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Deaf Government Area

Deaf Government Area

This photo recently became my most “favorited” on Flickr. With 26 favorites it has surpassed Big Cloud, which is gratifying because I think this is a much more interesting shot.

I took this one on October 13, 2006 in Gentilly, on Mirabeau Avenue near the London Avenue Canal breach. In the background you can see vacant flooded homes becoming overgrown with vegetation. You can even see some waterlines on the sign itself.

Need I say more? I think the power of this photo is that it tells a story all on its own. You don’t really need any of my explanations.

Except, perhaps it does bear noting that the London Avenue Canal breached because of a design flaw; this part of the city flooded because of an infrastructure failure. Thus an important point emerges: This was a manmade disaster, a disaster created by government.

And yet I don’t think that’s the point here. Of course, I don’t know who made the editorial graffiti on this sign or what they were thinking. But I suspect this is a comment not on the flooding, but on the rebuilding. As anyone who was here at the time can attest, as we struggled to rebuild, government seemed to be a bottleneck at best and often an outright obstruction. This photo was taken a year after the flood waters had receded, but citizen anger at government incompetence was rising rapidly. It would crest three months later.

I’m skeptical of those who blame government for their problems, just as I’m skeptical of those who look too much to government for the solutions. But in this case, I think the anger was (and is) entirely appropriate. You can be as libertarian or anarchist as you want, but in times of crisis we’re stuck with the system we have, like it or not — and that is a system in which the State and the government have massive power over our lives.

This photo is published under a Creative Commons Attribution license, so you can use it as you see fit so long as you give me credit.

Published inKatrinaNew OrleansPix


  1. Kent Kent

    One can’t argue with such a compelling reality, Bart. I do not question your insights here. But blaming government doesn’t address why government failed. Nor what may have worked better, and why. Was government overpowered or underpowered in the failure. Were funds to low, and what part did anti-government bias play in creating the failure? Weren’t the levies built by the Army Corps of Engineers? The potential problems of the levies were no secret, if I’m not mistaken. Why didn’t government, through the Army Corps, take steps to fix the problem years in advance of the catastrophe? What powers may have better handled the problem?

    I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I might learn from hearing your answers, and would be honored if you would take time to offer some thoughts on the subject. I’m definitely in the mood to listen, and only listen.

  2. Even here in NOLA people often speak of the “levee failures,” but it’s worth noting that’s a misnomer. What caused the flooding in the area pictured above, and what flooded our house, was not a levee at all, but the collapsed wall of a drainage canal. The canal normally takes water out of the city and dumps it in the lake. First problem: Katrina’s surge raised water in the lake and backed it up into the canal. Second problem: Said water scoured underneath the canal walls, causing them to fail in multiple places. Thus the water from the lake started pouring into the city, with no way to get it out. They’ve since put gates on the mouths of the canals. The gates can be closed against a surge to prevent this scenario from repeating.

    Shoot — I realize I haven’t even begun to address your questions, but it’s past midnight and I’m tired. I may have to revisit this later. Truthfully, as complex as these technical issues are, your questions are even more complicated. I’m not sure I really have answers at the ready.

  3. Kent Kent

    I can see these are difficult issues, and there’s no easy answer to large-scale abstract questions like I asked. The questions were, I suspect, unfair. And I understand how the discussion of government made your impressive photo yet more poignant. Ultimately, you were not speaking about government, but giving context for the photo.

    Yet, I worry about broad statements like you made, whether aimed at government, or big business, or law, or the rich, or the poor. These arguments sound compelling and influence the thoughts of others.

    Your comments are always respectful, and considered, as they were above. You speak more to the people’s response to government, than you do of the evils of government. And you note your skepticism toward efforts to blame problems on government. I admire the care you use and the depth of your thinking. But I suspect we can do more harm than good if we don’t, instead, direct our conversation toward how government may work better.

    These are sensitive issues, and not living there, I worry I can be insensitive, without intending to be so. I lack the needed experience to have any right to speak with too much opinion on what happened there. If anything I have said has been offensive, please accept my apologies, and feel free to correct me. I don’t doubt my perspectives are, at a minimum, naive.

    And if you have more to offer in response to my questions, I’m eager to listen, and to learn.

  4. I agree. I skirted the more difficult issues precisely because they are difficult, but I’m happy to entertain them if anyone’s sincerely interested, as you seem to be — even if only to acknowledge I don’t know the answers. I’m at least somewhat aware of my limits.

    It seems clear that the Army Corps needs to be reformed. The manner by which it is controlled by Congress seems to be antiquated and cumbersome.

    Here are some ideas along those lines that seem pretty well articulated:

    However I wonder if there isn’t perhaps a way forward that might not involve the Army Corp at all. All major water projects are handled by the Corps. Is there a better way? Surely there must be.

    A further impetus behind the graffiti and thus my photo and thus this post is, I suspect, anger at FEMA and the State of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans.

    Yeah, that’s a lot to try to address here, too much I fear.

    But rather than just throw up my hands, I feel compelled to share at least one relevant observation that seems to be confirmed by watching the recovery here. Our system of private property does not always serve us well. If I could suggest one radical, foundational reform, it would be this: No one should have the right to own land which they do not occupy. NOLA is a city that rents. Our neighborhoods are full of homes which are owned by people who live in the suburbs or elsewhere. It’s not healthy, and a catastrophe like the flood of ’05 really makes that manifest.

  5. The owners of both these homes – 1800 and 1814 Mirabeau – made a go at fixing them up. 1800 Mirabeau’s owner got renovation permits in mid-2008, while 1814 Mirabeau’s owner got permits in early 2007. Google Streetview shows the foliage was eventually cleared.

    And as far as the gates at the end of the canals protecting everyone, I strongly suggest reading through my latest entries at Fix the Pumps. There are just as many design flaws with the gates as there were/are with the walls. They include non-sealing gate segments, winch controls exposed to the elements, rusting pumps, and pumping systems that are woefully inadequate and riddled with further design flaws. Added on top of that is the fact that the Corps runs these things, with all the laissez-faire attitude they’ve always had toward storm protection. It was just over a year ago that their incompentence caused the water in this very canal to exceed its current limitations during a non-tropical December rainstorm.

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