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Friday, July 11, 2014
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Published: Thursday, 3/23/2006

Lessons from the storm

SEVEN months after Katrina, they're still finding bodies of hurricane victims in the rubble of homes in New Orleans. Nearly half of that city's population has not returned. To the east on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, 100,000 people whose houses were blown away or flooded by the storm remain shoehorned into government trailers, if they can get one.

And, as if to ratchet up the tension again, another hurricane season is looming on the horizon.

No one thought that recovery would come quickly from the worst natural disaster ever to hit the U.S., but the scope of the devastation and the slow pace of rebuilding after Katrina should constitute a lesson learned for Americans fortunate enough so far not to have been caught up in such calamities.

It ought to be evident by now that government, at the local, state, and national level, was - and still is - ill equipped to provide immediate or even short-term relief from a disaster of this magnitude.

Moreover, it appears that the nation as a whole, from the federal government on down to the local level, lacks the necessary vision to come up with a plan to deal effectively with a doomsday situation in which so much fundamental infrastructure and so many public service institutions are crippled or wiped out in such a short period.

This is not to say that a successful recovery is not in store for the Gulf Coast, only that it's going to be a long struggle, partly because of the politics of the moment.

The government's response to Katrina's wrath picked the scab off old social wounds, demonstrating the sad truth that, however far an egalitarian ethic has advanced in this country, poor people are likely to fare worse after a storm than their better-heeled brethren.

In New Orleans, those who lacked the means to flee the storm's advance were rescued later, or not at all. They were impounded in public shelters under undeniably harsh conditions, and were shipped without choice to the far corners of the nation.

The situation was made worse by the fact that no one in state or local officialdom apparently had ever dreamed that a disaster of such proportion might take place, let alone plan for the aftermath, even though there were warnings for years that the city's flood-control levees could not withstand a catastrophic hurricane.

Federal planning was similarly lacking in scope and was complicated by the lack of anyone in the Bush Administration with the requisite capability to take effective oversight and control of Katrina relief. FEMA needs a thorough overhaul into an independent, nonpolitical agency, although such action probably won't come under this administration.

Regrettably, federal funds that could precipitate quicker recovery in Louisiana and Mississippi are being held hostage in Washington as politicians from afar assert their conditions, including fundamental changes in local government and land-use rules, on how the money will be spent.

Such micromanagement would be considered unacceptable if a calamity the scale of Katrina had wreaked havoc in, say, Florida or even Ohio or Michigan.

For these reasons, local and state officials nationwide will be remiss if they fail to upgrade their planning to better deal with the cost and circumstances of worst-case disaster scenarios. Politics must be removed from the dispensing of emergency federal disaster aid. These are lessons that must not be ignored.



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