Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Protected from Our Administration's Machinations?

Katrina Leaves Us Asking:
Are We Prepared? Are We Protected?
By John Sugg and Ken Edelstein
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Wednesday 07 September 2005

(Photo: John Sugg)

The sign in front of a Katrina-blasted Baptist church about 10 miles north of Pascagoula, Miss., optimistically proclaimed that "God is good all the time."

But along the Gulf Coast, where the only commodities in full supply are death and despair, faith certainly is being tested - not so much in God as in our leaders here on Earth. For in the wake of our government's response to Hurricane Katrina, Americans now must ask if we're safer or more secure than we were before 9/11.

The evidence throws back a scary answer: Maybe not. Katrina wasn't a surprise. Weather and disaster gurus have long warned that a hurricane would do precisely what Katrina did to New Orleans. The clearest alarm rang in 2001, months before 9/11, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency told Congress and the president that three massive disasters might hit American cities: a terrorist attack on New York City, an earthquake in San Francisco, and a Category 4 or 5 storm swamping New Orleans.

Now, two of those disasters have come to pass. And astoundingly, we were less prepared for this one than we were for the first. There was plenty of blame to go around. New Orleans' evacuation plan didn't adequately account for thousands of residents who couldn't (or wouldn't) bullet out of town before the storm hit. Disaster agencies in Louisiana and Mississippi were quickly overwhelmed by Katrina and unable to muster any kind of counteroffensive on their own.

But the harshest criticism was aimed at FEMA, whose lack of urgency, followed by paralysis, became more obvious as the week wore on. State and local leaders, as well as officials, volunteers and ordinary citizens in states and cities as distant as Chicago, are seething with frustration as they recount bureaucratic foot-dragging, missed opportunities to deliver aid and, in many cases, a baffling failure to act at all.

Among the disappointed were members of the Georgia-3 Disaster Medical Assistance Team, whom the feds shuttled around four states for five days without giving them an opportunity to treat the people they'd volunteered to help.

Four-hundred miles northeast of the disaster area, such complaints should concern us. Like other Americans, we've watched nervously as the federal government lurched toward a supposedly improved homeland security apparatus.

Now, Atlantans have plenty of reason for angst. While our geography makes a cataclysmic hurricane unlikely, the nearby - and ever more populated - Georgia coast is plenty vulnerable. Meanwhile, Atlanta itself may prove a tempting target for terrorists. Aside from being a population center, we have the world's busiest airport, the world's marquee news network, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Roy Barnes, who was Georgia's governor during the 9/11 attacks, says terrorism was his "greatest fear" while in office. Now, however, with an entire brigade of Georgia National Guard members in Iraq, he says he'd worry more about a major natural disaster.

"We just don't have the National Guard to deal with it," Barnes told CL last week. "You need people to keep order, cut trees, hold water and all that stuff. A terrorist attack that we are most likely to get in Atlanta would be smaller. It wouldn't be an airplane flying into a building. It would probably be a very specific disruption at the airport that may not be large, but would bring the whole airport to a stop."

Nature's strike against New Orleans was utterly predictable, in a way that a handful of hijackers plowing planes into specific buildings one random morning couldn't have been.

We knew where, how, and, to some extent, when the hurricane would hit. A huge storm would step up from the Gulf and thrust a counterclockwise surge through Lake Pontchartrain, north of the city. That powerful right hook would punch through New Orleans' inadequate levees, and the city would fill, like a tub, with chemical- and sewage-infested water.

Thousands would die, amid billions of dollars in property damage. The shipping and oil industries would suffer grievous wounds. New Orleans would be brought to her knees, perhaps never to rise again.

Despite those projections, the administration was woefully late in even comprehending the scale of the crisis, much less responding to it. In a speech in San Diego on the Tuesday after Katrina hit, President Bush devoted barely 5 percent of the text to the catastrophe enveloping New Orleans and the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama.

