WaPo's op-ed columnist, Eugene Robinson penned an excellent piece on the Corp of Engineers failure to protect the city of New Orleans from Katrina's deadly storm surge. You can check it out here. It's a good story that needs to be told, and I would like to offer an additional perspective.
Robinson writes, "the evidence, by now, is overwhelming: Beautiful, decadent New Orleans wasn't doomed by Hurricane Katrina but by decades of human incompetence and neglect. As far as the drowned city is concerned, the greatest natural disaster in the nation's history would have been just a messy inconvenience if not for the fumbling hand of man".
There is no arguing that and I also believe there is a deeper truth at work here. if you take the time to really listen to a Katrina survivor, you will at first hear the usual frustrations about Bush, the federal government, FEMA, the Corp... But after a while the chatter dies down, a shift occurs, and the conversation ventures into deeper territory. Survivors will ultimately end up saying something profound in the way that folks who've been through something extraordinary do - for example, they might say something along the lines of "nature didn't discriminate". In other words - black, white, rich, or poor we're all just zippo in the face of whatever this is, call it God or weather. No matter how it's phrased, In the moment of truth, it comes down to that humbling encounter with something larger than yourself.
Still, we do have to consider the human factor in understanding the catastrophe. The Katrina disaster exposed systemic problems infecting every dimension of our post-modern, contemporary life- issues concerning race, poverty, healthcare, education, government, social systems. While accountability is significant to lessons learned, it would be way too simplistic , though, to finally lay Katrina to rest exclusively on the doorstep of the Corp of Engineers, or on any other single entity. No, this evolving story transcends but includes even the "single most costly catastrophic failure of an engineered system in history". This is but one lens.
Perhaps another lens to look through, and the deeper truth is it took an Atlantean-like submersion of a major metropolis to expose us to what needs to be transformed. Andres Duany, the father of New Urbanism, said "The Gulf Coast offers the rare opportunity to start over from scratch, potentially with quick results. For a city to become a city that's planned, it has to destroy itself; the city literally has to molt. Usually this takes 20 years, but after a hurricane, it takes five years. The people can see the future in their own lifetime".
For a society to evolve it does have to destroy itself - (I wrote about this in Part II, of my series, "Symbols of Hope, Recovery, and Renewal" over at The New Gulf Coast - a blog focused less on the fumbling and more on the vision of rebirth). It is a natural feature of the evolutionary process that in order for a civilizaton to advance, its old forms, institutions and paradigms have to collapse. As part of this cyclical movement there is always a precipitating event or series of events - usually catastrophic - to speed the process along. This precedes a golden age - and many of today's leading thinkers assess that our global culture is moving towards such a revitalization. While it's painful to experience while in the throngs of such a cycle, it is this very process that leads to new life.
Ultimately then, the gift of the Katrina disaster is it just might be a catalyst and the means to compress time -so as Duany pointed out - we can reimagine and recreate the future in this lifetime. What a marvelous opportunity if we can rise to the challenge.