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September 01, 2005

Hurricane Katrina: A Disastrous Response to a Natural Disaster

Whatever happened to this year’s silly season? Instead of stories about cats stuck in trees and people living to 115, we’ve had a summer of terrorism, politics and national disasters.

A ‘bad’ summer has just been worsened by the worst hurricane in living memory, with predictions of thousands dead and a million homeless and jobless. A story such as this would perhaps not shock us too much after similar-sounding scenes in war-torn Darfur, annual monsoon seasons and the Boxing Day tsunami in South-East Asia.

But Hurricane Katrina shocks more because it has happened in the Southern U.S. state of Louisiana, and to a lesser extent its neighbours. An American life is clearly – and perhaps in contradiction to the media’s treatment of the war in Iraq (notice the recent stampede that killed nearly 1,000, but gained relatively little reportage) – not worth more than those killed in the tsunami, or in other disasters occurring around the world. But because of the geography of this disaster, it jars more heavily: How has the situation got this bad in the world’s most powerful and resourceful nation?

Watching the pictures of refugees outside the Louisiana Superdome, it is unbelievable that such devastation of life has been allowed in one of the most industrialised nations in the world. Certainly, evacuations were announced two days before Katrina hit the mainland. But something clearly has gone wrong. A helicopter counting those stranded on rooftops gave up when they reached 10,000. And this is three days after the hurricane.

For a country proud of its ability to deal with emergencies (9/11, the San Andreas Fault and the regular hurricane season), Katrina has revealed major problems in the United States’ ability to cope with something on this scale. Today, President Bush said the level of devastation was worse than that suffered on 9/11. He is correct. While 9/11 affected a number of skyscrapers and extinguished the lives and livelihoods of thousands, Hurricane Katrina has caused the same devastation to an entire city with a population of around 1,200,000.

Questions which will be answered in the future include how will the U.S. economy deal with the overnight loss of over a million jobs? A presidency will be considered poor if over 8 years this many jobs are lost. But in one day? The effects on the economy may take some time to understand.

And then there is the eternal problem of oil. Half of the United States’ gasoline comes from the Gulf Coast, and much of it via Louisiana. One estimate suggested a gallon of oil may rise from $2.30 to $4.00, with a knock-on effect which will surely extend to Europe’s prices. In Louisiana, petrol prices have already risen to up to $6.00. Bush has warned that oil supplies across the country may become erratic.

Political questions will also have to be answered. The response to Katrina has been, it appears, shambolic. The poorest citizens of New Orleans – 80% of which is still under water – were those left behind, with no public transport to evacuate them to safe areas. Reports suggest someone committed suicide in the Superdome due to the horrific conditions in the most iconic shelter in the city.

Where, also, are the armed forces? ‘Iraq’, is one plausible suggestion. But it seems unbelievable that such large-scale looting is being permitted considering the military strength of the United States. And they should surely be there in numbers to rescue the 50,000+ who have been without food and water for 72 hours. Food aid, more typically seen in Africa, is urgently needed and is seemingly non-existent.

All this seems to boil down to a lack of preparedness and a shockingly poor response from the federal government. President Bush’s response has not matched the gravity of the situation. Let’s remember that thousands are likely to have died, and 0.5% of the country’s population has been made homeless. The refugees are being diverted to Texas, which Mr Bush supposes will rise to the challenge by opening its doors to disaffected people.

This reliance on people’s generosity is perhaps a little naïve, in a country which as Robert Putnam analysed in ‘Bowling Alone’ has a sense of society which is more dis-United than any other democracy’s. Where are the government refugee camps? It seems questionable whether 1,200,000 people can be accommodated in the homes of other Southern Americans, and those who will lose out will surely be those most in need.

Americans’ aversion to a welfare state may very likely extend to a reluctance to offer long-term help to a city which must rebuild itself from the ground-up. I’m afraid I rather expect a response along the lines of ‘it’s not my problem’.

The US seems willing to allow itself to divide by class just as well as the most corrupt African states: the poor and unfortunate will be those given the least help.

A large degree of environmental evidence suggests that New Orleans should not be rebuilt in its former state. Many feet below sea level, and beneath the level of the Mississippi River, it seems ill-conceived, and as one commentator pointed out today, was the result of trade being considered more important than environmental safety when the Pioneers founded it.

But the city must be rebuilt somewhere, in some form. Yes, the short term focus must be on rescuing the survivors whose lives are in immediate danger. This has been badly managed so far. Where will these survivors go once rescued? How will they become economically independent again?

For a country at the pinnacle of technological and – its ideological supporters would have us believe – cultural progress, the United States’ response to Hurricane Katrina has been appalling.

President Bush is, in mishandling the rescue operation and the long-term security of the people of New Orleans, slowly handing the 2008 Presidential election to the Democrats. Indeed, Mr Bush needs to quickly work towards the return of normality before his and his party’s reputation for handling disasters – let alone his legacy – is irreparably damaged.

But furthermore, fewer people will be looking at the USA and its people in awe tonight, which will greatly endanger the premise of the country’s foreign policy. For it is not just the lives of those in Louisiana which are being destroyed – the reputation of the United States of America is being compromised by its inability to deal compassionately with its own people.

Link: Wikipedia entry on Hurricane Katrina

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