Thursday, September 01, 2005


Sam Smith

THE SECOND BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS is already underway: a struggle over how to respond to the greatest natural disaster of our history. It is far too early to draw conclusions but soon enough for a few questions:

- What will be the iconographic role of this disaster? Will it - as it should - eclipse 9/11 as the central moment of contemporary history, or will it be subtly reduced to second place so the business at hand in Washington - i.e. whatever war it is conducting - can continue to retain semiotic hegemony? What is the relative importance of 16 acres in New York City versus tens of thousands in Louisiana?

- How much will we be willing to pay to restore one of our major cities and its citizens compared to what we have paid to create a manmade disaster in Iraq or to end constitutional government in the wake of 9/11?

- Will the meaning of this disaster, like 9/11, be repeatedly distorted by various parties of interest in a manner that blasphemes the memory of its victims and perverts its history?

- What effect will the fact that many of the victims of 9/11 were white and powerful while many of the victims of New Orleans' disaster were black and so poor they couldn't get out of town alter the story we come to tell of the event? Does the mayor's decision to remove police from search and rescue so they could fight looting suggest a demographic subtext? Is the marketplace worth more than life itself? In what ways would the response to this disaster have been different if it its major victims had been lighter and wealthier? If the stranded had been in Palm Beach, what would we have done?

- If FEMA put a Category 5 hurricane in New Orleans on the same level as a terrorist attack in New York City or an earthquake in San Francisco, why did the White House and the Department of Homeland Security only show substantial interest in, and fund remedies for, the New York version of potential catastrophe? Does this qualify as criminal negligence?

- If everyone knew that New Orleans was an accident waiting to happen why were so few precautions taken? As just one example, why were not residents encouraged to have or provided inflatable rafts and life jackets in their homes along with the sort of food supplies promoted following 9/11?

- Why does the government and the media persist in the notion that a major disaster requires centralized control - if not martial law - imposed from Washington? It is clear already that the most competent response to this disaster came at the local and state level and that the feds weren't even able to provide food, water, shelter and other logistical supplies in a timely matter. Both common sense and the 10th Amendment dictate that in a major disaster control should devolve to the governors, not to some covertly selected cabal in Washington. It is interesting to note that while FEMA and the Pentagon were still trying to get their act together, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell called the governor of Mississippi to say that 2,500 of his National Guard troops were on their way. In other words, a Democratic and a GOP governor from vastly different states got matters coordinated even as the monolithically incompetent Bush regime was still figuring out what to do.

- What lessons can be learn from the fact that the Coast Guard was the best organized federal agency - rescuing 2600 people in few days with only 4,000 personnel? As Jim Ridgeway notes in the Village Voice, "it was the Coast Guard commander in New York who organized one of the most extraordinary operations maritime rescues since Dunkirk on 9-11, pulling together, ferries, tugs, yachts, and all sorts of other boats to evacuate half a million people from downtown New York." One explanation: the Coast Guard is highly decentralized (like local fire departments) with a lot of authority vested at the local level. It also places a high emphasis on competence, again like fire departments. When you are in a disaster your best friends are highly qualified rescuers who can make decisions without waiting for headquarters to tell them what to do.

- Will we finally learn from this experience that we - despite our invasions and our Ipods - are still part of nature, and must respect and work with it rather than ignoring and exploiting it? Or will we continue to view nature as just another problem for FEMA and the Corps of Engineers to solve?

- Will we finally suppress the pathological arrogance that has gotten us into such trouble in recent years and try a little well-founded humility for a change?

- Will it matter? The first Battle of New Orleans was fought several weeks after the Treaty of Ghent was signed. Maybe this battle will prove too late as well.


At 10:39 PM, Lloydyboy said...

Righteous word, Sam. A couple more points:
Watching the broadcast networks (I don't have cable), compared to 9/11 the coverage is amazingly light. Last night CBS started prime time with a 1/2 hour of storm damage coverage and then went into their regularly scheduled programming (a re-run of 'Yes, Dear!' followed). Similar story with NBC and ABC last night, and all 3 again tonight.
The networks' fascination with the looting almost seems to be intended to suggest that a fair percentage of Katrina's victims deserved what they got. Compare this with the instant sainthood confered upon all 9/11 victims.
The way the networks are covering the impact of the storm on the price of gasoline is incredibly crass -- it's as if they're telling us "You're going to pay more at the pump. That's why you should care about what happened down here."

At 3:58 AM, Anonymous said...

At least the Bush administration is prepared, in the interest of fairness, to treat US citizens (after Katrina) the way they've been treating the Iraqies

At 11:53 AM, Anonymous said...

This un-American regime must be brought down and W and his cohorts court-martialled and executed... They have earned this fate several times over... Too bad we canĀ“t execute them as many times as they deserve to be put before the firing squad... although this latter way of being disposed of seems too honorable a treatment for such level of treason and of criminally irresponsible behavior... They deserve the death penalty applied to common criminals... to be made to hang from their necks until they're dead! SMV in Mexico...

At 3:57 PM, Ohioguy said...

As the pictures began pouring in of people with their dead children ,a couple of my co-workers suggested that these people be charged with manslaughter for staying in a hurricane zone. When I pointed out that their reasons for staying were probably not a choice, I was greeted with indifference. When I pointed out that FEMA had been studying this very scenario for years and nothing was done about the levee system, apathy prevailed again. When I pointed out that Bush cut the funding for the Corp of Engineers, I was accused of politicizing a catastrophe.

What I am getting at is that people have already arrived at their conclusions thanks to the wonderful job the news media has done playing the same clips of looters over and over again. Instead of focusing on the failure of a government who recognized this situation WOULD occur if a hurricane of enough force hit, and pointing out the failure of beauracrats, politicians, and "wartime" presidents, we are fed the sorry excuse that people who had no cars should have found some way to evacuate.

The government has failed, and the media has failed by not pointing it out. This situation was the most closely studied weather related disaster on the books, and was even nicknamed, 'Filling the Bowl'. Now everyone is saying they could have done better? Yes you could have! The blame doesn't belong with the people who couldn't leave, it belongs with the people who wouldn't care.

At 11:42 AM, MEDIATOR said...

Most of you are sorely mis-informed. Or, not informed at all.

Partisan politics aside.

Mayors are responsible for emergency planning and response when disaster hits. BY LAW--people.

FEMA can not save lives absent a quick and proper local response.

The problem here with disinformation is that in this instance, lies impacts lives that may be lost in the future.

If partisan politics keeps lies going regarding accountability and responsiblity for public safety--the mayors all across the nation will get a pass---and they and citizens will be led to believe they are NOT responsible. Mayor Nagin should not be getting a pass by the media simply because he is black.

You are helping set up for lives to be lost in the future.

Get informed, learn EM laws, and then work to educate the citzens--all disaster and response happens and begins at the local level. Your mayor, city council, and city managers are responsible by law.

G. Klein,MPA, Texas


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