Bruce Anderson: New Orleans was responsible for its own fate

The decisions which doomed the city were taken years before Bush became President
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New Orleans has one thing in common with Manhattan. Neither is really a part of the United States. Both are tacked on to an alien mainland: Manhattan, a strutting ground for the world's rich; New Orleans, an enclave of decadence joyously disregarding the rest of the USA's puritan heritage. That is why New Orleans in now in such a mess.

True, the city had charm. Even if Creole cuisine is grossly over-rated while the sole merit of jazz is to be less cacophonous than blues, a place which gave birth to A Confederacy of Dunces has justified its existence. If not the greatest American novel, it is surely the most enjoyable one.

It was fun to sit behind the air conditioning in a cafe in the French Quarter, laisseing le bon temps roule, hot and slow and idle. But also criminal, violent, homicidal. That was the trouble with New Orleans. The decadence was not an affectation. The carnival was the affectation; the masks a thin disguise for poverty and chaos.

America is founded on work, responsibility and law. There is no more important item in the Bill of Rights than the unwritten one: that each and every American has the right to work his butt off. That is the basis of another right: this year shall be better than last year and next year will be better than this year. Not in New Orleans: that city is founded on laziness, irresponsibility and lawlessness.

There has been one problem with the American ethos. It works for the voluntary immigrants. Whatever their colour or creed, that is what drew them to the States. But large numbers of the descendants of the involuntary immigrants have spurned every opportunity to invest in the American dream. It is as if they regard the work ethic as tainted, because it was imposed on their forebears by slavery.

The historic wrongs are hideous. It cannot be easy for a young American black to come to terms with his ancestors' history, when so much of it is a cry of pain. But ethnic self-pity is not the answer. That is merely a form of ethnic self-destruction, perpetuating the enslavers' evil.

Yet much of the black community in New Orleans was in the grip of self-pity. Hispanics, Vietnamese, Africans: other poor immigrants worked hard, stayed together as families, brought up decent kids - and prospered. Nothing prevented the blacks of New Orleans from doing the same. Yet far too many chose not to. The city had an appalling drug-crime rate, an atrocious murder rate and above all, the worst hopelessness rate of any major city in a developed country. I suspect that at least 90 per cent of the looters were from one-parent families.

It is true that the President was too slow to react. But the US is not a unitary state. Under the American federal system of government, the individual states have much more power and responsibility than any local government unit in the UK. Yet for years, politics in Louisiana has been in the grip of a confederacy of corrupt dunces. Someone in Washington should have realised that neither the state authorities nor the city ones in New Orleans were capable of discharging their responsibilities.

There was a further problem. In recent years - and especially after 11 September - Washington has acquired more and more powers over domestic emergencies. So even in better-run states than Louisiana, Uncle Sam would have been expected to take control.

He should have. In A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J Reilly insisted that the world needed more theology and geometry. Last week, New Orleans needed more government.

That said, earlier action from Washington would have mitigated the disasters' consequences, not eliminated them; saved a few hundred lives, not prevented the deaths of many thousands. But George Bush's enemies, not least in the BBC, unable to conceal their delight at his political misfortunes and their wish that these will prove permanent, are giving credence to the most absurd charges.

The decisions which doomed New Orleans were taken years before he became President, including the one to build the city in the first place. George Bush did not decree that the levees should be capable of withstanding a Grade 3 hurricane, not a Grade 5 one. It is true that, in recent years, Congress reduced the expenditure on flood defences in Louisiana. But hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent. Where did that money go?

Nor would Kyoto have prevent hurricane Katrina. This was not the worst hurricane in American history, and there is no evidence that the incidence of hurricanes is increasing. Climate change is still a combination of hypothesis, inexact science and political hysteria.

The incidence of hurricanes is part of the problem. New Orleaners are used to them, and used to disregarding them. The latest evacuation order was mandatory, which did not prevent it from being widely disobeyed. It may be that not everyone had transport. But if the state and city authorities had taken their own warnings seriously, they could have got many more people to safety.

Over the next few months, America will agonise over New Orleans. It ought to keep one point in mind. None of the looters was a neo-conservative.