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Katrina blame questions posed at forum

Katie Perry | Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on Aug. 29, a surge of resentment has risen nearly as high as the perilous waters that breached the city’s levee system and washed away the lives of those who called the region home.

This resentment was addressed at Hesburgh Library’s Carey Auditorium at Notre Dame Tuesday as part of a two-part series of panel discussions sponsored by the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) in conjunction with the Notre Dame Law School.

The discussion, titled “An American Tragedy: Katrina in Focus,” was an open forum centered on sparking dialogue about the sociological, organizational and environmental causes for the widespread nature of the tragedy.

Panelists were diverse in their areas of expertise and focus, but they agreed that while Mother Nature could not be controlled, preemptive actions in the days, months and even years before disaster was in the hands of the local, state and federal governments.

“It’s not a question of a lack of authority,” visiting assistant law professor Jennifer Mason said. “The real problem was in the practice, the operational and the personnel levels.”

Mason said there are two aspects to consider when dealing with the placement of blame – first, how clear, on paper, the governmental allocation of authority was stated; and second, how in practice the local, state and federal governments exercised this allocation of authority.

“On paper the lines of authority are [clear],” she said. “Failures were at the operational level – not at the lines of authority.”

Mason said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco took nearly all the necessary precautions to limit impending destruction, including declaring a state of emergency and requesting President Bush corroborate her declaration. These actions are established to trigger specific powers – such as federal aid – which can then be used to prepare for disaster, she said.

“When the scope of a disaster is so huge, it’s the job of the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to step in,” she said. “FEMA could and should have set up command centers for food, medicine and other [necessities].”

Mason said Blanco requested help from other mobilized National Guard troops in Louisiana and requested additional troops from the President, but she delayed her request for troops from other states – a procrastinated action Mason said was “one of the things she did wrong.”

Even so, Mason said “virtually everything” Blanco did in the face of the approaching hurricane was correct and criticisms that say she failed to take the right steps are unfounded.

“I believe the criticism aimed at FEMA is fair,” Mason said. “For [former FEMA head] Michael Brown to say he didn’t realize how dysfunctional Louisiana was is disingenuous at best.”

Notre Dame law professor Jay Tidmarsh admitted he had little expertise about “response or root causes,” but said there are also historical explanations for certain aspects of the tragedy.

Tidmarsh said the failure to follow through with policy helped plant the seeds for Katrina’s racial and socioeconomic implications more than 50 years before the Category 4 storm slammed the Gulf Coast.

“New Orleans had a segregated school system prior to [Brown vs. Board of Education in] 1954 – not until 1960 did anything serious about segregation in New Orleans begin to occur,” he said. “All of four black children were allowed to leave their regular schools to go to predominantly white schools.”

Tidmarsh said due to its past record of segregation, and the subsequent racial divide, both poverty and race played into the inability of some people to flee New Orleans.

“One of the things I think about is how it goes back to education,” he said. “Everything I’ve understood is that the public school system in New Orleans wasn’t extremely successful. Many issues trace back to an educational system that we ourselves are responsible for.”

Dr. Phillip Linden, a professor of theology at Xavier University of New Orleans, echoed Tidmarsh’s recognition of historical implications when dealing with the possible causes for Katrina’s consequences.

Linden described a friend and colleague who lived in New Orleans and had to be air-lifted from her home. She left behind her cats and a private library that she had accrued for many years, but Linden said even this doesn’t compare to the sadness of poverty.

“The tragedy of Katrina occurred a long time prior to the [hurricane’s landfall],” he said. “It had an economical, sociological and political framework … In my view, this serves to reveal what’s been concealed in inner-city America.”

Associate law professor Alejandro Camacho, who emphasized the environmental facets of the issue, said the disaster was the result of widespread ignorance to what was already obvious.

“Rather than thinking of this as a wakeup call, from an environmental perspective I see it as a consequence of people ignoring previous wakeup calls,” he said.

Camacho said levies were “insufficiently planned by the Army Corps of Engineers and insufficiently funded by the federal government.”

“The various levels of government let down the people of New Orleans through lack of past action … A fair amount of damage could have been prevented by wiser policy choices,” he said.

Camacho also cited wetland destruction as a contributing factor to Katrina’s extensive damage. Louisiana has one of the largest expanses of coastal wetlands and marshes that, historically, worked as a natural buffer system in hurricane situations.

Camacho said ecosystem restoration plans in the late 1990s were never fully funded and the federal money granted was “not even enough to restore the levee system.”

“This wasn’t incompetence, but policy choice that left Americans to question [Katrina’s] disproportionate impact,” he said.

Linden said future calamities of this nature are inevitable unless significant changes are made.

“New Orleans is only an example of what’s yet to come,” Linden said. “We are in trouble as a nation.”