He later called the disaster a "temporary disruption that's being addressed." His Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff, beamed on Wednesday, "We are extremely pleased with the response of every element of the federal government."

At the same time, TV was beginning to show bodies floating in the streets, drowned children pulled from attics of flooded homes, murder and looting, thousands of citizens crying in distress, whole communities having vanished - and local officials screaming, Where is the federal government? Incredibly, Bush shrugged: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

Yet, four years ago, precisely in response to an anticipated breach, Bush's own US Army Corps of Engineers had proposed a $14 billion project to protect the city. That idea was deep-sixed. And in 2003, the administration actually cut funds to improve the levees by 80 percent. It also cut money to restore wetlands that would buffer the city from tropical storms by 90 percent.

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans cited the Iraq War as the reason the money was stripped.

"For the first time in 37 years," the newspaper reported 14 months ago, "federal budget cuts have all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area's east bank hurricane levees, a complex network of concrete walls, metal gates and giant earthen berms that won't be finished for at least another decade."

As with 9/11, plenty of leaders - in both parties and at local, state and federal levels - can be faulted for ignoring the looming crisis. The warnings came for many years, well before Bush took office. But last week's events laid bare the folly in not taking them seriously enough even to prepare for disaster relief.

Prior to the Bush administration, FEMA had disaster plans that called for massing of relief supplies, hospital ships and other vessels in rapid-deployment staging areas near New Orleans. But the government has been gutting FEMA over the last four years, and neither Chertoff nor Bush's FEMA chief, Michael Brown (a lawyer and GOP fundraiser), have disaster experience.

(Photo: John Sugg)

Bill Clinton's FEMA director, James Lee Witt, warned Congress last year, "I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared." Last week, Witt fumed from the sidelines that detailed plans for a New Orleans disaster weren't followed.

Adding to the ill-preparedness, some 8,000 of the best trained Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard members - with their high-water Humvees, helicopters and tactics tailor-made for mob control and disaster situations - were unavailable because they're in Iraq.

The paralysis that blighted our response to the disaster may be less disturbing than a broader type of paralysis that the calamity exposed: As a society, we seem unwilling or incapable of confronting our most ominous, long-term risks - especially if confronting them might require inconvenience or sacrifice or simply challenging the status quo.

Take, for example, development along the Southeast's coasts. Ten million people now live along the Gulf, almost quadruple the number during the 1950s. In Florida, 6.8 million live in Gulf Coast counties, plus close to 5 million in the vulnerable southeast corner of the state. Alabama's shoreline is - or was - home to about 727,000 people; Mississippi, more than 600,000; and Louisiana, more than 3.5 million.

On Georgia's Atlantic coast, retiree enclaves and vacation refuges are as plentiful as shrimp. Home to Kings Bay submarine base, Camden County, near the Florida border, has seen its population jump over the last 30 years from 11,000 to 45,000.

A common myth says that the concave geography of Georgia's seaboard makes it a less likely hurricane target. In fact, storm experts say the Georgia bite would combine with our shallow continental shelf to make hurricanes more dangerous: it would squeeze a hurricane's storm surge into a tighter, taller, faster wave.

"The Georgia coast is very vulnerable to hurricanes," assistant state climatologist Pam Knox says. "If you've been along the Georgia coast, you know how flat and swampy it is for a long way inland. If a hurricane hit our coast, there would be a lot of flooding."

For years, FEMA and dozens of other experts have argued that coastal development should be restricted. Yet our federal and local governments are spending vast amounts of tax dollars and outlaying massive insurance guarantees to encourage development. And just as more homes and businesses present valuable targets for hurricanes, they also help to expose the coast by diminishing the wetlands and barrier islands that used to buffer the coast from storms.

Wetland protection, both at the state and federal levels, has been weakened rather than strengthened over the last decade or so, falling victim to the heavy lobbying of developers and now to political appointees who don't even believe in the very wetland-protection laws they're sworn to uphold.

