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Katrina: The Political Mother of All Storms

On August 28, 2005, morning broke along America’s Gulf coast and things will never again be the same. From Alabama to Mississippi to Louisiana, from the coastline to five or more miles inland, hurricane Katrina wreaked a level of destruction never before seen in our country’s recorded history. Although most of the media attention has been played out in New Orleans, the extent of the damage is much greater than one flooded city. Indeed, the total annihilation of commercial buildings and private homes along the Alabama and Mississippi coast greatly exceeds that of New Orleans. Long-term effects of the loss of life, tending to the displaced citizens, removing the debris, rebuilding cities, towns and neighborhoods, and repairing critical strategic industrial infrastructure are certain to be severe.

“America’s Tsunami” is a title being given to the effects of hurricane Katrina, and aptly so because when one looks at satellite imagery of New Orleans before and after the storm, thoughts of Sri Lanka’s devastation last December immediately come to mind. Similar pictures of the Pascagoula, MS, region have not been splashed all over television and the Internet news sites. Neither have the satellite images of Biloxi, MS. Katrina’s wrath went far beyond the Gulf Coast, however. Her path up the west side of the Appalachian Mountains flooded out many additional areas and caused power outages to multiple millions of homes. Damage estimates now exceed $200 Billion. The toll on human life, even now really inestimable, could be 10,000 or more. As Americans, we have spent over 200 years coming to the assistance of civilizations around the world as well as tending to uncountable disasters here at home. We shall overcome this, too.

What has happened in the aftermath, and in particular within New Orleans, has been exactly as one might have expected. Those who have spent a lifetime accepting responsibility for themselves and helping others extended their outreach and love for their fellow human beings by selflessly assisting family, neighbors and total strangers in an effort to survive until help could come. Those who have spent their lives blaming others for their problems and selfishly looking out only for #1 resorted to a well-practiced theme of stealing from their neighbors, sacrificing the well-being of others to fend for themselves, and even resorting to thuggery by robbing people at gunpoint and shooting at rescue workers. It has been a display of utter good and sheer evil.

Predictably, the news media has exploited the people caught up in this tragedy to point fingers at both the federal government and the local government for not responding rapidly enough to the disaster. A mass of reporters arrived on the scene a day before hurricane Katrina was due to make landfall, equipped with ample food, water and clothing for themselves and their support crews. Most importantly, however, they knew that whatever happened, they would be able to be extricated from the affected areas if necessary. These heroes descended upon New Orleans and strategic, high-interest areas along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts with visions of award-winning coverage of the human tragedy bestowed by the storm upon the citizens they would otherwise never be caught dead around (pardon the dark analogy).

One particularly pathetic example occurred last night (Friday) on Fox News. Heraldo Rivera stood in front of the camera, microphone in hand, and proceeded to have a tirade about how sufficient relief had not yet reached the souls in his presence and implying that they were being abandoned. Being certain to place his lily-white, well-fed, freshly-clothed self in the midst of a crowd of black Americans who had been days without provisions, he had the gall to practically snatch a small child out of the arms of his mother and thrust him in front of the camera and rant about no help having yet arrived. The poor kid was about to start crying so Heraldo handed him back to his mother. Heraldo then started waving his arms and besmirching the military and civil response teams for their ineptness and lack of concern for fellow citizens. Ironically, he started the segment admitting to having just arrived there himself, from New York. He repeatedly spoke of it have been “six full days” since Katrina struck the area, when in fact it had been not quite four-and-a-half days. I was so sickened by the display that I had to turn the channel. A compassionate, responsible comportment would have help induce a claming and hopeful presence. Instead, he incited as sense of betrayal. An e-mail has been sent to Fox News.

Not accounted for by the media and other critics of the responders is that fact that 10,000 or more National Guard and Reserve troops cannot arrive instantly on the scene in every location when the need is spread out over an area much broader than just in New Orleans. Folks in Mississippi and Alabama are actually going unserviced because such pressure has been brought to bear on attending to New Orleans just to appease the selfish reports’ self-importance. Our nation’s reporters apparently deem themselves front line commanders charged with calling in support to their locations, knowing that they wield the power to make the rescue operations look bad – and themselves look good - if their demands are not met. Haphazardly inundating all the affected areas without first properly organizing the operation has the potential to make the situation worse rather than better. Real people with real lives and families had to be brought together from around the entire country and organized. Men and women left jobs and families behind to care for their fellow countrymen. They loaded supplies onto trucks and airplanes, checked equipment and headed out as quickly as possible. They were headed into a situation that training can only begin to prepare you for.

When the troops arrived, coverage was concentrated on pointing out how late they were at arriving and how ineffective their efforts were once on the ground and in the air with rescue helicopters. The rescuers had no part in the decision that those they were there to help had made about living where they did in disaster-prone areas. New Orleans’ mayor ranted on television about how President Bush did not care about people there because they are mostly black. Local thugs shot at rescue helicopters and at military members there to help them. Television talk shows rounded up the usual suspects and provided air time to go on in a diatribe about racism and global warming, and that if we had only signed the Kyoto Treaty a few years back, then Hurricane Katrina would have never happened. You know them - they are the same ones quick to blame America for not warning of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

Who is to blame for the disaster? Nobody, and everybody. According to NOAA and other weather expert analyses, a 30-to40-year cycle exists with hurricanes where periods of maximums and minimums emerge. We are entering another period of maximums. We have been warned repeatedly. The previous two decades, which have been in relatively benign times (save for Hurricane Andrew in 1992), have seen unprecedented build-ups of business and residential enterprises in some of the country’s most hurricane-prone areas. Engineering firms planned, government officials granted permits for, banks approved money for, constructions companies built, and people purchased and occupied, at their own free will, all of the houses, factories, shopping malls, condominiums and office buildings that could be put up. Responsible adults made conscious decisions to put their kids in harm's way. Everybody knew the inherent risks. Nobody thought the worst could happen to him or her.
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