Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste

If any TV show deserves not just ratings but love, it’s Treme. The HBO show (which concluded its first season Sunday night; a second has been greenlit) has interesting characters, an epic overarching storyline, a fascinating setting and great music. And the themes it treats – the frayed yet unbroken civic bonds of New Orleans society, and America, in the face of disaster – are very important. Not just because south Louisiana now confronts another catastrophe, but because of our crumbling infrastructure, dirty energy economy, institutional rot, and climate change, there are going to be a lot more of them.

And yet, to me anyway, Treme has not lived up to expectations. (I will pause here to ask my New Orleans friends for forgiveness.) It’s had some great moments, but just as often it’s been erratic and self-indulgent. Compared to the awesome mastery of The Wire, Treme still feels like a minor work in the David Simon oeuvre, yet to find its focus. (more…)

There is a perverse new meme brewing on the right, a riff on the apparent impotence of the Obama administration to stop the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. It goes like this: some things are just too big and complex for the government to deal with. In fact, 21st century life itself has grown too complex and interconnected for government to deal with. So let’s scale back our expectations and our reliance on government to fix stuff. Just go with the flow, as it were.

At NRO, Yuval Levin dismissed the anger over the response to Hurricane Katrina as unjustified because “accidents happen.” David Brooks argued that technological systems had grown too complex to manage in a column last week. In a later NPR discussion with E.J. Dionne, he rejected the idea that more effective regulation might have made a difference in heading off the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

As for the regulation, if you go down the list of decisions that were made that led to this disaster, the interpreting of the tests, whether to recycle the cement, how to recycle the mud, how to set the cement, none of these things is clear to me would be solved by different regulations. There are certain decisions that have to be made on the spot on a case by case basis and they were made, in this case, by people under extreme duress and in extreme ignorance. I’m not sure a regulator 3,000 miles away could really have done a better job.

It’s interesting how Brooks can take a good point (the problems of growing techno-complexity) and, in a sentence, turn it into a dumb, knee-jerk point. (more…)

Steel sheet pile pulled from the 17th Street Canal floodwall breach, New Orleans

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has put a renewed media and political focus on the significant government failures of Hurricane Katrina, including the collapsed, flawed floodwalls and levees that put most of New Orleans underwater. There’s also an HBO drama now featuring John Goodman’s impassioned, expletive-laden speeches on that man-made disaster. The New York Times Public Editor recently devoted part of a column to discussing the subject.

But a selective amnesia still dominates for some reason. Take a look at this blogosphere exchange between NRO’s Yuval Levin and MoJo’s Kevin Drum:

Levin says, essentially, Katrina was an act of God for which no government could have been prepared, and, under the circumstances, things weren’t so bad: (more…)

What is a “natural disaster”? The question is important, not least because arbitrary, imponderable “nature” wreaking havoc on humans and our fragile civilizations is such an archetypal predicament.

Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off and civilization begins. And that’s confusing.

Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faulty floodwalls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.

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NASA photo of oil slick off Louisiana coast

Is there any more beautiful, yet over-exploited, abused and benighted place in America than the Louisiana Gulf coast? Okay, maybe Appalachia. But today we’ve got to give this tragic distinction to the delta, where a massive, growing, seemingly unstoppable oil slick is now impinging on its vast, fragile marshlands.

I’ll never forget my first visits there. Drive out through cypress swamps and pass strip malls you might see anywhere. Then you’ll enter small communities organized along bayous, former Mississippi River tributaries whose banks provide high ground and traditional living space. The people are mostly energy industry workers and fishermen. Hundreds of shrimp boats line the channels. Keep driving, and the homes and seafood shacks finally disappear and there’s nothing but marsh grass and water seemingly going on forever. In winter, especially, the light is pale and gorgeous. (more…)

Fox News Channel controversies

Image via Wikipedia

Responding to my “death of accountability” post, Shoq says I don’t lay enough blame on the conservative establishment of think tanks and media operations, which exploit traditional media customs of fairness and “objectivity” to advance ideological and/or Republican Party agendas:

I have been railing about the collapse of accountability for years. This article sniffs around the edges of the problem, and makes some important points, but it completely misses the role that right wing think tanks like Heritage, Media Research Center, and of course, Fox News and the broader corporate media have played in the deliberate deconstruction of accountability and social responsibility.

When the public is convinced that there are no empirical facts, and that one version of events is as valid as any other, they become desensitized to the reality of most crimes and their consequences, and are far more compliant and forgiving of those accused of abusing a trust, principle, law, company, office, nation, and population. (more…)

Barge in backyard, Lower Ninth Ward

An all-star lineup of GOP pols has gathered in New Orleans for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. But do they have any idea where they are?

Here’s what J.C. Watts told the conference-goers:

“Some might think that George W. Bush had his shortcomings,” said Watts, “but let me tell you something — history’s going to be kind to George W. Bush.”

Just up the street from the GOP’s venue at the Hilton Riverside is the New Orleans Convention Center, where tens of thousands of people gathered in the days after Hurricane Katrina and waited in stifling heat without food or water for rescuers who didn’t know they were there. Even though they were on TV.

