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.”

And so, in the United States of America, despite several days of warning, several hundred thousand men, women and children were left stranded to fend for themselves surrounded by death, looting and chaos. Five days went by with no relief in sight. People died in the streets, in their homes and in the putrid Superdome that they went to in the thousands as a last resort. Their bloated bodies floated in the waters as the death toll reached into hundreds. Thirty-three people were left to die in a single nursing home.

In the tragedy of 9/11, a compact tragedy with foreign enemy, the mayor 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 Mayor 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. To be fair, in history it is always the poor who get the brunt, form a berth below decks in the Titanic to being first on the conscript list. But as one BBC reporter noted, the disaster in New Orleans produced negative behavior unseen in other natural disasters in other parts of the world, such as December´s tsunami, which took place in the Third World. “It´s painful to be witness to someone else´s shame,” he added.

In the United States, that “wrong” and the shame it produces comes from two sources. 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 altogether. The result is the city New Orleans , where 28 percent of the people, including 50 percent 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. With FEMA remaining consistently out of pace, the federal government failed to keep its pledge following 9/11 that it will face domestic emergencies as a coherent force. Though the president and his secretary did fire FEMA Director Michael Brown, it was at least a week too late.

Though the waters are now receding, the bitterness is not. One million people have been displaced. The inquiries into what went wrong are just beginning, and they are sure to continue. From San Francisco to Prague, the new price of gas at the pump will continue to remind all of us of New Orleans for some time to come.

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 the president´s transformation of a record surplus into a record debt, may explain why G. W. Bush â chosen by the U.S. Supreme Court and not by popular vote – may end up being regarded as one of the worst U.S. 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. The question now is: Will Mr. Bush and his administration see it that way, and will they be able to change their ways? Luckily, the American people themselves have stepped up in dramatic fashion. All major networks have held TV telethons, a first in U.S. history. Record amounts of monies have been collected. Individual cities, communities and citizens from virtually all the states have taken in over 100,000 refugees directly under their roofs. It seems that most of them will not return to New Orleans.

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 should be more respectful of it â and also of ourselves.

– The writer is a physician, commentator, and publisher of The New Presence (www.new-presence.com)


The Prague Post14.9.2005

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