Learning Katrina’s lessons

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — The sufferings of the people of Louisiana and Mississippi as a result of Hurricane Katrina have attracted great sympathy and concern. The initial response of the U.S. government to this catastrophe was widely seen as slow and inadequate, and it seems that lives might have been saved by a quicker response and fewer bureaucratic obstacles.

Although U.S. President George W. Bush seemed unaware of the depths of the tragedy at first, he soon woke up to the political and humanitarian implications of the situation and galvanized the relief effort. Even with the federal government’s vast resources, it will take years to rectify the storm damage.

Before we join in the chorus of criticism of the U.S. response, we need to bear in mind not only the scale of the disaster but its geographic extent. The area devastated was about the size of Britain. We must also realize that mobilizing fleets of buses, aircraft and relief supplies, and getting them into the cities worst affected when roads and bridges have been rendered impassable, is a huge logistic task.

To evacuate everyone from a city with a population of nearly half a million, and then house many of the traumatized, is a vast undertaking.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the tragedy has been the breakdown of law and order in New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane. TV broadcasts of looting and reports that rescue helicopters had been shot at conveyed the image of a lawless country where education levels and moral standards are low.

This image, even if it is one-sided, has harmed the reputation of the United States and raised serious questions not only about U.S. gun culture but also about race relations. Political capital will be made of these issues by the Democratic opposition, which has focused on the fact that the Republican administration is largely white and conservative.

One serious criticism has been the inadequacy of funding for bolstering New Orleans’ flood defenses. Critics point out that Bush’s latest energy bill contains numerous costly projects, some of which have marginal economic benefits but satisfy the aspirations of particular congressmen and senators — in other words “pork barrel” schemes. It has been argued that the New Orleans tragedy was a disaster waiting to happen given its inadequate flood defenses, but it is never easy to persuade legislators to make huge budget allocations for hypothetical situations that may never occur.

As hurricanes go, Katrina was not unique except for the fact that it hit such a populous and low-lying city as New Orleans. Inevitably, however, people have been asking whether it and other recent giant storms have been the result of global warming. This year has seen serious floods in India and Central Europe. At the same time there have been devastating droughts on the Iberian Peninsula, resulting in horrific fires, and in West African countries serious famines have occurred.

Bush still seems unconvinced of the need to take firm action to cut carbon-dioxide emissions. Of course, 100 percent proof is not obtainable, but the balance of probabilities has convinced most scientists that global warming and climate change are real threats. We need to maintain pressure on the Bush administration to take this issue much more seriously.

Katrina put oil wells and refineries out of action in the Gulf of Mexico. This has had a serious effect on the price of oil and gasoline not only in the U.S. but also in Europe, as U.S. demand for gasoline is being met to some extent by diversion of European supplies. As a result the price of unleaded gasoline in England has reached a record £1 per liter.

Many argue that the U.S. should try to curb its oil consumption by increasing its tax on gasoline and imposing heavy taxes on gas guzzlers such as SUVs. But this would be politically very difficult for Washington because of the American people’s love affairs with cars and inadequate public transportation.

Some Americans are trying to blame the Chinese for higher gasoline prices because of the surge in Chinese demand that has accompanied the phenomenal growth in the Chinese economy. They overlook the fact that Chinese consumption of energy per head of population is a fraction of that of the U.S. and other developed countries.

We may think that the world has had more than its share of natural disasters recently, including earthquakes, a tsunami, hurricanes, floods and droughts, but it would be foolish for any of us to become complacent. Moreover, we also have to be prepared for man-made disasters caused by terrorists or accidents. Every government needs to review its disaster relief and emergency plans periodically and ensure that those involved are adequately trained and practiced.

Japanese authorities undoubtedly have learned much from disasters such as the Kobe and Niigata earthquakes, and the sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway. The British emergency services responded quickly and effectively to the bombing attacks in London on July 7, but they did not have to cope with the huge numbers of casualties that occurred as a result of 9/11 in New York or the bombings in Madrid.

Before we loudly criticize the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina, we should make certain that we can cope quickly and effectively with emergencies, whether natural or man-made, within our own borders.