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September 2, 2005

Observations on the decent, the dire and the despicable

Finally, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, water is flowing out of New Orleans as Lake Pontchartrain recedes to its normal stage. After the water levels inside and outside the levees equalize, much of New Orleans’ real estate will still be about eight feet under, where it will remain until levees are repaired and pumps activated, likely in four to eight weeks. A huge swath of Mississippi and Alabama is also drying out from this devastating storm – a storm that left some thousand dead and wreaked incalculable human suffering on more than a million survivors, most of whom are now homeless and jobless.

In a sense, the shock this week was reminiscent of that Tuesday morning almost four years ago – but the death and destruction of 9/11 occurred in two hours, whereas Katrina’s mayhem is an ongoing disaster. As it was with 9/11, our response to catastrophic events such as those witnessed this week define us as a people; it reveals, proportionally, both the best and worst of our citizens and our society.

But the media coverage has not been proportional. For five days and counting, the 24-hour news recyclers have played an endless loop of footage featuring misery and destruction accompanied by thematic tunes and graphics – surreal. Those cameras have captured loss and suffering amid misery and looting. To be sure, that’s what they do best – but there is much more to this story than meets the camera eye.

How we respond to catastrophe says a lot about our character as Americans. Unfortunately, there were very few cameras this week focused on hundreds of thousands of decent people responding to very difficult circumstances with great courage and resolve. At ground level, most who lost all their material possessions remained thankful – grateful that they, their families and their friends, were alive. You know the type. Their glass is always half full and they live for the next sunrise, not the last sunset. Their stories reflect the true American spirit.

Additionally, those who suffered losses are far outnumbered by relatives, friends and strangers who have lent a hand and donated material goods, services and money. These folks have opened their churches, homes and businesses to provide shelter for refugees invited into their communities. Thousands of Americans from around the nation, professionals and laborers alike with expertise necessary for recovery efforts, have left their homes and families in order to volunteer their assistance. Countless millions are offering daily prayer for victims. As each day has passed, the ranks of those stepping forward to help their displaced countrymen have grown exponentially. This is the face of America, but the cameras have not captured these images.

This is the America that volunteered thousands of personnel and billions of dollars to help with the recovery effort in South Asia after last December’s Tsunami.

Further, due in part to federal planning efforts by the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, federal, state, and local government agencies have responded to this crisis side by side, expeditiously delivering emergency support to those who would not – or could not – evacuate in advance of the hurricane or its residual flooding. National, state and local leaders have set aside petty political differences in a unified effort to care for the immediate and intermediate needs of those left homeless. They have also begun to work out a comprehensive recovery plan for the region.

That notwithstanding, the media focus has been almost exclusively on two percent of the affected population who have yet to be evacuated – not only the TV media, but the print media as well. Friday morning, The Washington Post’s headline read “A City of Despair and Lawlessness”. Apparently The New York Times got the memo, too; their headline read “Despair and Lawlessness Grip New Orleans”.

Consequently, there is plenty of media coverage on official complaints that services have not been delivered fast enough, that rescue efforts have been too slow, and that there have been competing agendas. “We are watching this devastation unfold on our televisions for days and you have to ask: where is the federal government?” queried Sen. Frank Lautenberg. “We should have had a significant amount of troops and supplies there on the ground Monday.”

Apparently Mr. Lautenberg is “logistically challenged.” He missed, for example, the fact that when the levees failed, President George Bush activated 15,000 National Guardsmen (5,000 more on the way), who were joined by thousands of police officers, physicians and emergency-management specialists from around the nation. Within 24 hours of the levees failing, there were 50 Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, 25 Urban Search and Rescue task forces, eight swift-water rescue teams, two Incident Support Teams, and 1,700 trucks loaded with water, ice, meals, medical supplies, generators, tents and tarps en route. Additionally, FEMA coordinated massive relief efforts with DHS, DoD, HHS and other agencies with relief capabilities – indeed, an armada is now on its way.

However, as this column has noted before, individual preparedness is the foundation of national preparedness. The federal government does not have, nor has it ever maintained, enough emergency-relief inventories to alleviate all suffering in a catastrophe of this magnitude. What it does maintain will, at best, meet only minimal needs and may not be available for days or even weeks depending on the nature of the catastrophe.

Mr. Lautenberg will have to cut his summer vacation short and return to Washington, though, as President Bush will be asking Congress for $10 billion to cover immediate relief expenditures for FEMA alone.

