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CAHN: Unnatural Disaster

Published: September 23, 2005
Section: Opinions


Once again Americans are forced to redefine the scope of domestic human suffering, once again we are asked to expand our tolerance of governmental incompetence. The flood waters of hurricane Katrina have washed way our illusions, and revealed the decay under foot. It has shown how far America is from escaping our legacy of racism, it has shown how little has be done to protect this nation since 9/11, and it has shown us just how fragile our lives are.

We must not let ourselves be fooled into thinking of this devastation as only a natural disaster. The thousands who perished were not lost because of an act of God, their deaths are a consequence of the negligence of men. This disaster has shown that even the most powerful military in the world is limited by the cold realities of logistics the destruction of New Orleans and our nations inability to respond is just part of the immense price that we continue to pay for the invasion of Iraq.

It is a price we pay in blood, not merely that of the Americans serving and working in that war torn nation, not merely in countless civilians whose deaths we stand responsible for, but in the suffering of countless Americans here at home. When we wage a war of this scale, drawing on unprecedented numbers of reservists and National Guard, we are depriving America of its first responders. Just as important, we lack sufficient heavy machinery, helicopters, and now are forced into supplementing our efforts with equipment provided by foreign nations. When we pump billions of dollars in to our misguided war effort and billions more into even more misguided tax kickbacks, the price is exacted on the politically weak constituents, like those New Orleans residents whose calls for the federal government to secure the New Orleans levee system went unanswered in recent years. Had the system been properly maintained its likely that its foundation would not have been so easily washed away and the toll of this storm would be measured in dozens, not thousands, of lost lives.

The Bush administration cannot claim that this threat was new or unforeseen. Under the Clinton administration, New Orleans saw a massive expansion of funds to maintain its levee system. Yet as conditions continued to deteriorate, the Bush administration shunned this imperative public work project. That is why this is not a natural disaster, but rather a product crafted by human shortsightedness. We neednt have seen the 17th st. levy brake, had funding for its maintenance not been cut those walls would very well have held.

But the federal government was not alone in failing the people of New Orleans. We need not have seen so many trapped in low lying and urban areas for lack of cars, when hundreds of buses lay dormant and available for the citys requisition. We need not have seen so many go without rescue from their rooftops, when the government had the ability to requisition news helicopters, using them to save lives rather than boost ratings.

It is easy to blame those in power when catastrophe strikes, and I would be the last to submit that every disaster shouldve, couldve, and wouldve been averted if only for some contrived and outlandish set of events. But these past few days we have not been watching and wishing we had only seen this coming, we watched and wondered why those in power were the only ones who did not see this coming. Why those in control were the only ones who did not see the simple steps that might have saved thousands.

This dark time demonstrates just how little has been done in recent years to secure the homeland. The department of homeland security has been revealed for the bureaucratic monstrosity that it truly is. But DHS was not alone in demonstrating governmental dysfunction, FEMA itself has much much to acknowledge about its own failures and that of its director, Michael D Brown, Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response.

Mr. Brown failed in his first significant test of leadership, spending agonizing days doing little more than talking to the media and twiddling his thumbs while we watched countless Americans die and plead for rescue. What has been done with the billions that were spent on homeland security after 9/11, what happened to promises that Washington would work to better our response to major catastrophes? One cannot help but fear what this disaster demonstrates about our nations capacity to survive and respond to a major terrorist attack. It is sad to realize that if terrorists ever managed to undertake a major attack with weapons of mass destruction, something that the Bush administration constantly states is their intent, we would likely have little way to respond in the days that would follow.

Yet in the midst of this disaster the hypocrisy of the Bush administration continues. They dodge accountability by saying that this is the time for action, not analysis, yet at the same time they are spending valuable resources sending politicians to the affected regions, setting up photo ops in a desperate attempt to spin this failure of leadership. Do they honestly believe that if we see Condi Rice at a church service we will forget the scores of African Americans who were left to fend for themselves? Do they think if we see Rumsfeld meeting with the brass that we will forget the days when news vans routinely drove through areas the military found impassible?

I hope that we will remember our failure as a nation. I hope that Congress will remember Katrina the next time theyre tempted to start dishing out the pork. I hope that the voters remember Katrina the next time they are told that tax cuts eliminate government waste. And I hope that all Americans remember Katrina the next time they are told that sending national guardsmen abroad makes us safer at home. Most important, I pray that we will work with every coming day to earn the respect and forgiveness of those Americans we so painfully let down.