That was probably the low point in a catastrophic breakdown of government capacities at all levels – local, state, and federal. (more…)

Every natural disaster affects the human “footprint” on the planet differently. So it’s not exactly apples-to-apples to compare this past weekend’s Chile earthquake with the Haiti quake. The latter hit closer to a sprawling urban area, and so the death toll is naturally going to be much higher. But on the face of it, the numbers are striking: more than 200,000 Haitiians died, mostly due to collapsing buildings and infrastructure. The Chilean death toll is still below 1,000 and likely to remain much lower than Haiti’s.

Besides the relative luck of geography, there’s a manmade reason for that: Chileans realized they had built their cities on major earthquake faults and their government took steps to prepare for the worst.

Haiti’s earthquake was shallower and closer to a major city, Port-au-Prince, than was the Chilean quake, which accounted for much of the devastation in Haiti. Stricter building codes and better enforcement of them played a major role in reducing the loss of life in Chile, says Andres García, manager of AGR Analysis, a construction and building management company in Viña del Mar, Chile.

“Chile has been building according to the best standards in the world for at least 20 years,” García says. “As the technology and techniques have gotten better, the rules have gotten stricter. And that’s what has minimized the loss of life this time around.”

All this seems pretty obvious from a civics lesson standpoint. Yet if you look at the United States, we’re in considerably worse shape prepping for earthquakes and other disasters. Our infrastructure is falling apart, as the American Society of Civil Engineers has repeatedly noted, which of course means a lot of important stuff is more likely to collapse or implode in the event of disaster. The West Coast has earthquake-resistant building codes, this report from the Institute for Business and Home Safety notes, but not so the Midwest, which is overdue for a quake from the New Madrid fault.

Why such a patchwork? Because disaster planning is not a national priority. In some ways, this makes sense: the United States covers a vast and varied landscape. Conditions and risks vary widely. In Chile with earthquakes, or with the Netherlands and floods, there’s a clear top-down rationale. Not so here.

The problem is, though, that the footprint of potential natural disasters is getting larger, in the U.S. and abroad. And as that expands, so does the onus on the federal government. There’s more sprawl and development covering a wider area than before. Much of it is in disaster-prone areas, close to coastlines, fire-prone forests and fault lines. In America, people like to live close to nature, and nature isn’t shy about biting back. Around the world, the advent of the mega-city has put more people and buildings over fault lines than ever before in human history.

Add into this the potential effects of global warming on sea level, storms, and fire regimes, and the risks grow even more. That is, beyond capacity of U.S. states and localities, or developing world nations, to absorb.

In an age of austerity, a few more mega-disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina – which cost more than $100 billion in federal aid – will really put the hurt on the federal budget. Modest up-front improvements in building codes and other forms of “disaster mitigation” can save billions on the back-end.

But there are all kinds of obstacles. Our government and politics are famously dysfunctional, and there’s a powerful and renewed strain of sentiment that holds any government action in contempt. The Chile situation should be a reminder that governments are, occasionally, quite useful.

When disaster strikes, it’s invariably followed by a rush of memes and metaphors about What It All Means. In the aftermath of the disaster in Haiti, one of the ideas circulating is particularly facile and wrong-headed: likening the Haitian quake and Hurricane Katrina.

There is a superficial comparison to be made, of course: impoverished city, its residents overwhelmingly of African descent, chronically neglected by richer, whiter centers of power. So reporters who covered both disasters are freely comparing the two: “Several times in the continuing cable news coverage, [Anderson] Cooper and other reporters drew comparisons to the scenes they witnessed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman said: ‘Roll back the clock four and a half years ago. What déjà vu.’”

Others are using the two disasters to analyze Barack Obama’s presidential leadership and his political fortunes. Will he screw it up, like Bush did Katrina? What calculations are going on right now in the White House to avert Bush’s post-K, post “heckuva job” fate? A skeptical Dan Kennedy expertly parses some of these reactions. Of them, Howard Fineman offered the purest distillation of this point of view:

Elected in part out of revulsion at the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Obama now finds himself confronting an even more devastating and complex humanitarian crisis.

And, adding irony upon irony, the racial context of New Orleans is writ large in Port-au-Prince. Katrina cost George W. Bush what little standing he had among moderates in his own party in part because the shocking images of suffering in New Orleans were so racially imbalanced.

Now the Obama administration’s competence and compassion will be tested in a similar racial context—and with a much worse infrastructure. Obama and his aides understand all of this.

This doesn’t make sense even on Fineman’s own narrow political terms. (more…)

I’m a bit slow on the uptake this week: on Sunday, the New York Times Book Review corrected (scroll to the bottom) those factual errors in Timothy Egan’s review of “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers. Instead of incorrectly stating the New Orleans levees were “overtopped,” the review now plainly says that the day after the storm hits, “the levees have failed.” Because of – I’ll say it one more time – the sloppy work of the Army Corps of Engineers.

It took a while, but the record has been set straight – at least in this little corner of the media universe. Props to Egan and his editors.

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