We built that

The whole nation was metaphorically holding its breath last week as Hurricane Isaac bore down on New Orleans, almost seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina destroyed large parts of the city. Fortunately, the destruction inflicted by Isaac didn't cause anywhere near the damage wrought by the earlier storm, which left much of the city underwater after the levees protecting it collapsed. Though Isaac flooded some surrounding areas to the roof-tops and left hundreds of thousands of residents without power, the loss of life in the city proper was minimal compared to Katrina's toll, and the scale of property damage was also substantially less.

This week, as New Orleans and its surroundings begin the long process of recovery from the storm, it's useful to examine some of the lessons of its narrow escape. First, it's clear that New Orleans was spared another catastrophe in large part because of the massive investment in infrastructure the federal government put into strengthening the region's network of levees and dams in recent years. Since Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers has spent some $14 billion to rebuild what had become a sadly neglected flood-control system designed to keep the city from being inundated when a major storm strikes. Had the levees failed during Isaac's visit, as they did when Hurricane Katrina came to town, there's little doubt that much of the city would have been swept away again. (The breached levees in Plaquemines Parish that resulted in the worst damage this time were not federal government projects.)


But it wasn't just the levees that prevented another Katrina-type tragedy. This year the city was far better prepared for a crisis, and long before the storm hit, officials there had organized a huge relief effort that anticipated the needs of residents for emergency food, clothing, shelter and medical supplies if an evacuation were ordered. And when that order eventually did come for residents in the most threatened areas, authorities were ready not only to direct the evacuees to safety but also to assist in the rescue of those who were trapped by the rapidly rising waters. This time, preparedness wasn't just a slogan but a policy for which officials had planned.

To his credit, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal chose to skip the GOP convention in Florida to oversee Louisiana's rescue and relief efforts. But what was most striking about Mr. Jindal's handling of the emergency — and what most set him apart from his fellow Republicans meeting in Tampa — was his refreshing lack of embarrassment in praising the federal government's role in averting another Katrina-type disaster.


As a leader in a party that is campaigning on a platform of shrinking the size of government and limiting its power, Mr. Jindal came off as an unabashed booster of a robust government that is still capable of taking on projects, like refurbishing New Orleans' flood-control system, that benefit large numbers of Americans. At a press conference last week, Mr. Jindal called the billions in federal money spent on beefing up New Orleans' levees and dams "a good investment for the country to be making" because "it's investing in the goose that's laying the golden eggs."

That exactly what President Barack Obama had in mind when he said recently that the kind of investments in infrastructure that only government can make are the foundation on which America's prosperity is built. Though the president's remarks were deliberately distorted and taken out of context by his opponents on the campaign trail, the fact that Mr. Jindal, a rising star in Republican politics, could so ringingly endorse the ideas they expressed puts the lie to the GOP's dogmatic insistence that government has no crucial role to play in the process of wealth creation.

Try telling that to the people in New Orleans whose homes and businesses dodged a bullet only because of massive government investment in the city's levees and dams. That's what creates and sustains the conditions for prosperity in a city built on a flood plain, where nearly half the residents live below sea level.

If cutting taxes and boosting defense spending were all it took to make America great, the platform adopted by the Republicans in Tampa would make perfect sense. But that's not the way things work in the real world, where a government that can't do the big things can't do much of anything that really matters. No private individual or corporation could have constructed the system that safeguarded New Orleans. But Americans collectively could — and did — accomplish that feat through their government, and they have every right to point to it with pride and say: "We built that."