Bill Moyers
August 17, 2007
Mike Tidwell and Melissa Harris Lacewell on Katrina's Aftermath

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. Soon, bells will be ringing in New Orleans to mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the storm that swamped the city and devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. Days after Katrina struck, President Bush offered re-assurance to the displaced and homeless from the Big Easy to Biloxi.

GEORGE BUSH: I understand the anxiety of people on the ground but I want folks to know there's a lot of help coming.

BILL MOYERS: After a fly-over of the region, the president appeared in the Rose Garden with his cabinet.

GEROGE BUSH: We're dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history. I can't tell you how devastating the sights were.

BILL MOYERS: But no one really needed to be told. The images had circled the world.

GEORGE BUSH: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives…

BILL MOYERS: That was then. This is now. Nearly two thirds of the city's population has returned. But many of the city services they depend upon haven't. Less than half of the city's schools are open. 10 of the 23 original New Orleans hospitals remain closed. The city's police headquarters and two of its precinct stations still operate from temporary trailers, struggling to contain a crime level that has remained at a high water mark. For a realistic look at what it's like now, check out places like YouTube where a few students, church groups and animal rescuers have videotaped parts of the gulf coast and neighborhoods like this -- the lower ninth ward -- one of the hardest hit in New Orleans. That school bus you see lying on the ground and that car in the tree and these swamped homes look as they did in the summer of 2005 earlier this summer, representatives from Louisiana and Mississippi went to Washington to complain about the slow pace of recovery, much of it due, they said, to red tape with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports tax breaks intended for reconstruction of homes destroyed by Katrina are being used to build luxury condos hundreds of miles inland from where Katrina hit…conveniently located near the University of Alabama football stadium.

BILL MOYERS: I'm joined now by two people who haven't been able to get Katrina off their mind.

Mike Tidwell is the writer and environmental activist who back in 2003 predicted something like Katrina would sweep across the Gulf. In Bayou Farewell, Tidwell warned that the barrier islands and wetlands that would have slowed a major hurricane have long since disappeared because of the disastrous decision to dam the Mississippi. In his most recent bestseller The Ravaging Tide, Tidwell warns that future Katrinas fueled by global warming are likely to take aim at other coastal cities with equally devastating effect.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is here too, her second visit with us. She teaches politics and African American studies at Princeton University and wrote the award winning book Barbershops, Bibles and BET, exploring how African Americans develop their political point of view. She was a principle investigator for the University of Chicago study on racial attitudes and the Katrina disaster. Welcome to you both. Why do we ignore the warnings? We ignored the warnings before 9/11. We ignored the warnings before Katrina. I mean, you wrote in your book that Katrina's arrival was as certain as tomorrow's sunrise.

MIKE TIDWELL: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: How could you be so sure?

MIKE TIDWELL: Because all you had to do was look at the coastal maps going back from the French explorers all the way to the satellite maps from the mid 1970's forward and you saw a land mass, a coastal land mass imploding, disappearing. An area the size of Delaware was subtracted from south Louisiana between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico just since the great Depression. It was clear that there was no longer any land mass buffering the city.

Why do we ignore these warnings? It's, you know, we are evolved to respond to claws and fangs in our faces. That's what we're evolved to do. We're not evolved to see that threat coming in the distance. And even when we know that, you know, people in Louisiana saw the land disappearing below their feet. But times were good. The shrimp harvests were great. You know, tourism was booming in south Louisiana. The energy industry was booming. And so, it was easy to laissez le bon temps rouler. You know, just forget about that threat. And because it wasn't claws and fangs in our face the way we were evolved to respond to from, you know, from the evolution of human beings, it was easy to say it's not going to happen, to deny. And that's what led ultimately to the calamity.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: The question is, from my perspective as a political scientist, what are our collective responsibilities to one another, to our nation, to our land, to our planet? What are we going to do in terms of who we are for making resiliency in the face of disaster possible? Because the human experience is going to be that we're going to face a variety of negative, disastrous experiences. Is it going to always be that the relatively privileged are going to be able to escape while the miner's canary dies in the mine?

