Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Catastropic social failure

Letter to The Times-Picayune:

Ivor van Heerden and Paul Kemp called the levee system failures a "catastropic structural failure," while on the same page, Stephanie Grace pointed to the lack of coordination between agencies responsible for various parts of those levee systems (Opinions, 11/22/05). Following from their accurate analysis of different aspects of the disaster, I submit that the failures were, foremost, "catastropic social failures." That different agencies should hold dominion over their little fiefs without talking to one another is a catastrophic failure of institutions to coordinate, but it is also a failure of citizens to hold those agencies to account.

It will be easier to point fingers at particular agencies: the Corps for its lack of oversight (perhaps due to political priorities), the Orleans Levee Board for becoming distracted by patronage (and that's going easy on them), and the Sewerage and Water Board for collective incompetence (not begrudging individuals who work hard). We should be careful not to single out the Corps. Recent Times-Picayune investigations reveal that the Corps of Engineers has not failed in its mission without the involvement of the other responsible agencies.

More difficult is reforming our own behavior. That requires accepting blame for not informing ourselves, asking questions of those who are charged with life-and-death responsibility, and challenging elected officials when we see that adequate resources have not been budgeted for the upkeep of levee systems, or when those systems are inadequately engineered and built. Citizenship doesn't begin and end in the voting booth.

Fix the levee system? Yes. Upgrade to Category 5? Essential. But force citizens to perform their duty to become informed and act in a non-partisan way in the best interest of the larger community? Very difficult. One can only hope that, the Gulf of Mexico having poured into our neighborhoods, we will finally change our culture so historically tolerant of institutional failure.


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