Over the last week or so I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to write of New Orleans. Thirty months following the storm, over 4000 homes are still untouched. FEMA trailers are toxic. The media has all but quit talking about it. Brad Pitt builds a few show homes well out of the price range of the area’s residents.
The work Royal Oak High School students did was extraordinary, though only the smallest fraction of what remains; our contact at National Relief Network estimated another 10 years of work at the rate volunteers arrive.
Is the abandonment of full government relief conspiracy? When insurance companies renege on their promises to policy holders, is it deliberate neglect? Is it racism? Prejudice against the lower class?
I won’t pretend that there aren’t individuals who have deliberately exploited the disaster for their own profits. Beyond the looters following the storm, certainly some key decision-makers at local and national levels levered some policies into place to seize properties, to provide funds first to areas of high commerce, to ignore the poorly-defended homeless.
But despite the conspiracy theories and the UK Mirror’s description of America’s “vile underbelly,” I don’t think that is where it went wrong. Somehow worse than any conspiracy is its opposite. Wickedness requires some intent, some premeditation and enough energy and assertiveness to institute it; my suspicion is that much of the post-Katrina recovery failures have more to do with the absence of will and thought.
Mike Schmoker, in his book on school reform Results Now, describes the problem as a “buffer,” a force which prevents anyone from knowing just how bad the status quo is. Thus, there is no impetus for change. He writes, “The status quo gets enormous help from the machinery that creates the illusion of scrutiny and inspection,” creating a “rosy view” while effectively eliminating any feeling of urgency or need (15, 16).
The buffer is standard operating procedure. It is the bureaucracy of getting the job done, the routine of filling forms and working through committee, of “following procedure” as a goal instead of accomplishing justice. Worst of all, it creates in people the idea that mindless duties fulfilled are themselves accomplishment.
Take, for instance, one of the stories of fire chief Ron Silva of Chalmette. In the 100+ degree heat following the storm and lack of power, ice became a vital resource. FEMA truck drivers delivered ice in trucks to the area, but because they were required by policy to return their trailers, they proposed to dump the ice on the street (where it would certainly melt within hours). Silva told them to leave the refrigerated trailers to preserve the ice for several days and then bring a new trailer when they had emptied the first. The drivers refused: to them, thinking—doing what was right—was irrelevant to the more important goal of gathering signatures in triplicate and following orders to protect their status quo jobs. Silva said that it took the threat of a gun to convince them to change their minds.
It creates a kind of linear vision, this buffer, an almost deliberately ignorant perception. If only I do my job, I am blameless, no matter how horrific the consequences of that job.
One might consider the Milgram Experiment, the seeming complicity of citizens in countries guilty of human rights abuses, or a slavish devotion to a GPA instead of to learning.
The local governments in New Orleans say that if the resident is not living on the property, the home—despite its condition or reconstruction efforts—may be demolished. The federal government granted some aid to the uninsured, but nothing for those who were insured but defrauded of their claim money.
The owner of the house we worked on was told by his life insurance company that unless he could provide evidence of his written insurance policy, he would not be covered. Of course, the company was counting on the fact that the elderly victim of a flood-damaged home two years later would never be able to find such a policy. Yes, someone in that company made a wicked decision. More importantly, all the other employees of the company obediently followed it. The paperwork buffer went into operation; the insurance agent need only shrug and say, “I’m just doing my job.” (Our students found the man’s policy in his water-damaged files.)
The hurricane was ultimately inevitable. But for the years and years of levee design and building, the reports which warned of imminent danger, the insurance companies which ruled that a “flood” is not the same as a “wind storm,” the FEMA bureaucracy which made dozens of errors in the weeks following Katrina, the FEMA bureaucracy which still cannot committee its way to a reform, and the politicians which have yet to compel adequate aid to the people of New Orleans, these forces are far more powerful—and perhaps avoidable.
This is why the volunteerism efforts of so many organizations are so important. Our students who raised money, gave up vacation time, and tested their physical limits are the most effective counters to buffers, to false and slavish thinking. No GPA or ACT exam will ever measure it.