BILL MOYERS: I've kept in my files since written one week after the disaster. Listen to this. "What Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological -- what Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological consequence of the welfare state. 75 percent of the residents of New Orleans had already evacuated before the hurricane. And of those who remained, a large number were from the city's public housing projects." What does that say to you?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, it's bizarre and inaccurate empirically. Because in fact, the public housing projects were on high ground. They experienced very little water damage. And most of the residents there who have been shut out by their government, by their city and by our national housing office, is not because of any destruction that occurred because of Katrina but because of the required evacuation that occurred. They were mostly safe.

The people whose homes were destroyed were mostly home owners. But they were poor people. And this is what we can't deal with in America. They worked jobs every day. Most of them stayed because they needed to go to work in the morning. Most of them had to go to work in the morning in the hotels, in the tourist industries, in the restaurants that served to make New Orleans the fun place that the rest of us liked to visit. So they were homeowners who were poor. They were working people who were poor. Because we live in a country where we allow people to work every day and still be poor. To still have the inadequate capacity to leave. And the third reason why many people didn't leave are very thick social networks. So part of the question you asked is, why didn't people think, oh, this disaster is coming? Well, Betsy, Hurricane Betsy was in living memory in New Orleans. And Hurricane Betsy was a terrible storm that many people had survived. If you had an aunt or an uncle or a grandmother who had survived Hurricane Betsy, she or he refused often to leave. And what these thick social networks of black families and poor families did in New Orleans was they didn't leave and then leave Grandma there to die. They stayed. If the Hurricane Betsy survivor refused to go because she'd lived through it, everybody stayed. And I don't think that reflects anything about the welfare state in this narrow way. That reflects how poor communities get together with one another because they are the only resources that they have.

MIKE TIDWELL: I think the true tragedy, as we look at the ninth ward, we look at Lakeview and these neighborhoods that are not being rebuilt, the city of New Orleans is effectively being abandoned. It really is. And we're not doing what we know we can do to save it. The city can be saved. I completely believe that. People should and we can save this city. And we have to do a number of things. We have to restore the wetlands and barrier islands. We've got to make levees that work.

BILL MOYERS: Would you take your family to live there?

MIKE TIDWELL: No, I would not. I would not go --

BILL MOYERS: To move to New Orleans.

MIKE TIDWELL: It's the most dangerous city in the world to live in.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

MIKE TIDWELL: The levees are ineffective. The army corps of engineers says it's going to be 2010 before they even have the levees up to pre-Katrina levels. And then climate change. Hurricanes are getting bigger. We know this. There have been MIT studies, Georgia Tech studies that show that it's already happening. It is a dangerous place to live. Now, if we resolve the issue of climate change, which we can -- the tragedy is, we can fix New Orleans. There -- it's not a matter of money and technology. We can do it. You know, in the war in Iraq, six weeks earlier, you have the 30 billion dollars to build the levees in the wetlands. And climate change. If we became a nation of hybrid car drivers, ten years from now, we'd cut our gasoline in half. We wouldn't be in Iraq. If Iraq's number one export was broccoli, would we be there? So, the tragedy is we can in fact save New Orleans, but we're not doing it. We can solve global warming, but we're not doing it. And I think the main thing for people who live in Miami, who live in lower Manhattan, who live in Charleston, all these vulnerable coastal cities, if we allow New Orleans to disappear, if we don't come to the permanent rescue of our fellow countrymen in New Orleans, how are you safe in Miami? How are you safe in lower Manhattan? Who's going to come to save you?

