Falling Waters, Rising Troubles

The story of the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States is now well-known. As hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans and affluent whites fled in their cars, blacks without transportation were left behind to face an uncertain fate. All previous predictions proved correct – the levees broke, the waters flooded in and the power failed. In the ensuing darkness a spotlight emerged to disclose a huge divide – one of class and race. As the New York Times wrote, “hydrology joined sociology throughout the story line.”

During tragedy of 9/11, the major of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, by his sheer force of command and personality, rallied the nation and was able to provide a sense of purpose and hope. In New Orleans, the tragedy was incremental, progressing over five days, and eventually forcing New Orleans major C. Ray Nagin to resort to tears and obscenities before the president and the administration took notice. As Donald Green, professor of political science at Yale stated: “this was a massive administration failure.”

The tragedy of New Orleans has laid bare the fact that in the United States, there is much more to be concerned about than initially meets the eye. The first problem is the homegrown dogma of the Bush clan, a dogma which has been embraced by the ignorant as well as the intelligent to foster callousness (e.g. Donald Rumsfeld´s comment on the looting in Iraq: “stuff happens”), self-righteousness, and incompetence. Resources and rewards are now allocated via partisan lines – be it Halliburton in Iraq, or a highway project at home. Meanwhile, funding for much-needed social and educational programs, particularly those that target the poor is being cut back or has disappeared all-together. The result is the city New Orleans, where 28% of people, including 50 % of all children, live below the poverty line.

The second source of concern is the growing failure of America’s major national institutions, a failure over which the current administration is presiding. The CIA, FBI, and now FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) are but three examples. Prior to 9/11, the CIA and FBI ignored recommendations regarding the possibility of terrorists flying planes into buildings; prior to New Orleans, warnings by engineers that the levees would burst as well as pleas by Louisiana State officials for Congressional help to repair the levees also fell on deaf ears.

Mr. Bush should know that his recent failures will add to the already growing malaise that Americans are feeling as a result of his handling of Iraq, not to mention his inability to find Bin Laden. More and more Americans are now asking themselves just how effective their institutions and their government really are. This, along with Bush’s transformation of a record surplus into a record debt may explain why George W. Bush may end up being regarded as one of the worst US presidents in recent history.

Nevertheless, the history of the United States is one in which tragedy has spawned positive social change, such as the Great Depression leading to the creation of the New Deal. Luckily, the American people themselves have stepped up in dramatic fashion, and the Administration seems to have finally caught on as well, as evidenced by its improved handling of preparations for hurricane Rita, which hit recently hit Texas.

In a sense, today it is nature that is testing the caliber of people and their governments, and giving us a true reflection of what both are capable of. From the great floods in the Czech Republic and in central Europe several years ago, to the recent Tsunami in Asia and now to New Orleans, nature continues to remind us that we fail to respect it at our own peril. However, we must also have enough respect for ourselves to demand more from those we entrust to govern us, especially in times of crisis.


The New Presenceautumn 2005

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