Katrina Aftermath: Recriminations, Rancor and Racial Divisions Don’t Help Us Learn from Our Mistakes

Annelie O’Neal Roche, who sent dispatches to this blog while working in New Orleans with her National Guard unit during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (see here, here, here and here), has some thoughts about the Katrina “blame game” currently being conducted in Washington,

Says Lili:

A Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs inquiry into the handling of Hurricane Katrina in recent weeks has reignited the political recriminations over the response to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans. As a soldier who was deployed there for a month, and with family members and church friends who have made contributions to help the victims, I feel especially pained at the way this issue is being debated.I understand this is an election year, and that our President is in his sixth year, second term, meaning he is not running for office again. It is therefore only natural that partisan debate and demagoguery will be at a fever pitch. Nonetheless, in the interest of understanding what happened and how this relates to the future, especially as regards the next natural disaster, I fear this debate is bulldozing over some important realities.

First is that the media and many politicians falsely exaggerated the scope of the disaster. I remember when Randal Robinson reported that “black hurricane victims in New Orleans have begun eating corpses to survive.” Most of these totally outrageous statements, after being circulated extensively nationwide and globally, were retracted with apologies. Nonetheless, as we saw in the Congressional testimony, there has been serious damage done to the social fiber of our country. Many people continue to believe such things happened.

Second is that racial divisions have been manipulated and exploited in cruel and destructive ways. I saw in New Orleans that the damage and loss of life was about even racially, also in terms of income and class status. Voluminous reporting, however, has consistently manufactured the illusion that this wasn’t the case. I don’t see how inflaming racial tensions helps New Orleans or enables us to learn from the mistakes. Further, lost in all this is the much larger destruction that occurred in Mississippi and Alabama.

Third are the Hollywood-ish distortions of what actually occurred. New Orleans suffered damage in some areas, but other areas went almost unscathed. Yes the destruction in those areas worst hit was horrifying and tragic, but the portrayal that everything was destroyed down there just isn’t accurate. Rather, such portrayals should be made about Mississippi and Alabama, but, strangely, those two states are largely ignored.

Fourth is the bizarre notion that anyone could be held responsible for a natural disaster hitting a city built below sea level. There is so much finger-pointing, mostly partisan, and harsh attacks on various leaders here and there. Lost in all this is the fact that this was a storm, Mother Nature, that struck a city that was settled centuries ago in a dangerous place.

Fifth is the forgetfulness over the responsibilities of the City of New Orleans. No one seems to remember that the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness in its Emergency Guide for Citizens stated clearly that “we coordinate all city departments and allied state and federal agencies. All requests for disaster assistance and federal funding subsequent to disaster declarations are also made through this office.” When flying over the city, I saw buses everywhere sitting idle in the water. Yet those buses were to be used for evacuation according to the city’s own plans. Had that happened, we would be having none of today’s angry debate.

Sixth, I don’t understand how the President was supposed to take over all this and make everything happen against the local leaderships’ own desires. The acute timelines everyone is focusing on about who-knew-what-when seems to overlook these fundamental sovereignty and jurisdiction issues. And as a soldier whose unit is tasked for Washington D.C., I can tell you that had the President gone into the streets to “lead” the response, that would have been a security nightmare complicating and impeding our rescue missions terribly.

I could go on, but the rest get into the partisan political debate. Having lived overseas, I respect and value our political and 1st Amendment freedoms to debate everything imaginable. I do fear that much of the debate, however, is divorced from reality. This concerns me because there were mistakes made and there are lessens to be learned. The recriminations, rancor and especially the racial targeting of the issues just doesn’t help.

As I said at the top, I understand that this is an election year, so such issues are going to be hot and tense. I hope, though, that AFTER the election we will have a sober and thoughtful assessment made of what went wrong and what to learn from it all.

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