Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Where is the "we" in all this?

I just came across yet another reference cooing about Bill Whittle's latest. It somehow captures the kernel of something that has been bothering me since the hurricane struck. I have complained a time or two about polarization, the impulse to pick sides and point fingers in the aftermath of this disaster, but every day the voices get louder and the division gets deeper. I think that as a population we are at a crucial moment and there will be a lot of unintended consequences of any direction we take. No matter what happens those unpredicted outcomes will fan the fires of division even more, leading to more blaming.

I'm not the only one who has noticed this trend. Michael J. Totten tries to bring some level of calmness to the debate, citing Roger Simon's prescient and brilliant little pearl "The Politics of the Last Five Minutes." In nearly every case, the comments thread deteriorates into a contest of agenda-advancing as this or that transparent opinion is expressed, in nearly every case trying to move any discussion away from debate to indictment.

I came across a timeline of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and was reminded that we may still not be seeing the worst of what could happen this year. Hurricane season is just half over and another storm as bad as this one could still develop between now and Thanksgiving. I remember how awful the tsunami was in December, how at the time it seemed to be the worst tragedy in all human history, but it wasn't. Within living memory there was an even greater catastrophe in Bangladesh only a few years before and very few people at the time of the South Asian disaster spoke of it.

And that's just the weather. Haven't we been warned lately (just a few times, huh?) about the threat of terrorism...dirty bombs and the like? Want to talk about bio-terrorism? How about contaminated standing water, such as the "witches brew" they are talking about when they speak of flood waters? That strikes me as a pretty real case of bio-terrorism. Does finger-pointing help solve the problem?

Pretend for a moment that everything was done exactly right in preparation for this storm. Pretend that all those now-famous school busses had been put into service, that all the patients in all the hospitals had been safely relocated to alternative venues for their already life-threatening surgeries, that every public official and uniformed public servant, from National Guard reservist to letter carriers had pitched in for an all-out effort that had found and delivered to safety even the street people who were able to hunker down and reappear somehow a few days ago on the downtown streets....
Pretend there were not tens of thousands of corpses yet to be exhumed, identified and buried (or reinterred as the case may be)...
Would the dimensions of the disaster be any more palatable? Would we not still have to face gas shortages, future economic uncertainties, and a human relocation effort that would be several thousands of people greater than the one we now face?

It's time for complaining and finger-pointing to stop. There is still a life-threatening situation facing us all. The time for tribal contests may come later. But just now, we are all members of the same tribe.


Hoots said...

This is from the front lines...

Opinion: No time for turf wars

People at all levels of government will have to answer for what they did and didn’t do in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has earned scorching criticism for its day-late-and-billions-short response to the ghastly crisis in New Orleans. And maybe it was only a matter of time before officials at FEMA and its parent organization, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, began looking for others to blame.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently maintained that the hurricane destroyed state and local governments’ ability to respond to emergencies, and he blamed that breakdown for the calamity that has overtaken New Orleans. Other federal officials say Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s reluctance to share command of the state’s National Guard troops with Washington has hampered the rescue effort by sowing confusion about who is in charge.

But accusing other government agencies of protecting turf is an awfully convenient dodge, a way of running from the stink of death that enveloped parts of the city over the past week. And if Blanco is gun-shy about giving more power over New Orleans’ recovery to the likes of FEMA Director Michael Brown, whose previous employer was the International Arabian Horse Association, can anyone fault her?

Let’s be clear: Officials in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana are hardly blameless in this tragedy. Official preparations for the storm centered on an evacuation plan designed to hasten the flow of private vehicles out of the city. This system worked well, and many more lives would have been lost without it. But as is now obvious, the plan did not take sufficient account of those who would not or could not evacuate on their own.

No federal presence was evident as the storm in the Gulf gathered strength and chugged toward us. If Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin thought in the days before landfall that the federal government wasn’t pulling its weight, they should have said so loudly and frankly.

In Louisiana, public officials constantly tiptoe around one another’s fragile egos and delicate sensibilities.

Once New Orleans was in ruins, of course, Nagin called upon the Bush administration to stop holding press conferences and start saving lives. On national television Sunday, Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard accused FEMA of turning back Wal-Mart trucks containing drinking water and nixing the Coast Guard’s plans to provide diesel fuel. Broussard went so far as to accuse the federal bureaucracy of murder.

None of this means Louisiana can handle the post-hurricane crisis alone. Quite the contrary; the tragedy of Katrina would be too much for any one state to bear, much less a state as poor and vulnerable as ours. FEMA and other federal agencies responded quickly and effectively to past catastrophes, and this one should have been no different.

For that reason, it was a relief when Blanco hired James Lee Witt, who enhanced FEMA’s reputation when he headed the agency during the Clinton administration, to advise her on the reconstruction process. No one will benefit if the local, state and federal agencies responsible for responding to disasters end up tripping over each other. Clear lines of command might well speed up the recovery, and putting someone of Witt’s expertise in charge of the process ought to help.

Inevitably, there already have been calls in Congress for an independent commission to examine the relief effort. Such a study might help emergencymanagement agencies in the future figure out how not to respond to a catastrophic hurricane.

But an independent commission won’t address what ought to be everyone’s immediate priority: getting New Orleanians to safety and getting the reconstruction under way. New Orleans needs the unified, able, dynamic leadership that FEMA officials so far have been unable to offer. The need for a cooperative spirit among leaders of the metro area has been talked about for years. That has happened in fits and starts in the past. Now, though, everyone has to come together to work for the good of the entire community.

ilona said...

I can see the points you are making on this, and I am keeping them in consideration for my own thinking.

I believe we are going to have to look at the many ways the clash of politics, and more deeply, the ideologies, are undermining any real hope of unity and cooperation. Which is what I feel you are saying.