‘Third World’ chaos hits home


HONOLULU — The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in the United States is proving difficult for Americans to comprehend. Casualties currently number in the scores, but the body count is expected to swell in the days and weeks ahead — when the survivors can stop merely trying to survive and can begin to focus on the dead. One computer model — which has been right at predicting the impact of the storm thus far — predicts the death toll could exceed 80,000 people.

Americans have been stunned by scenes of carnage and mayhem. The scale of the suffering is almost impossible to grasp. A major U.S. city, with a population of over 460,000, seems to have vanished beneath the water.

Pictures of anguish alternate with scenes of violence, and anarchy. Television reports have shown bodies floating down rivers or wrapped in blankets and abandoned on city streets. There was footage of looters running from stores with their hands full, police and military officials struggling to impose order and often failing. Survivors are homeless, hungry, hurt and bewildered. There is confusion on the ground; it is unclear who is in charge.

All too often, Americans have seen this destruction and chaos, but it is always “over there.” Like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Americans have discovered that they, too, are vulnerable at home to disaster and tragedy on an inhuman scale. The initial pain and confusion is now giving way to grief and outrage.

Katrina was a massive storm, a Category 4 hurricane (5 is maximum) that hit the U.S. Gulf Coast with winds that reached 280 kph. A storm of that force will always leave a trail of destruction in its wake. But it is painfully clear that the crisis Katrina created has been compounded by the failure to:

* fund projects that would have strengthened levees that eventually burst (as many predicted) and that would have built and maintained pump houses to prevent flooding. Funding has fallen by nearly one-half in the last four years;

* issue warnings and order an evacuation of New Orleans until just 24 hours before Katrina hit;

* prepare for a natural disaster on this scale. After 9/11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was reorganized and put under the Department of Homeland Security, where planning focused on responding to a terrorist attack.

Moreover, the deployment of some one-third of local National Guard and reserve forces to Iraq also deprived local authorities of the manpower and equipment they needed to restore order.

Americans are at a loss. Many are ashamed of their government’s response, but they are doing what they can. Neighboring states are taking in the homeless and the hurt. U.S. aid agencies collected more than $90 million in the first three days after the storm hit. More than 20 countries have offered various forms of aid, including Australia with a pledge of A$10 million and Japan, at least $500,000 (not counting corporate donations). Even Sri Lanka, the recipient of U.S. aid after the December 2004 tsunami, which claimed 31,000 lives in that island country, has promised $25,000. While much appreciated, most Americans feel this is something they can and should handle themselves.

Katrina’s destruction force extends far beyond New Orleans. It leveled cities across the southern U.S. All Americans will feel reverberations as a result of the damage to the nation’s oil-refining capacity. Eight major refineries in the area, which produce about 159 million liters of gas a day, or 10 percent of U.S. consumption, have been closed.

U.S. President George W. Bush is likely to be hurt by the storm. His administration has been criticized for a slow and ineffectual response; FEMA in particular has been slammed. The president himself has looked out of touch. A New York Times editorial called his first response to the disaster “one of the worst speeches of his life.”

With his popularity ratings already at the lowest point in his administration, Katrina could break the Bush presidency. It is certainly a stark challenge to a governing philosophy that calls for small government. Plainly, the federal government is the only organization capable of dealing with a disaster on this scale.

The most important dimension of the Katrina disaster will be its impact on the American psyche. As in the past, Americans will focus their energies on fixing the devastation and helping the millions directly affected by the storm. (Technology is facilitating the response: E-mails from hotel chains, airlines, etc. provide ways to donate funds. Blogs have given space to sponsors soliciting donations.)

Americans saw, and were moved by, the December 2004 tsunami and the January 1995 Kobe earthquake. But those events were far away, and distance is a powerful balm. Katrina, like 9/11, hit home. Americans once again have been reminded that they are not immune to the devastating forces — both natural and man-made — that lurk in daily life. The question is how they will respond to this new and startling revelation.