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September 21, 2005

9/11, 7/7 and Hurricane Katrina: The Benefits of the Disaster Blame Game

Posted by Joyce Lee Malcolm

After any disaster there is a natural tendency to ask, who is to blame? This goes further than asking who or what is the immediate cause of the disaster - terrorists in the case of 9/11 and 7/7 and the weather in the case of Hurricane Katrina. The question soon becomes, could something have been done to prevent the disaster? Did the authorities do all they could? Joyce Lee Malcolm - Professor of History at Bentley College - argues that the process is unpleasant and often unfair. Nonetheless it is necessary if future disasters are to be avoided. However in the case of Hurricane Katrina, most of the criticism has been targeted in the wrong direction.

On September 11th a group of New York City firefighters, helping with the rescue effort in New Orleans, paused to pay tribute to their 343 brothers who died on that date in the World Trade Center. Miles to the north 1000 people gathered in a field in south western Pennsylvania to honour the passengers of United Flight 93 whose lives ended there when they crashed their hijacked plane where it would hurt no one else. Thousands more marched in Washington in memory of the victims at the Pentagon. And in New York City, at the site of "ground zero", the 2749 names of those who perished there were read by weeping relatives in a ceremony that took four hours. Michael Bloomberg, the city's mayor, opened the commemoration with expressions of sympathy for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the July bombings in London.

We are joined in sadness at the terrible loss of life from these disasters, two caused by human agency, the third by the even more powerful agency of Nature. In the aftermath of each, even before the wreckage has been cleared and the victims identified, the Blame Game began. The process is unpleasant, too often emotional, unfair and off target, but essential, if we are to hit the right target and determine whether any of the deaths could have been prevented, for other disasters surely lurk in our future.

Of the three, the attack on 9/11 was the most unexpected, although the commission that delved into the maze of intelligence information and bureaucratic responses afterward, found security lax and clues that an attack was being planned, possibly involving airplanes. What did work wonderfully on 9/11 were the reactions of the first responders. The police and firemen dashed into harms way, as they were trained to do, sacrificing their lives to save the public. The mayor of New York, Rudolph Guiliani, took charge, reassured the distraught residents, and mobilized the relief effort. New Yorkers rallied, the nation rallied.

In the case of the bombings on the London underground, the British public had been repeatedly warned that a terrorist attack of some sort was likely to occur. And the city of New Orleans, situated ten feet below sea level and sinking steadily along with its levees, lay in a region threatened by hurricanes year after year. Still, both events, when they did occur, came as a shock and caused understandable dismay. While neither tragedy could have been completely prevented, both could have been made less likely.

In the case of London, passengers trapped underground were left to break out of the carriages and grope their way to safety. But the first responders, Londonís police and medical establishment, did a marvellous job. The injured were cared for, the public behaved with dignity, and the police discovered the identities of those who had carried out the bombings with extraordinary rapidity. Then came the closer look. Government policies that welcomed known Islamic extremists into Britain, tolerating and even abetting them for a decade, were no longer found acceptable, and were, belatedly, reversed. Whether the new policies can undo ten years of scandalous disregard for public safety is unclear.

Hurricane Katrina created a disaster on a far more extensive scale than the 9/11 or London terrorists managed. Hundreds of thousands of people across four states are now refugees in their own country - homeless, jobless, dependent on the kindness of strangers. It is estimated some 450,000 new homes will be needed to house them.

Unlike the terrorist strikes, there was clear warning about the force of Katrina, but gross government failure to respond appropriately, especially at the local level in Louisiana. The Blame Game was launched by the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, taking to the airwaves to bemoan his city's danger, later to tell the nation he was "pissed" the federal government hadn't come immediately to the city's rescue. With images of thousands of hapless African-Americans crowded into the city's football stadium, many charged that the government response had been racist. Whites with cars had evacuated as poor blacks, of which New Orleans has many, were left behind because no one cared. Democrats claimed the failure was political, the catastrophe was caused by Bush's tax cuts depriving the city of funds to repair the levees, and policies focusing on man-made dangers, not natural disasters. Most echoed the mayor: why wasn't the federal government there immediately to feed the hungry, stop looters, rescue the population?

But the fingers are pointing in the wrong direction. True, the response of the Federal Emergency Management Authority was slow. But much of the chaos was due to the gross incompetence of the man who was "pissed", New Orleans's mayor. Although the National Weather Service predicted on Friday evening that Katrina, a massive storm, was heading for his city, Nagin waited until 2:00pm on Sunday afternoon to order an evacuation. Was the neglect of blacks who had no transportation racist? Well, Mayor Nagin is black himself. Instead of using the city's emergency plan, after ordering the evacuation, he advised the approximately 100,000 without transportation to walk to the Superdome, then failed to arrange for food, water, sanitary facilities, medical personnel or security at the site. He could have ordered the city's school and public buses to evacuate people but, except for one bus commandeered by a twenty-year old to drive people to Houston, the buses were left to the mercies of the flood. No hospital was evacuated, no patient airlifted to safety. What of New Orleans own first responders? Some of the Big Easy's few police officers abandoned their posts; others joined the looters. For days, those who stayed took no action against looters.

Kathleen Blanco, Governor of Louisiana, was no better. On Sunday before the storm hit, she called upon the people of the state to get down on their knees and pray, but never made the necessary telephone call to the federal government requesting help. Laws that protect our federal system require a governor to request federal assistance, but Blanco never made that legally mandated call. She later interfered with attempts to streamline command for troops flowing to Louisiana. The American military were mobilized to assist, but cannot do so without being asked. Our federal system, of which we are so proud, failed us. Shamefully incompetent local and state officials failed to rise to the occasion, even minimally.

Was the collapse of the city's levees caused by tax cuts? Actually Louisiana and the city of New Orleans have gotten more money for structural projects than California, a far larger state. Buildings in earthquake prone California are constructed to withstand a quake. The city of Chicago has been built up in places 12-15 feet above the original ground level for protection against storms in Lake Michigan. Yet in New Orleans, sinking for the past seven or eight decades, the levees were not repaired or built higher, buildings not designed to withstand a flood.

Whether the federal government should be given authority to be the first responder is difficult to answer. There are dangers to having the army immediately handle all emergencies. Natural disasters are common and other states cope. Much depends on wise local and state leaders. New York had those. A long history of mismanagement, misgovernment, and sheer fecklessness, betrayed the Big Easy. Its people are now scattered to better-run states, its children enrolled in better school systems. Unless the Blame Game identifies those truly to blame and the people of the state insist on competent government, the Big Easy may be, perhaps should be, history.

Joyce Lee Malcolm is Professor of History at Bentley College.


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May I start by appearing to fly off at a tangent? What might Kate Moss have to do with New Orleans? It may be that her appeal, above that of other supermodels who lead more sober lives, came from people getting a vicarious thrill from her depraved lifestyle. With the recent turn of events, she has become a liability, as potential customers begin to think "Perhaps I prefer humdrum old me after all" and she is no longer an asset to the fashion companies, who have thereupon dumped her.

So what connection has this with New Orleans? A similar attitide problem. There may indeed be Republicans who didn't give a tinker's cuss for the poor, Democrats who found political capital to be made from her poverty, and all sorts of people who made money out of her sleazy image. But there must have been far too many 'ordinary' people who liked New Orleans the way she was, allowing them to indulge in sentimentality, or even to enjoy vicarious sin without (in this life at least) fear of the consequences. All this would have blinded our eyes to her precarious situation.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 26, 2005 10:03 PM
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