September 6, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal)

Flooded but Unbowed

It feels like months. But for just over a week Americans have been staring into the nightmare of New Orleans and asking each other what it means. It means we were unprepared. It means recriminations, it means a chance for Democrats and Republicans to wrangle, for TV talk show hosts, and eventually congressional hearings and a presidential probe, to explore every wrong move that led to the breached levees, the floundering FEMA, and the maddening three days in which armed thugs roamed the streets of the drowning city. It means thousands are feared dead.

There will be questions about every life lost, and how these people might have been saved. That is how a democracy responds to a storm so ferocious that it destroyed entire towns and submerged a city.

But it also means that the mighty human forces that make this nation great have already kicked in. Even taking into account all that went wrong, I cannot think of a country that could have taken a hit of this magnitude and responded more swiftly, warmly, generously and–yes–under the circumstances, efficiently. The deluge of New Orleans and the destruction along the Gulf Coast was not within the usual range of shock. Hurricane Katrina was a direct hit by one of the most ferocious storms to materialize in a century, coming after a long series of false alarms. It was the ruin within the space of 24 hours of a city legendary for celebrating life.

There are many places on this earth where order would have broken down far beyond the disaster area, as authorities turned to focus on the crisis. There are places where rescue would still be only barely on the way, where those who fled would now be starving instead of fed and sheltered, and those who stayed would still be without any help whatsoever. It may seem strange to compare the American superpower with countries far less fortunate, but one of the things Katrina underscored is that we are all so very mortal. The question is what we do about it, and the strength of America is a system that affords us opportunities to do a lot.

By the end of the first week, Texas had given shelter to more than 200,000 refugees. Charities, schools, churches and private citizens had opened their doors and dug into their pockets. The shooting and looting that dominated the first three days was replaced by Friday with a massive and coordinated effort to help. By Monday, less than a week after the flood waters swept the city, the major breach in the 17th Street levee had been plugged, and the Army Corps of Engineers had begun the immense task of pumping the water back out.

Why did the authorities not forcibly remove everyone from New Orleans as Katrina approached? America hangs back in such things for several reasons, not all of them bureaucracy. This is a country where despite the creeping presence in recent generations of the welfare state, the web of regulations, the absurdities endemic to even the best forms of government and the inanities that pervade the daily debates, we still place great value on the initiative–and the responsibility–of individuals. We do not march in lockstep, and woe to anyone who tries to make us.

That brings its trade-offs–and at any extreme they intersect with, the costs can be enormous. Along with those unable to leave New Orleans as the storm approached were many who chose to stay, despite the order to evacuate. The submerged cars attest to the number of those who had not only warning but a way out–and did not take it. Had the entire population been driven forth, and the storm then missed the city, there would have been fury, as there was last year after hurricane Ivan. If the argument now is that Americans must immediately evacuate all places facing possible cataclysm, we are in for big decisions about whether to depopulate the entire earthquake-prone California coast. I suspect any administration attempting that would discover a lot of Californians insisting loudly that they want to make their own choices about risk.

The same spirit of initiative is what is already helping America to absorb this horrendous shock. Much of the debate right now assumes that we operate under a brittle order, in which the main guiding force needed to set New Orleans right is government planning and funding. Yes, in the throes of a crisis less than a fortnight old, and if the city's basic services are going to function again, there will have to be government help.

But aid from the state, or even from private charities, is not what's going to rebuild New Orleans. What will bring back the city–or not–is the many decisions people will now make about how to best get on with their lives. Some may not return. Some may go back and build stronger than before. But the promises of politicians and the scenes of survivors on cots in the Astrodome do not begin to sum up the real pool of resources now available to the people of New Orleans.

The most valuable resource of this country is something called human capital, nourished within a framework of liberty and rule of law. The armed thugs who briefly ruled the floodwaters were not the norm. There are countries like Sudan or Zimbabwe where they would have been part of the routine miseries of the average day. New Orleans was a city known both for its high crime rate and its parties, parades and bohemian French Quarter. For three days, in extreme crisis, the balance tipped the wrong way. It was terrible. But by lights of much of the planet, the order that then kicked in for a massive rescue effort was beyond hoping.

It is the tremendous absorptive capacity and fertility of our democratic capitalist system that leads to news such as the following two sentences from a page one story in Monday's Wall Street Journal: “The past five years have witnessed a burst stock bubble, terrorist attacks, corporate scandals, wars in Afghanistan and a Iraq, and a doubling in crude oil prices. Yet the economy, after a mild recession in 2001, has embarked on a solid expansion with little inflation.” We have done this without sacrificing our freedoms, as, say, the regime in China requires its citizens to do. And though the progress described in this brief passage is orders of magnitude less dramatic in the telling than is the catastrophe in New Orleans, it represents a wealth of advances in science, medicine, information technology and use of resources directed in ways that allow us to invent, improve, delight and offer wide opportunities both to enrich the spirit and prolong and save untold numbers of lives.

The shock is that the catastrophe of Katrina happened in America. Our hubris is the notion that such things cannot happen here. They can, and in one way or another they always will. In this mortal world, there are flaws in any system we might devise, because there are trade-offs no one can avoid having to make. There is plenty we can and will debate about what those tradeoffs should be. By all means, let us have the recriminations, the analyses, the discussions. Let us hope we can find ways to build and rebuild that will reduce the risks without stripping us of the ability to recover from catastrophes we may not yet even foresee. But amid all that, if there is any place on earth that can cope with a nightmare on this scale, it is this country.

Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.