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September 7, 2005 [LINK]

Weather of mass destruction

Hurricane Katrina's full impact in terms of lives and property losses won't be known for months, nor will the responsibility for the sluggish evacuation and subsequent rescue and recovery effort. The uncertainty of the unspeakably tragic situation has not deterred many people from pointing fingers, however. One of the most strident Bush-bashers, Paul Krugman, wrote in Monday's New York Times:

But the federal government's lethal ineptitude wasn't just a consequence of Mr. Bush's personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn't forthcoming?

I hate to admit it, but he has a point. Just as the Democrat Party is full of people who despise the military and wealthy people, the Republican ranks include many people who sneer derisively at anything the (civilian part of the) government does. It is a very unhealthy knee-jerk reaction that needs to be cured.

Given the magnitude of the catastrophe, it is understandable that it would take a couple days to respond in a coordinated, effective way. Large-scale military reinforcements did not arrive on the scene until Saturday, and it is hard to understand why they weren't there by Thursday. To me it seems the most likely culpable party in this episode was FEMA Director Michael Brown, a political appointee with scant relevant experience. Krugman believes that including FEMA within the Department of Homeland Security undermined it, but I think it's quite appropriate, because natural disasters resemble terrorist attacks such as 9/11 in many significant ways. Indeed, the fatalities from Katrina are comparable to what a small nuclear explosion would cause. The main difference is that we can anticipate hurricanes to some extent (though warnings are often ignored), but in the aftermath of an urban nuclear blast we would be paralyzed by fear that another such attack would hit us at any moment. Nevertheless, if this is the way the Federal government would respond in case of a terrorist WMD attack on one of our cities, we are in big trouble.

This country's racial divide is once again highlighted by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. While some politicians and professional agitators have taken advantage of it in an unseemly way, the fact that such a large percentage of the victims are African Americans should make us reflect, and hopefully resolve to act in a constructive way. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin bitterly denounced the lack of help from Washington, but when it was pointed out that hundreds of school buses were not used to evacuate residents, as the emergency plan had specified, he had no comment. Unless he can come up with a better answer than that, he will have to answer to the victims, their families, and especially the ones who vote. Former New Orleans resident Phil Faranda refutes the complaints that inadequate funding from stingy conservatives caused needless deaths.

Emergencies such as these are occasions for the collectivist "all for one and one for all" sloganeering, but they also demonstrate the residual fierce independence and self-help instinct of many people, especially the poor. Mayor Nagin has just ordered the rest of the lingering city residents to be evacuated (see Washington Post), which may be wise in light of the contaminated, disease-infested waters in the streets, but it is sad to see folks yanked from their homes.

Is this "American Tsunami" the result of global warming? Scientists may eventually decide that the apparent rising frequency of large storms has stemmed from global warming, but one cannot infer causation from general background trends based on a single observation, so arguing along these lines is not likely to be fruitful. Let's wait and see. We can't afford to risk a delayed global response, you say? Well, the proposed Kyoto Protocol standards are not likely to yield much effect, even if they were enforceable, so until I hear of a more serious proposal, I will refrain from getting upset over the lack of action. Sometimes doing nothing is better than making strenuous exertions just for show.

One final observation: Americans are not used to seeing huge numbers of their countrymen enduring such desperate hardships. How could this happen in America? Well, we were due for a major natural disaster, and frankly I often wondered how long it would be before a major hurricane struck a major U.S. city. As for the looting, shooting, raping, and general bad behavior, that is a common characteristic of most human beings when the legal authority of the state (government) vanishes, a common theme in classical writings that is almost universally ignored in schools nowdays. I learned that Oprah told her audience that those who have left New Orleans to seek refuge elsewhere are not refugees, they are "survivors." Such hypersensitive labeling is not helpful to the task of confronting the national challenge. It reminds me that Americans being put in the unfamiliar role of refugees on an exodus fleeing from death and mayhem (such as Jews in World War II) was the main theme of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

I don't see myself as a source of moral guidance, so I will refrain from exhorting other folks, as other bloggers (e.g., Glenn Reynolds) have done, to donate to the American Red Cross, the Episcopal Relief and Development, or other relief agencies. Isn't that civic duty obvious enough?

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 07 Sep 2005, 1: 32 AM

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