We will never fully comprehend the complexities of our planet. For centuries, we have labored to overcome and alter the course of nature. We have redirected the path of great rivers, destroyed vital ecological systems, pumped toxic waste into our waterways, oceans and atmosphere, and buried massive stockpiles of deadly chemicals and radioactive waste deep in the bowels of the earth.
We may not fully comprehend the role of human interaction with the forces of nature but we are all born with an innate understanding that if we poison our own living space, there will be a price to pay. When we witness melting glaciers, warming oceans, altered climates and shifting oceanic currents, followed by a chain of catastrophes, we do not require a panel of experts or an executive commission to inform us that something is radically astray.
It is increasingly clear that we have entered an age of unprecedented catastrophe and we are woefully unprepared to cope with it. In the wake of 911, we have invested hundreds of billions in Homeland Security but in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we are hard pressed to know what that means. Apparently, Homeland Security does not include the fundamentals of civil defense: communications, evacuation, emergency shelters, food, water, fuel, generators and medical facilities.
We all understand that our government has been fixated on terrorism but these essentials are equally applicable to natural disasters and terrorist attacks, so our negligence is all the more inexplicable.
The investigation into what went wrong in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast must go beyond communication snafus and decision-making blunders. We must demand an accounting of where all the money went. If in fact it was siphoned by the military to pay for black ops in Latin America or worse, to pay off Halliburton and Blackwater Security, then heads should role and the president must be held to account.
We must not allow the administration to whitewash or constrain the investigation as they did the 911 Commission. Whether we call it blame seeking or accountability, it is the only means we have of assuring that it does not happen again.
Whether and objective investigation is forthcoming or not, we should not wait for a final report before we move forward with what must be done. Bureaucracies can wait; New Orleans, Biloxi, Lake Charles and Gulf Port cannot. Levees, roads, buildings, infrastructures, homes, hospitals and schools must be rebuilt. Comprehensive civil defense must be provided for every urban center in the nation, beginning with those that are most vulnerable.
Neither should we wait for presidential guidance, which will invariably come in the form of multi-billion dollar payoffs to the preferred list of multi-national corporations. It is Congress that controls appropriations and the executive branch is constitutionally bound to carry out the will of Congress on penalty of impeachment.
It is also Congress that must decide how we will pay for the massive projects of reconstruction and preparedness that must now be undertaken. We have a crisis in this country that runs from the top down. We cannot allow our government to be paralyzed by the void of leadership in the White House.
As I have noted before, it is the Army Corps of Engineers (not Halliburton) that should lead the reconstruction project. I would now extend that recommendation to civil defense.
In order to perform this essential duty (the largest of its kind since the New Deal and the Marshall Plan), the Corps must be relieved of its responsibilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president is dead wrong. If we could have it both ways (war abroad and security at home), the flood walls and levees would not have been shoddily constructed, New Orleans would not be an endangered city, and a thousand souls from the city of jazz would not have left their homes on this earth.
Congress shuddered at the projected costs of reconstruction though hardly an objection was raised at an even greater price tag for our unnecessary wars. Let them shudder again for it will be twice that amount and more to do what must be done, yet when it is done, unlike our wars of choice, it will not leave us with a new generation of American enemies; it will leave us with something we can see, touch, use and appreciate; it will leave future generations with gratitude and admiration.
The lessons of Katrina and Rita were many but one lesson was exceptionally clear in both cases: the overriding need for a safe and efficient system of mass evacuation. With Katrina, the failure to evacuate resulted in loss of life and the most painful scenes we have witnessed since the Indian Ocean tsunami. With Rita on the heels of Katrina, the cities of Houston and Galveston made a valiant effort but it could not prevent a systemic breakdown that snarled traffic for a hundred miles. Even without a pending disaster, vehicular transportation in virtually every major city is a crapshoot of congestion five days a week. How did we expect that same system to accommodate a mass evacuation?
The dirty secret of New Orleans may be that if they attempted to evacuate the poor and immobile, the exit ways would have become so constricted that the bridge across Lake Pontchartrain may have been lined with vehicles when it collapsed.
What is required for efficient mass evacuation is a system of mass transit. On the Gulf Coast, a coastal line would connect the major cities from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Tampa, Florida, with each city connecting to inland hubs at San Antonio, Dallas, Shreveport, Jackson, Montgomery and Macon. The inland cities would be connected as well, with each in turn providing shelters, food, water, medical supplies, busses and emergency helicopters.
Similar systems should be undertaken for the Atlantic seaboard from Miami to Portland, Maine, and on the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle. Circular systems should provide for interior cities such as Chicago and Detroit and, eventually, separate systems could become interconnected for a national mass transit network.
It is truly a massive and noble endeavor -- not unlike the pledge to put a man on the moon in 1969 or a manned mission to Mars today -- but it would serve the nation in multiple ways. Aside from effective civil defense, it would provide meaningful and well-paid employment and those it employed would acquire valuable skills. It would do more to relieve our over crowded and deteriorating highways than a dozen over-priced, pork laden highway bills. It would relieve our atmosphere of thousands upon thousands of carbon dioxide poisoning. Finally, it would ease our dependency on foreign oil and eliminate the perceived necessity of occupying a nation in the Middle East.
It will not be easy and even then, it will only be a beginning, yet if we take that first step, we may finally become the noble and enlightened nation that we all want to believe we are.
Jack Random is the author of Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press) the Jazzman Chronicles, Volumes I and II (City Lights Books). The Chronicles have been published by CounterPunch, the Albion Monitor, Buzzle, Dissident Voice and others. Visit his website: Random Jack.
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