By Walter M. Brasch
Meteorology has helped take the surprise out of the arrival of major weather-related events, enabling us to get out of harm's way and limit the damage. So we often take it for granted that though we can't control the storm, we can keep ourselves safe. Dr. Walter Brasch's concise book, Unacceptable: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, is indeed an excellent reminder of the tragedy that was Katrina, not just in terms of the physical severity of the storm itself but also of the government's severely limited, too-little-too-late response.
Unacceptable was started as series of essays written during Katrina and its aftermath. As the days of endless tragedy unfolded, Brasch had more to say than would fit in a few columns and this book was born. Unacceptable covers a lot of the details that were buried in the broader news stories and have now mostly been forgotten. What we best remember are the tragic photos - both of people stranded on rooftops and of President Bush in the eye of the camera, caught like a deer frozen in the lights of Jackson Square. The book should serve as a reminder of the why, essential if we are to prevent future calamities like Katrina.
As we face a new hurricane season, it's always a good idea to review and compare past storms. Katrina stands as the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history, and the deadliest since 1928, with a death toll of over 1300 as of December 2005 (with many still unaccounted for). Though Katrina's intensity was superseded by two other storms in the U.S., it ranks among the top ten worst natural disasters. Displacing over 1 million people and damages exceeding $100 billion, Katrina brought unprecedented devastation. Because the other contenders on this short list of "worst natural disasters" took place before TV cameras could record the ongoing wreck, it makes for a difficult comparison. But for Katrina, it was impossible to hide not just the devastation brought by the storm but the devastation brought by the lack of government response. The biggest tragedy is that much of the human loss was preventable had the government reacted quickly and efficiently. Unacceptable highlights how the government was remiss in its response and sorely lacking in preparedness, particularly at the federal level.
The book takes us through the events from the early storm warnings announced by the National Weather Service through the receding flood waters in New Orleans after much of the population had been displaced. As Brasch marches us through the eye of the storm, he documents the abysmal response of local, state, and federal officials. Brasch reminds us that there are routine evacuation drills at our nuclear facilities, and while they are inadequate, at least there is a plan in place. Although the general public does not often think about evacuation plans for a nuclear disaster, there is not much warning time for such events, whether caused by accident or attack. But for Katrina, we had four days in which to prepare and didn't.
Although the public was bombarded with images and news as the storm raged and is certainly aware of the tragic events that were Katrina, Brasch provides some important context. Failure to heed warnings was merely the climax of many failures that formed the perfect storm. Documenting these failures in one place exposes the scope and breadth of the Bush Administration failures and indeed it is breathtaking.
Of course we can't prevent hurricanes, although the advancing global warming is making them more frequent and more violent, and the Bush Administration's failure to recognize the science of global warming can be added to the list of contributing factors in Katrina. But we can and should prepare to protect those in harm's way and minimize property damage. Americans are used to believing in our own invincibility. The magnitude of neglect of the most vulnerable in our population and the resulting chaos is hard to put in perspective.
Though Katrina is one of the worst natural catastrophes in U.S. history, and the warnings of its arrival were all there, perhaps the biggest tragedy is that it exposed how utterly unprepared we are to respond to any large-scale disaster, whether natural or terrorist related. In fact, as Brasch aptly reminds us, it was FEMA in March of 2001 that listed the three most likely disasters that the U.S. would have to face: 1- another large-scale earthquake in San Francisco, 2- another terrorist attack on New York City, and 3- a hurricane and flood in New Orleans of catastrophic proportions. The Bush Administration disregarded all of them. FEMA didn't use a crystal ball to come up with this list; they used their own scientific studies and data. A year after Katrina, the agency that got two out of three predictions correct has been marginalized and the Bush Administration continues to claim that "no one could have predicted this," though that claim has been used to defend several examples of their ineptitude.
Brasch supplies the facts, many of which were buried by the media and replaced by stories that were better companions for the pictures that filled our TVs for a couple of weeks. He also aptly notes that at the time of the storm, Bush's popularity was quickly falling and the media was less intimidated about covering the story. Plus, good pictures sell news. Because Bush was on vacation and no one was minding the store, media folk arrived in New Orleans and had unlimited access, save for limitations based on physical safety. As it turned out, many in the media were considerably more creative in figuring out how to go about overcoming obstacles, some even joining rescue efforts to fill the gap left by the government. This was not to last, however. The quest to get the most shocking story eventually descended to reporting rumors as facts. Nevertheless, with cameras pointed 24/7, it was easy to conclude that the government was missing in action.
For a short while, the spotlight was focused on the poor, for they were the biggest losers in this American tragedy. Two-thirds of the population of New Orleans was black and many of those who remained in the city did so because they lacked alternatives. Over half of the lives lost were people over the age of 60. Brasch hypothesizes that "President Bush may have been slow to react just because a hurricane isn't what he believes is a terrorist attack and because he, like much of America, is oblivious to large segments of the American population" (p. 48).
Eventually, the flood waters receded, and so did the outrage - though it is surely still seething under the surface in the Louisiana lowlands, buried under the muck. Brasch's book is an important reminder of what tragedy can befall us in the merger of a void in leadership and widespread incompetence; we are vulnerable to not only the disaster wrought by nature but the disaster wrought by the inept officials who blame one another rather than accept responsibility and learn from their errors.
PostScript: Update from the author
Almost at the one-year anniversary of Katrina, I asked the author to give us an update of where we stand. Here is his response:
One year after Katrina, we are more aware of the necessity for strong disaster preparedness. And, we talk about it more. But, we haven't done much more. This isn't just a problem in New Orleans, but throughout the country. There are still major problems with communications--both in communications among emergency responders and in public information to residents before and during the disasters. Evacuation plans throughout the country are negligible, at almost every level. On paper, they look good, and fill some kind of a mandate, but the reality of evacuation is still a major problem. Funds that should be used for disaster preparedness and recovery are still being diverted to support the war in Iraq. There is still an attitude, even among local emergency management agencies, that terrorism is a greater concern than natural disasters. This is partially fueled by the availability of state and federal funds for terrorism response [rather] than for disaster relief. FEMA, once a good federal office, is trying to recover from its public humiliation. There are plans to disband it, and create a new office. The solution isn't to rename the office, but to improve it, to bring it to the strength it had under the Clinton administration. If the people demand more funds be spent against natural disasters, if the people demand better response, if the people would make their views heard in public meetings, and in campaigns by persons running for elected office, then there may be a possibility we can protect the people.
How do you answer to those who claim that it's the responsibility of local governments to respond to natural disasters in their areas?