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How Hurricane Katrina Exposed The Fallacies of Conservatism

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Message Randolph Holhut
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -Two years ago this week, a great American city was left to die.

An incompetent, corrupt administration showed its true colors as Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history.

It took a strong wind to blow away the nonsense and expose the fallacy of what has been an article of faith for conservatives for decades - that government is the problem, not the solution.

If you have people in charge of our nation who believe government should do as little as possible, you get a government that does as little as possible. If you have people in charge who believe that the free market can solve everything, you get a government that sees its citizens as little more than people to make a profit off of.

The pitiful response by the Bush administration to the plight of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast before, during and after Katrina confirmed to the nation that, just as has been the case in Iraq, more importance was put on political considerations than on actual solutions that work. That's the reason why New Orleans is still a broken city.

In the best of times, New Orleans was a city of contrasts - a city of unrestrained hedonism and a city with poverty that approached third-world levels. Two years after Katrina, those contrasts are even more stark.

The parts of the city known to the world - the French Quarter and the downtown hotels - escaped the worst of the storm. The Superdome, the site of some of the most nightmarish scenes after the storm, was rebuilt in record time and is back in business. Tourism, the lifeblood of the New Orleans economy, is slowly rebounding.

The parts of the city the tourists rarely saw before Katrina - such as the Lower Ninth Ward - were destroyed. Two years later, piles of debris still rot and molder in the sun in the Lower Ninth and there are still only vacant lots where houses once stood. A neighborhood is gone and may never return.

Katrina exposed the two topics that Americans don't like to talk about - race and class. Few will openly admit it, but it's no secret that the neighborhoods that suffered the most damage and still remain devastated today are the black neighborhoods. Promises of money to rebuild were never fulfilled.

Again, it goes back to conservative theory and how it gets applied toward governance. Spending on social welfare programs has been in steady decline because conservatives believe that giving money to the poor saps their initiative. At the same time, they fervently believe that tax cuts for the rich and corporations spurs creativity, creates more jobs and is good for the economy.

Conservatives believe spending money on public works is wasteful, unless it's for the military. They believe that the private sector can do things more efficiently than government and that public ownership of anything is akin to socialism.

The Bush administration has had little regard for our Constitution over the years. They certainly do not believe in the principle of government enshrined in the Constitution's preamble - to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Establish justice? Insure domestic tranquility? Provide for the common defense? Promote the general welfare? The scenes from New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina mocked all those principles.

New Orleans today is a smaller, richer and whiter city than it was before the storm and about 40 percent of its pre-Katrina population - about 160,000 people - have yet to return. And the conservative theorists think this is a good thing.

It's going to take lots more money and political will to bring back New Orleans. But an administration that has already squandered a half-trillion dollars in Iraq has little interest in living up to the promises it made two years ago.

Of the many shameful moments of George W. Bush's presidency, Katrina ranks near the top.

Certainly, there are plenty of other factors that have caused the death of New Orleans - corrupt and incompetent state and municipal governments, years of the Army Corps of Engineers tinkering with the flow of the Mississippi River, years of overdevelopment in wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas and a generally lax attitude towards emergency preparedness before the storm.

However, the buck stops with the president and his administration. Its current policy of big promises and no action, apparently, is the way we will deal with disasters. And how we deal with New Orleans and its future will speak volumes about who we are as a nation and what will happen to other cities when disasters strike.
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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at
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