The Tale of Two Hurricanes

Witnessing two dangerous hurricanes within weeks of each other in essentially the same part of the country, but in quite different circumstances, both demographically and geographically, furnishes the opportunity to make comparisons between the reactions and actions with respect to the behavior of citizens, local and state officials, federal-government officials, and the military. Whereas tens of thousands of people were un-served and virtually abandoned with respect to Katrina/New Orleans, such was not the case with Rita and the Texas/Louisiana area, where the worst problem occurred in the malfunctioning of a bus, causing 24 deaths. Otherwise, there was plenty of flooding and physical damage in both places, though nowhere in the country could be compared to the “bowl” of New Orleans, situated as it was/is well below sea level and the water level of huge Lake Pontchartrain on its north side and still providing a monstrous threat to a city newly flooded.

Perhaps the key to understanding why the New Orleans episode was such a complete debacle lies in the answer to a question posed by a reporter to a FEMA representative regarding preparations for helping folks face Rita, with the least amount of disruption. He asked what FEMA (the federal government) had done in the matter of evacuating the threatened localities. The answer by the official was simply that FEMA had pre-positioned its resources at strategic locations from where help could be quickly dispatched, but that evacuation was the sole responsibility of local officials. Thus, it is easily seen why two million people evacuated the areas threatened by Rita, with virtually no loss of life, not that there weren’t considerable problems with traffic, gasoline shortages, etc. This problem will have to be addressed in future emergencies, and much was learned through dealing with the traffic tie-ups in Texas. Local officials in Texas simply made it plain that the best way to face a hurricane is not to face it at all, but to “get out of Dodge.” The citizens listened.

Contrast this with what happened at New Orleans. FEMA had pre-positioned its resources in that area as well. The president even declared a state of emergency well before Katrina hit. During the Friday night of 26 August, permission was asked of Louisiana Governor Blanco by federal officials for National Guard troops to enter the picture, and she refused. On the next night, the 27th, the head honcho of the Weather Service warned New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that he should get everyone out of the city because Katrina was a category-5 hurricane capable of wreaking unspeakable damage and hardship. With fleets of school-buses and city-buses at his disposal from the get-go on the Friday before, he still had all day Sunday the 28th to work on this, as well as most of the night. About all he did was to tell folks to go to the Superdome and take some supplies. The hurricane came in early Monday morning, and the rest is history…a history of suffering that was totally uncalled for and could have been avoided if local and state officials had exercised even a slight degree of common sense. Nagin had not even bothered to stock the dome with food, water, etc.

This, however, is not to say that individual citizens must not take primary responsibility for themselves and their families. They are the first responders in every situation. The ones who exercised sound judgment got in their cars or used other conveyances and left the city. According to figures of the U.S. Census Bureau for 2004, only 8.6% of housing units in New Orleans were not represented by an available vehicle. The national average was 8.7%. The numbers for Mississippi and Alabama were 7.7% and 6.4%, respectively. So much for the lie that black folks were too poor to leave the city. All they needed was the price of a tank of gas. If they could afford the car, surely they could have afforded to drive it. As for where they would stay, that would have been settled anyway, just as it has been because they couldn't get back home. The most vulnerable – old people in nursing homes and hospitals, as well as children – suffered because they were treated to almost criminal neglect by their own families and/or local governments. Many of the for-profit nursing homes arranged to have all their patients evacuated. One even chartered a plane to get them away from the action.

Even as the storm hit, Governor Blanco had not yet given permission for the federal government to take action, and it’s a wonder that literally thousands more did not die because of this negligence. For his part, Mayor Nagin did little more than wring his hands, try to place blame on anybody but himself, and scream for somebody to do something. Without any doubt, he should be impeached at the earliest opportunity, as should the governor, their apparent political jealousies taking center stage when they should have been thinking of the enormity of the problem. In the final analysis, though, people cannot be driven from their homes. They must leave willingly, even if ordered to do so. Perhaps the people in New Orleans were convinced that if they left, their properties would be looted…and they were right…but so what! What’s more important – life and limb…or “things?”

This leads to another matter, that of civil order. The levee breaches were not noticed until well after Katrina had hit, so it seemed that New Orleans had been spared the worst of the storm and that its inhabitants had been wise to stay and protect their properties. It had been spared. The worst of the storm was experienced in Mississippi, where people’s “things” were literally blown away, but where, compared to New Orleans, there were hundreds fewer deaths. Once it was discovered that folks in New Orleans actually had to head for higher ground, the looters took over, ransacking every establishment they could, actually wading through water to steal everything from TVs to sneakers. In the process, the hard-core criminal element simply committed mayhem, deadly in a city from which a third of law-enforcement officers had fled. By contrast, Mississippi Governor Barbour and local officials in Texas put out the word early that lawbreakers would be treated with the most severe consequences necessary, up to and including being shot on the spot.

Without question, there has been enough blame to go around, but the bulk of it belongs to the local and state governments. The contrast between the reactions to the two hurricanes makes this unmistakably plain. There has been little outcry in Mississippi and Alabama, where there has been considerable destruction – total in many places. The people are putting things together or relocating as they see fit, with the help of FEMA. The same will be true in Texas and southwest Louisiana in the wake of Rita’s destruction. The feds, though blamed for being late in responding to Katrina, saved people by the thousands, and were helped by private citizens/institutions contributing financially and with everything from motorboats to helicopters. Using military planes, thousands of people have been relocated by the government all over the country, many, if not most, of them never to return to New Orleans for reasons that should be obvious to anyone. Who wants to live in a place as vulnerable as a city that not only has been gradually sinking farther below sea level for years, but which is bordered all around by levees that could again fail if, indeed, they are ever rebuilt to stand even a category-4 hurricane?

There are other lessons to be learned, but a major one is that it is both dishonest and wildly unpatriotic to categorize anything that happened or didn’t happen as the result of either racism or bigotry, with respect to the poor or blacks or both. The Nagins and Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons and various and assorted elected officials (particularly congresspersons) who certainly know better have played the race card, especially, for all they thought they could get out of it…mostly money or position or 15 minutes of fame. A plague on all of them! They should understand by now that a caring nation has dug deeply to help, and that they would do far better to express appreciation, help with finances and relocations, and, if nothing else, just shut up.