BILL MOYERS: But isn't the lesson of that that we shouldn't be building, developing, doing what we want to with nature in places that are vulnerable?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: But see, but this is I think part of what's dangerous about the saying, well, you know, the problem is that New Orleans is dangerous environmentally. It is, right? But so too are lots of places that very wealthy people like to live because they're very beautiful. Some of the most beautiful places are on fault lines or on coast lines likely to get hit by hurricanes. Or -- I think we should --

BILL MOYERS: Or downtown --- Wall Street.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Or on Wall Street. That's right. I mean, you know, in an age of terrorism, if you live in a major urban center. I mean, it certainly is clear that we have environmental issues that must be addressed. But it's also important that as we talk about the right of citizens to return to their city, that we're clear that we already give that right. The right to live in vulnerable environmental places exists for the wealthy. We simply are unwilling to extend that same freedom of choice, freedom to rebuild community. It's not just if you live in Miami or lower Manhattan or DC. It's if you live anywhere.

What we do by refusing to underline the importance of living in a chosen community is we say that as a country, we simply don't value those issues. We look at your home and your home is worth whatever, ten thousand dollars to us. That's all of what your life is. All of your family, your connections, your school, your church is worth ten thousand dollars to us. We have to -- we cannot be that country. We must be a country that recognizes the value of local community.

BILL MOYERS: What have you learned, the two of you, about politics, American politics from the Katrina disaster?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I often say that Hurricane Katrina and it's political aftermath is the 2006 win of the democrats in the mid-term elections. And it --

BILL MOYERS: How so?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I know it seems odd.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Because it's not as though Katrina is at all even talked about in the 2006 elections. But you'll remember that from September 11th, 2001 until August 28th of 2005, one was unpatriotic if you criticized the Bush administration or really any of the actions taken by our government. So, the Democratic Party and much of the American media was quite timid in terms of its critique of the administration. But what Katrina and the bungling of Katrina does is it provides a wedge that opens the door. And the criticisms start to flow from CNN, from -- and then from the Democratic Party. Now, the sad and scary thing is that all of these issues, urbanism, race, class, environmentalism which were the true core issues that made Katrina possibly get lost. Because what the Democratic Party makes the choice to do is to use that wedge as an opportunity to critique Iraq. Not that it's -- I mean, it's fine, right? But they use that. And so then Iraq becomes the story of the 2006 elections.

BILL MOYERS: At the expense of Katrina?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: At the expense of Katrina. And all the lessons that Katrina had the capacity to teach us about domestic politics.

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, I think there's a lot of blame if you will to go around in terms of politics. But I would take a slightly different course. A, you know, 1,800 dead, 100 billion dollars in economic damage. A million people were displaced by Katrina. Our President went to Jackson Square a week after Katrina. Stood there in an abandoned city and he said we will stay here as long as it takes and we will do whatever it takes to bring this city back. And just like after 9/11, the whole country said, tell us what to do. Lead us. We want to help. We want to respond as a nation. We want to respond as one community. Everyone was horrified by what happened. And that commitment simply wasn't there.

In the fall of 2005, it took until right before Christmas to get three billion dollars just to begin rebuilding the levees. Are you kidding me? 1,800 dead? It took us the entire fall of 2005. And that's because the President really did not sustain his commitment. He did not say this is as important to me as the Iraq war. This is as important to me as tax breaks for the rich. I'm going to roll up my sleeves. And as a result, the media stopped covering it. And the American people felt like they wrote a check, they took care of it.

Surely, if the President's not on Jackson Square every week telling us, giving us progress reports, everything must be okay. If you go to New Orleans right now, if you go there tomorrow in 2007, you would think the hurricane happened last week. You have a bubble of a society still devastated by that hurricane. And you get outside that coastal bubble, and it's as if the hurricane didn't happen. And that's because our leaders don't continue to say it's an issue.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: If someone had looked at that coverage and instead of saying, oh, my God, look at all these refugees on the roof of their home. If someone had said look at all those Democratic voters trapped out there in the water because that's what they are. There a bunch of Democratic voters. Then maybe the party would have thought, okay, if George Bush isn't here every day, then we should be. We should be standing in Jackson Square every day and holding accountable. I don't allow or accept that simply because it was a party in power, even more so therefore that the Democrats who were in local power there. Not just at the city level, but the state level and even at the national level, could have started to provide leadership.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that the response to Katrina on the part of the Democratic Party should have been we can win the election in 2008 if we exploit this?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: No. It should have been, here, standing here at this moment is the questions of why the Democratic Party, from its own understandings of itself as a progressive liberal institution, should be able to do better. That this was a moment where you had national outrage. Where you had southerners together in solidarity from the experience that they had just had. Where you had environmentalism which is Al Gore's central key issue, where you had urban issues coming -- all of the things that the Democrats say that they're good at, this is the moment to provide leadership. I won't talk -- I'm not talking about exploitation. I'm saying, you claim this is what you're good at. Let's see you do it. Let's see you talk about how we build a progressive coalition of working people in the South.

