After attending a funeral in Mississippi last week, I found that the quickest way home was to catch a plane from New Orleans. I was delighted because I’d wanted to see New Orleans where I lived for many years for myself.  

If I expected to feel as if I were in bombed-out Dresden or Berlin after World War II, I got a surprise. The raw oysters at Felix’s on Bienville were cold and delicious, though the turtle soup has gone sadly downhill. Lavender ice cream topped off an excellent crab salad at Café Degas, just off Esplanade Avenue. But this was just part of the story: Our drive into town that took us past neighborhoods that remain entirely empty because city services have not been restored. A Six Flags amusement park without a soul in sight or a ride moving was a ghostly sight. Tennessee Williams might not recognize Elysian Fields, which is not too far from Esplanade, and which is now notable for boarded up houses.  

You can say that because it was once so lovely, New Orleans has to come back. But I am not optimistic, and neither was my host. His house is worth a lot just now, as is any piece of property that escaped flooding, but already bicycle brigades of sinister young men with dew-rags, that prison-inspired fashion statement, are patrolling his neighborhood by night. You see, it is civic rot, not rotting buildings, that may well prove lethal to the city.

Future flooding, the threat you hear about on the news, may be the least of New Orleans’ worries. Indeed, there are innovative plans to create a post-levees only flood control program. It can be done. But, and I feel awful saying this, do we really want to build an expensive flood control system just to preserve a crater of crime and civic corruption?

Many people insist that the first two problems to be solved are flood control and jobs. I disagree. Do crime first, and, if that can’t be solved, the other two are irrelevant. Why even attempt to create new jobs in a crime-infested shell of a city that will be most intimidating for the poor? On the other hand, is there any doubt that, with safer conditions, job-creating entrepreneurs would flock to this architecturally breath-taking venue, otherwise so ripe for new ventures?

The social rot was there before Katrina. It was behind the seedy glamour. A study that the Metropolitan Crime Commission released in 2005 found that just 12% of people arrested for murder in New Orleans are convicted and put in prison. About one-fourth of felony drug defendants are convicted and sent to prison, as compared with the more than two-third conviction rate nationally. “All that happened with Katrina is we kicked over the anthill and now we see what’s underneath,” an official told USA TODAY.

As my friend explained, however, it is much worse now. “You don’t have to go to Baghdad to see what happens when government loses its monopoly on force; just visit New Orleans,” the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas wrote in the Dallas Morning News. “More than a year and a half after Katrina hit in late August 2005, violent crime — already a grave problem long before the storm — pervades the city, endangering its recovery by driving some good people away and keeping others from returning.”

Critics are saying that the federal government owes New Orleans money for displaced citizens and to rebuild the city. The feds did contribute to the city’s woes nobody who’s driven past the acre upon acre of unused FEMA trailers (they cost around $60,000 each) doubts that the government contributed to the radical mess that is New Orleans today. But I’d say that the blame goes beyond FEMA and the Corps of Engineers’ mistakes. It started with the Great Society programs that, while well-intended, destroyed the family structure of the recipients of federal aid. Does anybody doubt that, if hundreds of citizens had ended up in the Superdome in the 1950s, the fathers and sons would have done a better job of caring for families than distant old Uncle Sam? The decline of the family structure also contributed to crime.

A culture of corruption and violent crime are enough to keep people (including me I’d always planned to go back to New Orleans one day) away. I wish we could agree that New Orleans gets no more federal “help” until the city paves the way by solving its crime problem. Maybe we could tie government largesse to the conviction rate for violent crimes? With every five percent improvement in the conviction rate, the city gets more funds. This is a place where benchmarks might truly be beneficial. Only when people are safe and criminals are in jail can the restoration of New Orleans begin. The public should be loath to pay for a federally-funded crime haven.

Charlotte Hays is senior editor at the Independent Women’s Forum.