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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The NOLA/Gulf Blame Game

Being bombarded by analyses of why Katrina happened (global warming, the sins of N’Awlins and the Mississippi riverboats) to the responses of government ("adequate", "crap"), I found that as even as I attempted to sleep, my own thoughts on the topic came rushing forth. Whether any of it's coherent, you can judge.

Was the response adequate?

I was watching CBS Sunday Morning this week. I don’t know that it was the producers’ intent, but the collective feeling was. "Boy, did the United States screw up!" They showed the rapid – less than 18 hours- response by the U.S. military to the victims of the December 26, 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, an event that was not at all anticipated. Meanwhile, a Category 5 hurricane is heading towards New Orleans all weekend, yet the response was so slow that government of tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka is offering US aid, not to mention Russia and our friends the Cubans. Moreover, even among our allies, the poor response suggested that "the only superpower in the world" had "feet of clay" when it came to protecting its own citizens.

The levee that gave way was supposed to withstand a Category 3 storm. But by the time the storm actually hit the city, the winds were only 100 mph; that's Category 2. Was the levee constructed poorly?

Meanwhile, Nancy Giles, a black woman of the liberal persuasion who does commentary for the show noted that Jesse Jackson kept away at arm’s length the suggestion that the lack of governmental response to Katrina was racially motivated. Then Giles, surprisingly to me, said: "O.K., if he won’t say it, I’LL say it," and launched into a scathing indictment of the federal response.

"There will be time to assess blame later."

OK, that sounds like a benign, though self-serving comment from a government official (I saw the HHS Secretary say this on Wolf Blitzer’s show Sunday at noontime, but others have said almost exactly the same thing.) It is good that in this period of uncertainty, the White House got it together to keep everyone on script.
But even as HHS says that we avoid the blame game, the guy leaks out that the White House was trying to get the local officials to start the evacuation earlier. Oh, so not so subtlely, it’s the local officials’ fault.

And I have heard that once the evacuation order was given, it was the fault of the citizens, particularly of New Orleans for not heeding the call. This was a faulty argument both in terms of logistics and economics. Most of the middle class folks DID evacuate; I know one personally. But there were a lot of folks that simply COULDN’T get out. I don’t think people comprehended the situation. Cynthia Tucker, a black woman who writes a column for the Atlanta Constitution was on ABC’s This Week and asked her sister (whose family evacuated from NOLA to Tucker’s house) why didn’t the folks leave. Tucker’s sister said, essentially, "You don’t GET it. As a middle class person, you just don’t understand."

"It’s the looters’ fault."

Yes, there was looting, and I choose to put it in two categories; those who stole bread and clothes to survive and those who terrorized others. W was quick to support the "strong words" of Mississippi Governor on dealing with looters. Still, government has called out the National Guard for less provocation. The physical threat is continuing but limited and has finally been addressed.

"The lack of recovery in the early stages was racially motivated."

There are people who live in New Orleans’ 9th Ward who believe that the levee broke in their neighborhood, where I predict at least a quarter of the city’s dead will be found, because of an explosive device placed on the levee. Even the mayor, who has been very critical of the federal government response, has not suggested that. Nor do I believe the government consciously and callously responded with racist or classist intent. Or maybe I choose not to believe it, at this time. As for subconscious intent: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" There is a history of floods affecting particular ethnic neighborhoods and the response. I highly recommend that you read David Brooks’ New York Times column of September 1

"It’s the governments’ fault."

Ultimately, my concern in the blame (or how about a nice positive word, such as "responsibility") issue lies with three phases of responsibility, particularly when the less powerful are dealing with the more powerful. And this, I’ve found to be fairly universally true, especially if the power status quo remains:

Phase 1: We just don’t know enough to determine the responsibility for the problem. We’ll do a study.
Time passes, but no one accepts responsibility, or it’s the feeling that some low-level flunky is taking the fall.
Phase 2: It’s time to move on with your lives.
More time passes, and the anger just festers.
Phase 3: Get over it already!

If the people of the Gulf region are not given sufficient answers about the reasons for the breakdown of the response to the disaster, there will be a festering sore in this country that will explode in some other toxic form. I don’t know that it will require what at least one local legislator called for, the firing of every FEMA official.
Many have been particularly critical of director Michael Brown, who didn’t even know there were refugees at the Convention Center for two days, despite the media broadcasting this information. His real qualifications for his current job include being fired from operating an association for lovers of Arabian horses. The recovery should go on now, but if the issue of responsibility is evaded, nothing good will come of it.
Meanwhile, I had 141 hits on this site from Wednesday at noon until yesterday at 10 p.m. That means $141 to the Red Cross. Thanks.

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