The fetid aroma of hindsight
AS A GOOD AMERICAN, you no doubt have been worried sick for years about the levees around New Orleans. Or you’ve been worried at least since you read that official report in August 2001 -- the one that ranked a biblical flood of the Big Easy as one of our top three potential national emergencies. No? You didn’t read that report in 2001? You just read about it in the newspapers this last week?
Well, how about that prescient New Orleans Times-Picayune series in 2002 that laid out the whole likely catastrophe? Everybody read that one. Or at least it sure seems that way now. I was not aware that the Times-Picayune had such a large readership in places like Washington, D.C., and California. And surely you have been badgering public officials at every level of government to spend whatever it takes to reinforce those levees -- and to raise your taxes if necessary to pay for it.
No? You never gave five seconds of thought to the risk of flooding in New Orleans until it became impossible to think about anything else? Me neither. Nor have I given much thought to the risk of a big earthquake along the West Coast -- the only one of the top three catastrophes that hasn’t happened yet -- even though I live and work in the earthquake zone.
Of course, my job isn’t to predict and prepare for disasters. My job is to recriminate when they occur. It’s not easy. These days the recriminations business is overrun with amateurs, who are squatting on all the high ground. The fetid aroma of hindsight is everywhere.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and other Louisiana politicians, for instance, have been flashing their foresight all over the tube. They say they asked repeatedly for more money so that the Army Corps of Engineers could strengthen the levees, but repeatedly the Bush administration actually cut the corps’ budget instead.
The Corps of Engineers itself is feeling pretty smug. It has long wanted money to build levees that would even survive a Category 5 hurricane, let alone a measly Category 4 like Katrina.
Sure, and if there were a Category 6 or a Category 473, there would be a dusty Corps of Engineers report in a filing cabinet somewhere, asking for money to protect against that one too. The Corps of Engineers has done many marvelous things. But it would cement over the Great Lakes and level Mt. Rainier if we would let it. Its warnings about natural disasters are like the warnings of that famous economist who has predicted 10 of the last five recessions.
Likewise, a senator may not be the best judge of the need for a vast federal construction project in her state. Landrieu’s I-told-you-so’s would be more impressive if the press release archive on her website didn’t contain equally urgent calls to spend billions of dollars to build boats the Navy hasn’t asked for in Louisiana shipyards, self-congratulations for having planted a billion dollars of “coastal impact assistance” for Louisiana in the energy bill (this is before the flood), and so on. Did she want flood control or did she want $10 million to have " America’s largest river swamp” declared a “National Heritage Area”?
Obviously -- obviously in hindsight, that is -- we should have spent the money to strengthen the New Orleans levees. President Clinton should have done it. Presidents Bush the Elder and Reagan should have done it. As Tim Noah notes in Slate, warnings about the perilous New Orleans levees go back at least to Fanny Trollope in 1832. In fact, the one president who is pretty much in the clear on this is our current Bush -- not because he did anything about the levees but because even if he had started something, it probably wouldn’t have been finished yet.
Everybody is having a fine fit about our politicians, governments at every level and “institutions” (current vogue word) for failing us in this crisis and others. The TV news networks, which only a few months ago were piously suppressing emotional fireworks by their pundits, are now piously encouraging their news anchors to break out of the emotional straitjackets and express outrage. A Los Angeles Times colleague of mine, appearing on CNN last week to talk about Katrina, was told by a producer to “get angry.” But just Google a phrase like “commission warns,” or “urgent steps” or “our children’s future” -- or simply “crisis” -- and you may develop a bit of sympathy for the people who stand accused today of ignoring the warnings about anything in particular. Far from complacent about potential perils, we suffer from peril gridlock.
Did all the attention and money devoted to protecting us from a terror attack after 9/11 leave us less prepared for a giant flood? Undoubtedly. And if the flood had come first, the opposite would be true. We, the citizens, would have demanded it, and then blamed the politicians and the “institutions” when it turned out to be a bad bet. There is no foresight. We fight the last war because hindsight is all we really have.