A massive federal aid effort is being mounted maybe in the Gulf Coast areas hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, but millions of Americans are left wondering about the state of emergency planning in this country.
Some of the discussions will have a partisan tinge, but that is inevitable. President Bush is the commander in chief of the armed forces, which should as a last resort be delivering timely aid to people, including the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 residents of New Orleans who days after the hurricane struck were still being shown in media reports sloshing around in flooded, dangerous streets. Their plight is palpable and pitiful, a problem for an administration that has been touting its activities in improving homeland security.
Suppose that instead of a tropical storm breaching a levee and flooding a large American city, the disaster had been a chemical or crude atomic weapon of some kind that necessitated the evacuation of an entire metropolitan area.
The inundation of New Orleans in a tropical storm was warned about in the 1990s, but if the Federal Emergency Management Agency has conducted exercises based on such large-scale emergencies, it has not produced a workable plan for evacuating a big city in the case of a disaster.
President Bush did cut short his summer vacation in Texas, although not omitting another media event to vindicate the U.S. war in Iraq before returning to Washington. That sounds harsh, but in 1993 The Blade editorially harpooned President Clinton, on his way home from a summit meeting in Japan, for gamboling in the water off Hawaii while his vice president was inspecting the damage done by the flooding Mississippi River.
This crisis has caused so much damage that some observers wonder whether the region, especially New Orleans, can or should be rebuilt. In 1993, the feds had no trouble in telling residents along the flooded rivers that they would have to rebuild above the floodplain. That was done in a number of communities, but the precedent may be ignored in the current emergency.
What is to be done about the tens of thousands of residents who must be relocated for a substantial length of time and given assistance in restarting their lives again? Moving more than 20,000 people from a storm-damaged sports arena in a flooded city to an intact sports arena in Houston, some six hours away by bus, was at best a very temporary expedient.
People cannot be made to live indefinitely under such circumstances without risking serious physical or even mental illness. Yet that was the best FEMA could do. Someone suggested the use of military bases for displaced people; there is precedent for such use of military facilities in Florida.
The success of the federal response cannot yet be fully assessed, but it is clear that FEMA and other agencies were not prepared. Even the Navy ships now en route to the Gulf Coast did not leave Norfolk until midweek. Some lessons are clear. First, voluntary evacuation is not practical for poor people who lack money and means to leave. Second, Washington has focused mainly on preventing attacks by terrorists, while not giving enough thought to mitigating any natural or man-made disaster that does occur and improving the nation s defenses against them. Third, the Iraq war s demand for manpower, materiel, and money has caused a proportionately greater neglect of the nation s infrastructure. National Guard units, which should be doing this kind of domestic duty, are heavily committed in Iraq.
These issues must be explored by the White House and Congress when the immediate emergency is over. Neglect of domestic infrastructure like the New Orleans levees is too high a price to pay for living in the sole remaining superpower nation particularly when the price of neglect must be paid anyway by every American who pays taxes or buys an insurance policy.