In Louisiana, wetlands are overrun at the rate of 28,000 acres a year. And barrier islands throughout the South have been overrun with condominiums and luxury homes. The coasts' natural storm protection system has been reduced to the equivalent of a condom after repeated punctures with an ice pick.

If Katrina teaches any environmental lessons, however, they're likely to be lost on bureaucrats and politicians who find it easier to please developers than to make hard decisions that might demand short-term sacrifice.

Mississippi's governor is a case in point. With the ruin of his coastal communities all too apparent, Haley Barbour told reporters last week that "we will rebuild and the coast will be bigger and better than ever."

Whether insurance companies - which are now paying claims from the most expensive natural disaster in the nation's history - will underwrite Barbour's ambitions remains to be seen. True leadership would be to preserve the coasts with as little development as possible - and thereby avoid the human and financial tragedy of another Katrina. But official wisdom is in as short supply as potable water along the Gulf Coast.

There may be reasons other than the coasts' increasing vulnerability to fret about future Katrina-like disasters. Three weeks before Katrina struck, William Gray, a University of Colorado weather researcher, upped his estimate of named storms this year from 13 to 20. There has been a steady increase in storm activity since 1995 - keep in mind that 1992's Andrew was the first hurricane that year, yet it happened at about the same time in August that Katrina, 2005's 11th storm, was forming. Meanwhile, an article in the July issue of the journal Nature stated that North Atlantic storms' destructive power had doubled during the last 30 years. The article, by Massachusetts Institute of Technology meteorologist Kerry Emanuel, said slight increases in ocean temperatures, the result of global warming, were a contributing factor.

The Bush administration's response to such information has ranged from indifference to hostility. Bush's energy policies have utterly failed to address global warming issues, and the administration has repeatedly subjugated science to politics. And scientists caution that their projections relate to broad climatological patterns: While most projections indicate that global warming will increase the intensity and frequency of tropical storms, they also say it can't be cited as the cause of any particular hurricane. But would it be a bad thing if Katrina amplified those warnings?

Katrina portends a far more disturbing scenario for America than the destruction of one city and the Southeast's booming coasts, or even than fantastic visions of a nation wrecked by global gasoline shortages.

In Mississippi's Gulf Coast areas the day after the hurricane hit, all semblance of government had disappeared. People wandered aimlessly, thousands of cars were abandoned, homes stood wrecked. At a time when leadership at all levels - especially the federal - was urgently needed, there was a void. The television cameras focused on New Orleans looters and chaos, overshadowing the heroic stories of people helping people. When two CL reporters stopped a car along a Mississippi road near the hamlet of Petal, a teenager, Bo Bingham, rushed out of his devastated trailer home to see if there was aid he could provide.

"We gotta help each other," said Bingham, who had survived the storm huddled in a roller-skating rink. Motels opened their larders to refugees. Police officers, with little guidance from federal or state officials, worked tirelessly to ease distress. A scrawled sign in front of a Mississippi farmhouse offered: "We have room for a few refugees."

But no single person or group has the wherewithal to ameliorate the tragedy of a Katrina-scale disaster. At the most basic level, that's one of the most compelling reasons we have government. And government utterly failed the citizens of New Orleans and coastal Mississippi.

Much as 9/11 shifted the nation's discourse rightward - pushing values like privacy and open discourse aside for national security - Katrina may revive an appreciation for dealing with the natural world in a way that doesn't invite so many problems. Perhaps this trauma will begin to cleanse our lenses a bit and allow us to view things as they really are, rather than as part of some vast fantasyland to be lobbied and spun for political expediency..

Or perhaps, it will not. Perhaps, this nation must stumble blindly through more such tragedies until finally we learn that reality matters.

John Sugg is senior editor of the CL media group. Ken Edelstein is editor of Atlanta's Creative Loafing. Staff members Rebecca Ford, Alejandro Leal and Coley Ward contributed.


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