The Federal Projects Game
Rather than create a sustainable culture of natural disaster preparedness, [New Orleans] city officials choose to browbeat residents into leaving. The result is a pendulum swing between fear and nonchalance.
—Kathryn Jezer-Morton and Gray Miles, “New Orleans Dodges Disaster” (2 September 2008)
This desire for godlike powers of creation is precisely why free-market ideologues are so drawn to crises and disasters. Non-apocalyptic reality is simply not hospitable to their ambitions.
—Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
“If an unsafe building falls down, you know, you wouldn’t blame the people inside it and you wouldn’t blame the first responders if they were a little slow getting to the scene. You’d want to look at the architect and the construction.” When Time Magazine‘s Michael Grunwald’s suggests that the levees system in New Orleans is like an “unsafe building,” he’s hit on an especially apt metaphor. While discussion of official responses to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 frequently focuses on unpreparedness and lack of planning for the storm, the problems run deeper. It’s not just that individuals didn’t think ahead in August 2005. It’s that the structures surrounding them—metaphorical and literal—were unsound.
Early in Leslie Cardé‘s smart, galvanizing documentary America Betrayed, Grunwald calls Katrina “a manmade disaster.” More specifically, he calls it a “government creation.” From here, the documentary follows up on points also made in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, investigating the ways that U.S. “infrastructure” is determined (and so, the logic goes, regularly undermined) by longstanding funding processes. UC Berkeley’s Dr. Robert Bea describes the “game played by Congress.” “They tell the [U.S. Army] Corps [of Engineers] what to do,” he says, “and they give the Corps money to do it. The reason they do it is because the Corps beneficiaries then give money back to Congress so they can get reelected, and the machine just rolls.”
This machine, argues America Betrayed, is changed from the initial concept of the USACE, which competed with civilian companies for government contracts. Now, much like funding decisions regarding production of weapons and aircraft (see: Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight), the contracts are “deals” in the least productive sense. The effects of such arrangements are dramatized repeatedly the film: New Orleans homeowners now devastated, residents who have lost loved ones, and survivors traumatized by their experiences during the storm. Kevin Lair looks out on his destroyed property, “taken” by the USACE (“They’re like the mafia,” he says ruefully, “They can do what they want”). Councilwoman Judy Hoffmeister remembers sitting on a St. Bernard Parish rooftop and feeling utterly bereft as the sun disappeared, knowing this “the worst disaster in American history” was “manmade.”
Their stories serve as emotional framework for the film’s analysis of the government’s corruption. America Betrayed focuses on one egregious case by way of example, the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal, also known as MRGO or “Mr. Go.” Designed to provide a shorter route between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans’s inner harbor (that is, its impetus was commercial), the channel was too shallow and further eroded over years, eventually providing a “funnel effect” for incoming storms. Forty years after Hurricane Betsy, Mr. Go left New Orleans particularly vulnerable to Katrina. Under Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” this emblem of USACE inaction and error is connected with images of devastation. Tulane professor and environmental law expert Oliver Houck submits that the Corps took money and didn’t complete the Mr. Go contract: “The reason Katrina hit us so hard,” he says, “Was because they had done an abysmally negligent job.”
Narrator Richard Dreyfuss asks the obvious question: “Why would the Army Corps of Engineers be so interested in pushing through unnecessary projects in Congress?” For one thing, former Corps members “head up corporations that receive contracts.” This led to awards of contracts and lack of oversight the film compares to other notorious examples (including Blackwater’s activities, as well as broad-based fraud and abuse in Iraq). Moreover, the documentary shows that whistleblowers have been punished rather than heeded, and the Corps has undertaken a “piecemeal approach” to correcting problems, an approach that Dreyfuss describes as “coming home to roost during Katrina.”
The film also points out the Corps’ efforts to monitor or correct itself. Sandy Rosenthal, founder of Levees.org, says “The bottom line is, you investigate yourself, what are you gonna find?” Students at Newman High school appear in a video to support the 8/29 Investigation, a third-party independent analysis of the flood protection failures during Hurricane Katrina. As Dreyfuss notes, “New Orleans is not an isolated case, but a cautionary tale of what goes on across the United States,” and the film includes examples of other (imminent or documented) infrastructure failures, in Florida, California, and, of course, Minnesota, where Minneapolis’ I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapsed last year.
In these and other cases, the film argues persuasively, private interests repeatedly trump public interests. “The Corps is really doing something different than we intend them to do,” says John Koeferl of New Orleans’ Holy Cross Neighborhood Association. “They’re not really about the business of protecting citizens or protecting the environment or protecting taxpayers. What they’re really about is keeping the Corps growing and keeping their projects going.”
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