No Strangers to the Blues

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

September 8, 2005

The tragedy in New Orleans did not occur in a vacuum. There is no way, even in the face of a storm as violent as Katrina, that a great American city should have been reduced to little more than a sewage pit overnight.

The monumental failure of the federal government to respond immediately and effectively to the catastrophe that resulted from Hurricane Katrina was preceded by many years in which the people of New Orleans (especially its poorest residents) were shamefully neglected by all levels of government.

New Orleans was not a disaster waiting to happen when the screaming winds of Katrina slammed the city with the force of an enemy attack. The disaster was already under way long before Katrina ever existed. The flood that followed the storm, and the Bush administration's ineptitude following the flood, were the blows that sent an already weakened city down for the count.

The public school system, for example, is one of the worst in the nation. Forget about educating the children, 96 percent of them black. School officials, enveloped in a bureaucratic fog and the toxic smoke of corruption, do not even know how many people are employed by the system. The budget is a joke. Money had to be borrowed to pay teachers.

The classroom environment has been chaotic. About 10,000 of the 60,000 students were suspended last year, and nearly 1,000 were expelled. Half of the high school kids fail to graduate in four years. To get a sense of the system's priorities, consider the following from a Times-Picayune editorial last fall:

"When it was still unclear which way Hurricane Ivan would go, school system employees on school system time driving school system vehicles using school system materials were sent to board up the superintendent's house."

That superintendent left (and not a moment too soon), but the abject neglect of the young remained. Long before the hurricane, the children of New Orleans had been failed by the adults responsible for them, starting in many cases with their parents and going right on up through their teachers, city officials, state officials and a national administration that sees the kids mostly as objects - totems - to be hugged during campaign photo-ops.

Crime in New Orleans is another issue that has gotten a lot of attention in Katrina's aftermath. It should have gotten more attention before the hurricane hit. A great deal of the mayhem reported or rumored to have occurred over the past several days appears to have been exaggerated. But New Orleans has long had a serious crime problem. And it has never been properly dealt with.

A couple of days ago I was talking with a woman named Julia Cass who had fled the flood and settled temporarily in Montgomery, Ala. It turns out that Ms. Cass, a former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, had just completed a paper for the Children's Defense Fund, which is concerned about the effect on children of the chronic violence plaguing New Orleans.

Ms. Cass noted that as of Aug. 19, there had been 192 murders in the city, an increase of 7 percent over that period last year. (You can get a decent perspective on the violence if you note that New Orleans, with a population of 500,000, had 264 homicides last year, compared with the 572 homicides in New York, which has a population of 8 million.)

Ms. Cass wrote that in homicide cases in New Orleans, witnesses frequently refuse to come forward, or do not show up at trials. "The general explanation is that they are afraid," she said, "and with good reason, since the perpetrators too often are not arrested or get out on bail or are never prosecuted or are not convicted. A person who murders another in New Orleans has less than a one in four chance of being convicted."

New Orleans has had high rates of illiteracy and high rates of poverty, and long before the hurricane blew in, high rates of children and families with extraordinarily low expectations. In short, much of the city was a mess, and no one was marshaling the considerable resources necessary to help pull its stricken residents out of the trouble of their daily lives.

Those were the residents who, for the most part, were left behind to suffer and die when the people of means began sprinting toward higher ground. They are the ones who are always left behind, out of sight and out of mind, and I'd be surprised - given the history of this country - if that were to change now.