People at the top levels of government were apparently informed in advance just how catastrophic Katrina might be, yet there was little or no sense of urgency. That lackadaisical attitude persisted afterward. Hours after Katrina hit, the Interior Department offered FEMA more than 300 boats, 11 aircraft, heavy equipment, dump trucks and up to 400 law enforcement personnel. Although a few Interior personnel helped on their own, FEMA did not respond to the offer until late September.
FEMA and other federal agencies say they’re fixing things. But localities and people in areas subject to natural disasters would do well not to rely on the federal government. Instead, they should rely more on themselves and the private aid that Americans always muster in times of disaster. The New Orleans city government and Louisiana state governments were notoriously ill-prepared. Federal officials actually hindered private-sector relief efforts during an absurd minuet over who was in charge.
In the future — and during the reconstruction
of New Orleans, now afflicted by a plague of planners — the emphasis should be less on who is in charge and more on getting out of the way and letting the generosity and the knack for construction of the American people have free play.