Friday, September 16, 2005

Katrina and The Waves of Remorse

Nothing can be quite as bad as watching a major American city crumble like a cookie soaked in a Hot Toxic Superfund Stew, but after enduring the horrors of the New Orleans deluge something comes close. And that would be watching all the government officials in their digitproof vests as they stab fingers in each other's direction trying to pin the blame on someone else's soiled lapel. Of course they all gave lip service to the idea that we should be "responding, not blaming" but honestly, I believe they were all lip synching when they said that. It was the ultimate governmental Ashlee Simpson moment. Which is why everyone is rapidly making embarrassed hoe down moves in response to the public outrage. The president has already dos-i-doed to the region four times in an effort to portray that he cares, and is on top of the situation. The governor is desperately marshalling a belated response (and I'm sure relatives of the deceased residents of various nursing homes will kick in for a collective thank you card), and trying to convince everyone that YES, she was INDEED aware that Louisiana was "her" state. It is so easy to get that confused on election night when so many other governors' races are being decided. It is entirely possible she thought she got elected governor of Illinois and is in fact dealing with a severe drought as we speak. More recently our top government officials seem to have realized that their effort to shift blame has only inflamed public opinion further, to the point where we have started looting positive approval points out of the polls. So instead of shifting blame (which, let's face it, they never accepted to begin with, since it was obviously the National Geographic's fault for not sending every American citizen a copy of their prescient article on the potentially catastrophic flooding) they are now, (hold your breath in anticipation here, or, if you're in New Orleans, because you can't stand the smell in the streets) ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY. They are ALL doing it! It is the trend of the moment. Once you've pointed out that you did everything you could do under the circumstances, and, anyway, had no way of knowing that New Orleans could EVER flood on a rainy day, then it's time to turn the page and regally "accept responsibility." As long as it means you get to keep your job and people stop saying nasty things about you, of course. So far between the president of the U.S., the governor of Louisiana, the Mayor of New Orleans, the chief of Homeland Security, and the head of FEMA (who has graciously agreed to accept responsibility from his recreation room at his home), they have collectively accepted responsibility for: substandard housing in Louisiana's sports arenas, WWI, the JFK assassination, the Great Depression, Watergate, Hiroshima, the Energy Crisis, WWII, Vietnam, Iran-Contra, the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, the Gulf War, West Nile Virus and a plethora of bad photo opportunities emanating from the Gulf Coast region. They are accepting so much responsibility for bad things that I'm beginning to think they are al Qaeda spokespeople minus the angry eyebrows. Exhausted from all the accepting of responsibility, I am sure they need people to spell them. I am here to offer my services, since I routinely accept the blame for things on Thursdays. True, today is Friday, so that gives me a week to rest up and start my blame shouldering the following Thursday. As water levels receded in downtown New Orleans, some interesting facts that were submerged in all the news overload are now coming to light and drying out a bit. The Associated Press has sorted through these facts, and here are a few I'd like to share. First is that the levees that were breached were not exactly the ones waiting for more funding. It was the ALREADY REINFORCED levees that gave way, so no amount of federal money would have stoppered those leaks. In fact, the flooding likely would have occurred even if every levee improvement project had been completed, simply because no one planned to build them to withstand a Category Four-plus hurricane. It is also obvious that everyone "could have" expected the breach of the levees, contrary to the president's assertion. (Although it's possible he was referring to the fact that no levees broke during the storm proper, and news people were already celebrating the bullet dodged by the city the following morning.) There were plenty of academic papers, newspaper articles and magazine pieces discussing precisely such a scenario. Dire warnings were issued by TV weather forecasters as Katrina bore down on the city. The only way you could not have known of the catastrophic potential was if you were singing loudly to yourself in the shower for three straight days. (Come to think of it, everyone's skin IS looking a bit more wrinkly lately.) Need proof? Last year Homeland Security and FEMA jointly conducted an exercise dubbed "Hurricane Pam" to study a proper response to a fictional Category Three hurricane that would hit New Orleans. (Aside: I like the teflonesque qualities implied by Hurricane Pam, as if it were as non-stick as a baking spray.) That study suggested flooding would top the levees and potentially cause mass casualties on the heels of a mass evacuation. It projected upwards of 60,000 deaths, injuries and illnesses in the hundreds of thousands, leaving the area barren for more than 12 months. Now that sort of projection, undertaken just last year by the very agencies in charge of federal emergency response, has to leave us wondering why they were sitting on their duffs when a monster hurricane, larger AND more powerful than the Faux Pam, was taking aim at New Orleans. FEMA director Michael Brown got sacked for the perceived tardiness of governmental response, even though best as I can tell Homeland Security Chief Chertoff did not transfer the authority and responsibility to him until 36 hours after the storm passed. Well, you can't drop a baton until the runner ahead passes it along. In the hot glare of press inquiry Brown's resume problem floated to the surface. It seems he padded that resume to D-cup size when his accomplishments merited "barely an A" status. He did not actually DIRECT any emergency management organizations. He previously worked as an intern for one. Yes, it would be like Monica Lewinsky running the State Department! (Which, frankly, we can't be certain she didn't, at times.) So his job and reputation were an early administrative casualty of Katrina's wrath, and it's hard to feel sorry for him when there are so many others who have lost so much more. Political spinners really ought to give it a rest, though, because if you want to boil the dollars down to a Democrat vs Republican water balloon fight, it turns out the federal government spent $195 million on the New Orleans levee project during the last five years of Clinton's terms, compared with the $276 million spent in the first five years of Bush's terms in office. That might be like comparing Al Gore's "Gentleman's C" grades with those of both John Kerry and G.W. Bush, but at least money was spent. Probably not wisely or well, but it was spent. On top of that, New Orleans is far from the only area of the country that was in desperate need of infrastructure triage. I'll get into that in a future blog. We should all be afraid. Very afraid!


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