Sadly, we are accustomed to the regular occurrence of natural disasters. It seems as if every few months a storm, flood, tsunami or earthquake devastates a country, exacts a frightening toll, and reminds us that we remain susceptible to the forces of the physical world. In the perennial struggle between humankind and nature, civilization’s victories are temporary at best.
Most of us believe that such disasters are not “our” problems. Readers of this newspaper live with the ever-present risk of a massive earthquake, but that reality does not penetrate daily life. Yet the risk of being visited by a calamity is real, as the citizens of the U.S. Gulf Coast discovered last week.
Hurricane Katrina, a “Category 4” storm (5 being the most destructive) with winds in excess of 200 kph hit the Gulf Coast of the United States on Aug. 29. The storm made landfall at New Orleans, a city built behind levees; it is estimated that 80 percent of the city is under sea level, rendering it vulnerable to flooding if those levees do not hold. Many city residents had left the city, but the poorest among them, without access to transportation, were forced to remain. The levees broke, New Orleans flooded, and scenes of despair and degradation, chaos and confusion were shown to all the world.
There were bodies floating in rivers or abandoned on city streets. Makeshift refugee centers overflowed with people, yet there was no food, water or personnel to help them. Looting broke out as desperate people struggled to stay alive. A major city in the richest country in the world descended into anarchy. As these scenes played out, officials at every level of government — from the mayor of New Orleans to the president of the U.S. — bickered and stumbled from one moment to the next.
The natural disaster was compounded by human failure. Although the storm’s path was plain, New Orleans officials did not order the evacuation early enough; nor did they provide sufficient attention to the fate of those too poor to leave. State officials did not deploy the National Guard in time. The ranks of those forces and their equipment were already diminished: More than one-third of Louisiana guard and reserve soldiers were in Iraq. Moreover, many of those soldiers’ ordinary jobs were as police and firemen, the first responders in the event of a disaster.
The federal government has been slammed for being slow to respond and being out of touch. Only the federal government has the resources to cope with emergencies of this size, but it was unprepared. Since the lead agency to deal with these disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was reorganized after Sept. 11, 2001, dealing with natural disasters has slid down the list of priorities. Terrorism now dominates disaster planning.
The bursting of the levees had been predicted in every major disaster study and even served as the basis of contingency planning by the federal government. Yet funding requests for flood control and the levees have been cut for several years, and federal officials conceded they were not prepared for flooding.
U.S. President George W. Bush has been criticized for failing to grasp the enormity of the crisis. His administration now appears to be attacking the problem on two fronts: It is refocusing its energies on alleviating the suffering and deflecting blame for the catastrophic system failure.
It will take weeks for New Orleans to be drained of water. Only then will the death toll be known. It is expected to reach thousands. (And the destruction extends far beyond one city.) The economic cost will be in the tens of billions of dollars and will be felt worldwide: New Orleans is the fifth-largest port in the world and a critical node linking the U.S. to the global economy. The port could be closed for weeks and the effects will ripple around the world.
Mr. Bush must deal with the fallout from this incident. The decision to postpone this week’s summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao is one sign of this new focus on domestic affairs. The death of Chief Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist will reinforce this tendency.
Mr. Bush is likely to be damaged by this episode, but, as after 9/11, he can bounce back. He will be hurt politically. The wisdom of involvement in Iraq will be attacked to the extent that it may deny U.S. cities the means to deal with problems at home. The president’s domestic political agenda must now be rewritten.
There are lessons for the rest of the world. The storm exposed dangerous vulnerabilities in disaster response. If the U.S., with all its preparations and its resources, could not cope, what hope do other countries have? We must be ready for failure and prepared to mitigate the tremendous human suffering that seems inevitable in such catastrophes.
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