In the aftermath of a natural disaster that has cut a swathe through three states, a city lies devastated. The streets are awash with fetid floodwater, and abandoned buildings and cars are in various states of ruin. The bodies of unnamed thousands wait to be recovered, though officials have already admitted that there is no system "to collect and store bodies". The focus is on reaching the survivors - the 20% who failed to evacuate because they were too poor, too weak or too confused to do so. They have been traumatised many times over; not only by the hurricane, but by the human errors that followed.
Left without food, water, medicine and shelter for five days, inhabitants have faced the consequences of living in a city where the rule of law collapsed with alarming speed. Looting was widespread - quite apart from those who understandably took what food, water and other essentials they could find. Armed gangs preyed on the defenceless; incidents of violence and rape were reported. While the hungry begged for help, bodies lay along flooded sidewalks. And people struggling to cope without electricity or running water, wondered why it was taking so long for help to arrive.
It's a fair question. After all, this was one natural disaster that had not hit Asia. Indeed, it was also a man-made disaster (though unacknowledged); one which was not taking place in Africa. This was New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a poor part of the world's richest country. At least in that regard, the disaster was consistent with other, more familiar disasters - it is usually those least fortunate, who are most frequently visited by such events.
And yet, for all the efficiency of the US government's response, the disaster may as well have been in some far-flung corner of the globe! The President - clearly focusing on the second part of his self-proclaimed label of "compassionate conservative" - did not even come out of "holiday mode" for 48 hours. Nor was he alone in this. The Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, returned to Washington after being seen shopping for $7,000 shoes in Manhattan, as New Orleans went under! And Vice-President Cheney did not even bother interrupting his holiday in Wyoming…Despite the many shortcomings of South Asian politicians, such a public orgy of R-'n-R would have been peculiar even on the part of a national leader closer to home!
Not surprisingly, Bush's presidential visit - a full five days after the hurricane struck - failed to impress the beleaguered inhabitants of New Orleans. Nor did it go down too well with some of his political allies, let alone his critics. Louisiana's Republican Senator Vitter gave the Bush administration "An F grade" for its handling of the crisis, while another Republican Senator, Chuck Hagel, called for "accountability". The Mayor of New Orleans was blunt, "I don't know whose problem it is… whether it's the governor's problem… whether it's the President's problem. But somebody needs to get their ass on a plane…and figure this out right now"!
The logistics of handling the situation have undoubtedly constituted several separate disasters. The long delay in the National Guard arriving in force with food, water and weapons (too many of them had been deployed to Iraq!), the failure to make adequate arrangements to evacuate those who could not make the journey themselves, the failure to keep the city safe for those who survived, all made it hard to believe that this was happening to the world's only superpower in the 21st century.
But quite apart from all of that, Mr Bush managed to make some terrible blunders, not least by telling disaster victims to "take personal responsibility" for what he had initially described as the "temporary disruption" of Hurricane Katrina! Next, he seemed to think it was "more important to stop looting than to save lives" (the Independent). And finally (one hopes!), in storm-ravaged Biloxi, he referred two distressed women, who collapsed in front of him, to the Salvation Army shelter…
The population of New Orleans is 67% black, and one-third already live below the poverty line. Unsurprisingly, the government response is raising spectres of America's racially-segregated past. The majority of people left in the city were either poor, or black, or both. There is little doubt that a far stronger emergency response was merited - as argued by the congressional black caucus, who made a passionate plea that the difference between those who lived and those who died should not be "poverty, age and skin colour".
The glaring contrast between this situation, and the resolve the government shows when it tackles the President's real priorities - war, power, petroleum, supporting corporate interests, and environmental profligacy - is hard to miss. The talk of "shock and awe" in Iraq has been replaced by the realisation of the "shockingly awful" closer to home. And yet, in contrast to the enormous $5 billion monthly bill the US foots for its Iraq fiasco, Congress initially approved a mere $10.5 billion aid package for the three-state region - with the President appealing to viewers to send contributions in cash to the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army! Meanwhile, 94 countries have stepped up to offer assistance. And while no one denies the value of showing solidarity, it remains questionable whether the richest country in the world really needs these contributions more than some of the contributors…
But if the miserly unwillingness of this government to help its people is shocking enough, one crucially important thing that should not be forgotten is the man-made aspect of this disaster.
Mr Bush has built a reputation for eco-scepticism, an unwillingness to accept the scientific arguments on climate change or to support any counter-measures. It is presumably this scepticism that led him to slash flood-control spending (reduced by 80%), as well as scrapping hurricane protection funds for the region, and stopping the work on strengthening levees to protect the city for the first time in 37 years - with all too predictable results. Developers were allowed to destroy wetlands and barrier islands that could have limited hurricane damage.
And all this, after a New Orleans newspaper published a scenario predicting the disaster five years ago! As one observer wearily stated "It appears that the money has been moved in the President's budget to handle Homeland Security and the war in Iraq…that's the price we pay". Not only is this disaster partly man-made, we even know the man responsible!
In the foul, corpse-strewn streets of New Orleans, further disasters loom, including long-term health-risks for the surviving population. There have been reports of abandoned prison inmates leaping to their deaths after days without water, bearing out the Mayor's claim that every day of delay has caused "hundreds of deaths".
The memory of this horrific event will no doubt remain alive for a very long time. Indeed, it is expected that the city will be uninhabitable for at least nine months, and many of its people will remain homeless for up to two years. But the question that remains unanswered is: how long will it be before the US government learns its lessons about national priorities and scientific realities?
(R) thedailystar.net 2005