BILL MOYERS: But changing the course of a mighty river created an attractive situation where people lived and industry flourished and we did all of these things, fishing and so forth. But then, nature struck back. But you can't in the end really refute nature, can you?

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, you can live sustainably with nature. And there's been a plan developed since the mid '90s in south Louisiana called the coast twenty fifty plan that says, look, we already live here. We already have industry here. We already have homes here. We can't just let the river go back to its natural state of, you know, a thousand years ago where it is a wild state. How can we live however sustainably with the river? How can we allow the sediments and nutrients of the river back into the coastal areas to rebuild wetlands and barrier islands in a way without destroying property? And it can be done. And it has been done elsewhere in the world. We can live sustainably with this great river. It will take money. It will take nothing compared to what we've already lost.

BILL MOYERS: What do you say about the issue of corruption? To the wealthy people, the wealthy investors, the real estate dealers who are ripping off the special provisions for Katrina in order to build luxury condos at the University of Alabama football stadium. All the corruption in City Hall in New Orleans, or the school system in New Orleans, or the Police Department in New Orleans. What do you say about the power of corruption to frustrate the good intentions of the Cajuns and the poor people that both of you know?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King already told us that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And that is true in this case. That the people of New Orleans and of the Gulf Coast, the survivors of Katrina are the miners' canaries of our nation, right? That we know that the miners took the canaries down into the mine because canaries have sensitive respiratory systems. So if a noxious gas was released into the mine, the canary would die first. And this was an indication that the miners should get out. So, when the vulnerable people of New Orleans are -- and of the Gulf Coast and all of the survivors of Katrina are treated as tools to enrich the powerful, this is a miners' canary for the rest of us. Be clear, you are not safe anywhere from corruption. You are not safe anywhere from this kind of profiteering. You are not safe anywhere if we don't look at the very simple sort of policy choices that we could have made.

For example, a huge communal land grab of the lower ninth ward. In other words, set up a CDC. Excuse me. A community development corporation, so that instead of each individual homeowner somehow trying to rebuild their houses, you set up a community based development that allows of the block to be built all together at once, instead of one house at a time, right? And then, you allow this community development corporation, a non-profit, to hold the interest of the homeowners and sell back to the homeowners.

Instead, what we did was we wrote checks to poor and working people most of whom had mortgages on their destroyed homes. So you're standing there and you've got a mortgage and your home is destroyed. You can't rebuild with that check. You pay off your mortgage with it. Now, you're standing there with nothing. These were simple things. We could have made a community development corporation. We could have forgiven, in a mass way. We could have done what we did with the S&L bail outs. And we could have bailed out mortgage holders, simply wiping away their mortgages because of this. So, we had very clear tools. And instead, we decided to make this an opportunity for profit. An opportunity for profit driven real estate speculators to come in and make money from this.

BILL MOYERS: Have financial and political corruption reached a state in American life in this prosperous age so that we are impotent to do things to meet the challenges we face?

MIKE TIDWELL: We're not impotent. Right now, we are in a crisis of abuse of wealth. The disparity in income has never been worse in this country. But are we impotent to change it? We are not.

I think that ultimately, as I look to Katrina on the second anniversary, I'm reminded of a fascinating sociological study that was done in Indonesia after the great tsunami. And there was one culture on the -- along the Indonesian coast that was hit hardest that, for whatever reason, had this long oral tradition to treat with respect the power of tsunamis. And the tsunami was at the core of their oral history and their on-going value system. When you see that tsunami take higher ground, it is nature, it is something to be respected. And those people in that community fled to higher ground and were not devastated in the way the other communities were. They -- all the rest of the communities in this area in the tsunami, they saw it coming. And they stood there and they watched it and they were overcome by it and they died.

