Not very neighborly

This one’s from the Clarion Ledger based in Jackson, Mississippi. Perspective Editor, Sid Salter writes the following in his editorial on the oil spill:

Bush could neither start nor stop Katrina and decades of Louisiana political corruption involving how hundreds of millions of dollars of federal flood-control dollars were spent on the New Orleans levee system doomed the city to vulnerability to catastrophic flooding long before Bush became president.

FEMA’s lack of leadership in 2005? That’s on Bush. But the overriding cause of the woes that befell New Orleans had far less to do with Bush than Louisiana levee corruption.

Here’s the link:

Point granted.  So what?

Of course there’s corruption in New Orleans. Is there no corruption in Mississippi? Or is corruption there new and vibrant rather than decades old? As a matter of fact, corruption here is centuries old. There was corruption in New Orleans before the Magnolia State even existed. So there. New Orleans was started as a pyramid scheme–perhaps the first such scheme–by a shyster lawyer named John Law, who had been run out of every other royal court in Europe when he happened upon that of the Duke of Orleans, then the regent of France (the King at the time was a little kid). Said Law to the Duke, “Here’s a great scam: we find suckers and sell ’em swamp land halfway around the world!”  Said the Duke to Law, “Sounds like a money-maker!  Let’s do it!  We can name it after me!”

All that aside, logically there must have been collusion in the corruption by the Corps of Engineers, otherwise how can local corruption have had an impact? Local corruption can’t be denied, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. But I still maintain that, even by their own admission, the Corps was primarily responsible.

Mr. Salter,

Your May 9 column displays ignorance of the record surrounding the flooding of New Orleans.  Your claim that decades of political corruption doomed the city is unaccompanied by any evidence.  On the other hand, there is ample evidence in court records and from sworn Congressional testimony, of duplicity, malfeasance, and incompetence on the part of the U.S. Corps of Engineers.  The Corps — not New Orleans nor Louisiana — is responsible for the design, construction, and maintenance of the federal flood protection levees.  It’s correct that Bush wasn’t directly responsible for the flood; he was simply inept in his response.  However, the catastrophe that happened here is squarely the result of Corps negligence.  If you have evidence connecting Louisiana political corruption to sloppy design and slipshod construction of the levees, then present it.  Otherwise you’re doing little more than peddling libelous innuendo and hearsay.

Sincerely yours,

Selective, not ignorant

Sid Salter replied to my letter. His reply brings out facts, and he names sources. I was wrong to write that he’s ignorant of the record; but he sure seems to have a selective memory, and his logic is… tenuous. Some of the points he makes are irrelevant; and the others don’t support letting the corps off the hook. In particular, any flood control legislation or funding in the aftermath of the 1927 flood was superseded by the Flood Control Act of 1965, which placed responsibility for the design and construction and maintenance of our levees completely into the hands of the Corps of Engineers; the act also provides for project funding.  In other words, the levees have been entirely under federal purview (and out of the hands of locals) for the last 45 years. Below is his reply to my letter.  This post is my reply to him.

Mr. Lang:

Read John Barry’s “Rising Tide” for an overview of how Corps flood control projects back to the 1927 flood have been subject to corrupt local politicians up and down the Mississippi and certainly in Louisiana.

A Pentagon report on the Katrina response, written by former U.S. Army War College professor Stephen Henthorne, contained this assessment based on a long view of flood control expenditures in and around New Orleans back to 1927. After 1927, Congress appropriated $325 million for flood control. But, as Henthorne notes:

“Corruption and mismanagement within the New Orleans city government” had “diverted money earmarked for improving flood protection to other, more vote-getting, projects,” Henthorne wrote.  “Past mayors and governors gambled that the long-expected Big Killer hurricane would never happen. That bet was lost with Hurricane Katrina.”

I do not excuse FEMA failings and a stumbling, inept response by the Bush administration. But the Corps serves the political leadership of the country, always has, always will. Congress provides their funding and that makes them subject to the kind of political corruption that produced the vulnerability of New Orleans to a perfect storm like Katrina.

But a number of state and local officials were under indictment for corruption related directly to FEMA prior to Katrina. That was reported by innumerable sources in the press including the LA Times.

History shows that federal funds appropriated for flood control in New Orleans often was spent on project that did more for Standard Oil and for local commerce than for flood control.

And that doesn’t begin to address the failings of Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco in terms of failing to act promptly to protect the people of New Orleans.

I’m sorry if such an assessment offends you. But it is not an assessment born of ignorance.