Lautenberg, however, is not alone in using this tragedy as political fodder. As President Bush was welcoming Bill Clinton to the White House yesterday to assist with fundraising for disaster relief, former Clinton senior advisor and noted White House hatchet man Sid “Vicious” Blumenthal opined, “The Bush administration cut New Orleans flood control funding by 44 percent to pay for the Iraq war. … The Bush administration’s policy of turning over wetlands to developers almost certainly contributed to the heightened level of the storm surge.”

Apparently Sid has forgotten the Senate’s diversion of domestic infrastructure funding to cover the 700-percent cost overrun for Ted Kennedy’s Big Dig boondoggle. Perhaps that $16 billion American tax payers spent on 7.5 miles of Boston highway could have been better spent on levee improvements in New Orleans – but we digress.

The fact is, the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana have been arguing for decades with the federal government over who should foot the bill for the NO’s gambit on developing ever-widening areas of the sinking swamp around the city. Every elected official in Louisiana knew that the city was on borrowed time with its category-three levees. The eventuality of a cat-four or cat-five hurricane was accepted as a “moral hazard.” Indeed, Katrina ended that debate, and American taxpayers will now be saddled with the cost of the levee and the total recovery effort.

Naturally, there were also some AlGorite eco-nuts who actually blamed President Bush and Mississippi governor Haley Barbour for the hurricane. “As Hurricane Katrina dismantles Mississippi’s Gulf Coast,” protested Robert Kennedy Jr., “it’s worth recalling the central role that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour played in derailing the Kyoto Protocol and kiboshing President Bush’s iron-clad campaign promise to regulate CO2. … In 1998, Republican icon Pat Robertson warned that hurricanes were likely to hit communities that offended God. Perhaps it was Barbour’s memo that caused Katrina, at the last moment, to spare New Orleans and save its worst flailing for the Mississippi coast.” (Are we to understand that Jr. is now taking his rhetorical cues from Pat Robertson?)

Despite assertions about “global-warming hurricanes,” renowned meteorologist Dr. William Gray, in a recent interview with Discover magazine (which has advocated the theory of human-induced global warming), begged to differ: “This human-induced global-warming thing…is grossly exaggerated. … I’m not disputing there has been global warming. There was a lot of global warming in the 1930s and ‘40s, and then there was global cooling in the middle '40s to the early '70s. Nearly all of my colleagues who have been around 40 or 50 years are skeptical…about this global-warming thing. But no one asks us.” Gray was described by Discover magazine’s editors as one of “the world’s most famous hurricane experts.” But what do they know. (For an exposition on the causes of global warming, see “The Earth Day Before Yesterday”).

On the topic of fossil fuel, OPEC oil topped $70/barrel this week, though it costs the money-grubbing cartel a mere $4/barrel to produce. (If memory serves, we liberated this region from tyranny twice in recent history, yet no offer of reduced oil prices to help alleviate our refining crisis has been forthcoming.) President Bush will surely be blamed for our high gas prices and our limited refining capabilities – but those casting the blame are the same folks who have blocked construction of a single U.S. refinement facility since 1976.

Back in the Big Easy, the ugliest American face projected around the world this week has been that of the looters. Though they represent far fewer than one percent of those displaced by the hurricane and its flooding, their repulsive actions commanded about 50 percent of field TV broadcasts.

On Canal Street, a man sloshing through hip-deep water with ten pairs of jeans over his shoulder was asked if he was salvaging merchandise from his store. His reply? “No, that’s everybody’s store.” Sadly, that has been the norm throughout the French Quarter, where looters have ripped iron gates from storefronts and taken everything they could lay their hands on. These loathsome creatures have filled industrial-size garbage bags with clothes and jewelry and floated them down the street on pieces of plywood, even as National Guardsman sloshed by on survivor-rescue details. Looters also targeted drug stores and at one point threatened to raid a children’s hospital that hadn’t been evacuated. Relief trucks have been ambushed and robbed by marauding gangs. Ambulances have been overturned. Nursing homes have been invaded. Stories of rape and murder are now emerging.

“We will do what it takes to bring law and order to our area,” said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. “I’m just furious. It’s intolerable.” Here we would advise Ms. Blanco that in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster, and under a state of martial law, the NOPD should be empowered to discharge their weapons when confronted by these riotous gangs – though preferably not while CNN cameras are rolling. Alas, by this time next week, Al $harpton and Je$e Jack$on will have landed, insisting that these hoodlums are actually the victims.

Regardless of the bleak and chaotic face the 24-hour news recyclers have put on this tragedy, the real face of America is that of a million Patriots who have courageously persevered, and tens of millions who are helping lift them up from tragedy – but that face is too mundane for news editors, whose primary concern is market share and advertising revenue.

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