I know that our planet has earthquakes and volcanoes, and that the "Big One" could erupt anytime. I also know our planet has a history of Ice Ages, and that another one will come, sooner or later. We can't adequately prepare for every eventuality.
But some eventualities are more likely then others. "Given enough time, anything can happen," but there's a difference between a one-in-ten chance of a certain natural disaster occurring this year, and a one-in-a-million chance of some other disaster happening.
I wonder what the planners and officials thought the probability of a Category 5 hurricane hitting near New Orleans would be. Maybe it was a mistake to build the city where it is. But since it was built, and became the fifth largest port in the world, the national and world economy had a special interest that it not be destroyed. Were the levees strong enough and high enough to resist the worst storms that could reasonably be expected? Were there plans to strengthen the city's defenses? Was there funding for such plans?
Federal funding to shore up the levees in New Orleans is not quite the same as throwing federal money at routine road maintenance or museums. Those are indeed examples of "pork barrel spending projects." The importance of New Orleans was realized as far back as Jefferson's day - it was the water gateway to the Midwest. If we are to have national governments and an Army Corps of Engineers engaged in "public works" projects, there are few as important as this.
But, the money wasn't there. As this article in Editor and Publisher reports,
In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to a Feb. 16, 2004, article, in New Orleans CityBusiness.
On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."
Hurricane Katrina is, economically, a bigger disaster to the USA than the 9-11 attacks, and it might be worse in terms of loss of life. What fraction of the cost of the War on Iraq- a country that had nothing to do with 9-11 - could have protected New Orleans?
But it's not just funds that are misallocated to Iraq. People, too. As reported in the Army Times.
Some 6,000 National Guard personnel in Louisiana and Mississippi who would be available to help deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are in Iraq, highlighting the changing role of America's part-time soldiers.
The war has forced the Guard into becoming an operational force, a far cry from its historic role as a strategic reserve primarily available to governors for disasters and other duties in their home states.
At 1.2 million soldiers, the active duty military is simply too small to carry the load by itself when there is a large sustained deployment like Iraq. Nationally, 78,000 of the 437,000 members of the Guard force are serving overseas.
As part of the transformation during the war effort, the National Guard has promised governors that at least 50 percent of soldiers and airmen will be available for stateside duty at all times. In most cases, the rate is well above 50 percent.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the Gulf states have adequate National Guard units to handle the hurricane needs, with at least 60 percent of the Guard available in each state.
Who knows if 60% is enough; what if another disaster hits the region? What is mainly troubling about the use of the Guard in Iraq is not that some 15% of the nation's force is there, but that they constantly rotate in and out. Those who joined the Guard specifically to be of service in a crisis like Katrina, are instead put in harm's way in Iraq - for no apparent purpose or benefit to our country. As blogger Jeff Wells puts it, maybe the Guard is in Iraq to "fight the hurricane over there so that we don't have to fight it here."
Or as John Kerry might have put it: "Wrong troops, wrong war, wrong time."
This is what governments do. They misallocate resources. Setting aside any sinister motives and high corruption, even supposedly well-intentioned governments fail to do their job. As the Austrian School of Economics has long held, government planners do not have enough information to establish priorities. You would think that the economic well-being of the Midwest would be a higher priority than the Middle East, that the states of the Gulf of Mexico were more important than the states of the Persian Gulf. That President Bush and Congress would know that the levees of New Orleans were more crucial to America's welfare and security, than the leveling of Fallujah. That they knew their responsibility is to govern the United States, not the world.
But the ambition inherent in politics - the chance for fame and a "place in history," lies in trying to bring peace to the Middle East, in being known as a "courageous wartime leader," in defeating the Hitler of the hour. It doesn't lie in mundane spending bills.
And that's why, in a very real way, we lost New Orleans in the War on Iraq.