Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 2005 / 28 Av, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

The Katrina syndrome: What a hurricane can teach | Some of us can remember when a Hurricane meant one of those potent drinks you ordered at Pat O'Brien's in the French Quarter — if you had some sufficiently sober escort to prop you up on the way back to your hotel.

Just one of those concoctions was enough, probably for a lifetime — or until the souvenir hurricane glass they came in eventually disappeared, or got knocked off the knick-knack shelf in a periodic housecleaning fit.

Something else crashed this week besides a lot glassware — the myth, the urban legend, the inside scoop about New Orleans being hurricane-proof.

Sure, from time to time some worrywart would point out that most of the Crescent City lay at sea level or below, and that if the narrow levees that separated the city from the lake gave way, or if The River were to pull another 1927, well, the town would fill with water the way a bowl does. But who listens?

Don't believe it, the street-smart would assure the credulous. Some kind of voodoo charm protected the city, and there were actually a few spots above sea level that everybody could get to in a tight. All those crypts above ground were just there to make the quaint old cemeteries another of the city's tourist attractions.

So Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler! Let the good times roll! Don't bother your pretty head none, hon, it's summertime and the livin' is easy . . . and would you care for another one?

But the gris-gris turned bad this week. One levee gave way at a crucial spot, then another, and the seawalls became walls of moving water.

New Or-leens, Land of Dreams, was turned into a nightmare as Lake Pontchartrain poured into its new basin, and the bowl started to fill, just as those foolish old Jeremiahs had always said it would.

Looking back, there are so many things that might have been done, but life has to be lived forward.

That doesn't mean we can't learn from experience, including disastrous experience. Sometimes it seems Americans can learn from no other kind. There is something about us that refuses to take action until disaster strikes.

Yes, there are exceptions. Sometimes we look ahead. And take precautions. Like setting up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — but even it wasn't created till the oil embargo of 1973-74, when the country swore it would never be blackmailed again by Middle Eastern sheikdoms. (A couple of which we would then proceed to save a couple of decades later when Saddam Hussein was still in a position to threaten them.)

For years, for decades, there was talk of a threat from a radicalized Islam and the terrorists it might be hatching, and even a sporadic response now and then, always uncertain and incomplete. But now that the danger has been recognized and a war on terror declared, already there is talk of backing off, making for the nearest exit strategy, and generally returning to somnolence under the cover of the United Nations, multilateralism and a lot of other empty incantations.

Meanwhile, everyone — well, everyone with eyes to see — recognizes that our borders are anything but secure, and a kind of human flood has begun to inundate the country. The immigration system is broken, but the various plans to fix it are always being delayed. Either in favor of continuing apathy or unrealistic schemes to wall off the whole country and its economy, with its need for foreign labor, capital and markets.

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A couple of bills that would actually reform the system — nobody says it can be made perfect — have been introduced in Congress, but only introduced. One (Kennedy-McCain) would revamp immigration law so that illegals here could pay a fine, register and get in line for citizenship after a long waiting period — and not ahead of any legal immigrants who follow the rules. A companion bill (Cornyn-Kyl) would get serious about controlling the country's borders.

But both may be done in by the American tendency to wait till real disaster strikes before actually doing anything to prevent it.

And don't even think about the long-brewing crisis in Social Security. Just patch up the system here and there, like New Orleans's levees, and hope for the best — rather than enact a fundamental, overdue reform that would let Americans actually own a share of their Social Security.

But such a reform would be unacceptably sensible. And so the president's proposal has been consigned to the same black hole that consumed so many of those sensible ideas about doing something to shore up New Orleans . . . .

Call it the Katrina Syndrome. It's a very American condition, and it appears to be congenital.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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