Katrina was a tsunami that we saw coming from miles away. And we stood there and we watched it. And it got closer and closer. And we did not prepare. We did not escape our state of denial. We wanted to believe that wealth and convenience was everything. And let the good times roll. And we got wiped out. And the same thing is happening with global warming. The tsunami is happening. We're watching it coming. We're standing on the beach and we're not protecting ourselves. We've got to somehow rise above history. We've got to not follow the mistakes --

BILL MOYERS: You can't rise above history. History is us. It's this corruption in Alabama and this corruption -- history is us.

MIKE TIDWELL: Yes.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: But it's also -- it's the corruption, but it's also always the resistance against it. I mean, so the story of -- of enslavement, right, the great American evil of enslaving human beings for hundreds of years is also the story of enslaved people resisting it at every step, right? So the story is always both the corruption and abuse of power and the unbelievable human capacity to still recognize the value of human life. Because the fact is, right, the planet goes on.

BILL MOYERS: Maybe.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: If global warming wipes us out --

BILL MOYERS: He says that it might not go on.

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, the planet goes on.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: The planet goes on. The planet decides we're a plague that's warming it up too fast. It wipes us out. But the planet goes on. So, even a fight against global warming is a belief that human beings matter. It's a kind of essential belief that there's something inside of human beings worth saving. Because if we're really just corrupt and bad and evil, then heat it up. Let it wipe us out.

MIKE TIDWELL: What gives me optimism in the face of this overwhelming challenge, and, you know, Katrina really is a curtain-raiser. If you want to know what Miami's going to look like 100 years from now, go to New Orleans today. Below sea level, behind levees, battered by huge storms -- if we don't stop global warming. This climate crisis is here now. The Great Lakes are dropping in water levels. Texas has got too much rain. The Carolinas too little. Hurricanes are getting -- it's here now. It's not a my kinda sort of a maybe thing in the future that computer modeling says is coming. It's already deeply here.

So, the fact that it's here, that this giant climate system with all the momentum built in it toward warming, it's already unpacking its bags. What could possibly give us the optimism and hope that we can now respond at this late stage, strongly and fiercely enough to hold it in check? And the thing that I come back to is, when we decide to change, we tend to change explosively. You know, Look at the great changes in World War II and all these things that have happened in the 20th Century. I believe that this issue of climate change and sustainable -- sustainability, which also implies questions of human rights, and fairness. When this light bulb finally goes on, and it's going on.

You know, I think Katrina opened the door, Al Gore walked through it. And the zeitgeist changes a lot more. But once we finally really get serious, we're going to change really fast.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: And who are we to give up? I mean, I'm a black woman living in America, in a time when at any other point in America, I would have been enslavable. I would have been Jim Crowed. I'm a professor at Princeton University. Who am I to give up? How dare I give up and say, oh, we can't fix it. It can't be done. When people overcame. When people who are my people, my grandmother, who was a domestic worker. My father, who went to Jim Crow public schools. How dare I give up? I feel like we just have too much privilege to be the ones who give up.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but those folks down there in New Orleans, they're not at Princeton.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: No, but they're also not enslaved, and they're also not sharecroppers. That -- I think something bad happens when we imagine that we're living at the 'worst time.' This is the worst thing that we've ever faced. It's a serious thing. It -- it's possibly the worst time for the planet. It is possible. But still, who are we with freedom of speech, with freedom of press. With free and open elections every four years. Who are we to give up? We're telling the people of Baghdad, "grip it up, pull it together." Do better. Stop sectarian violence. How dare we, as Americans, with everything, we would want to give up.

MIKE TIDWELL: What about you, Bill? I mean, how do you maintain a sense of hope?

BILL MOYERS: By listening to people like you. Mike Tidwell, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, thank you very much for being on the Journal.

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