Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | September 6, 2005

Unexpected consequences from failed Hurricane Katrina response

It’s heartbreaking to watch the despair, death and destruction that Hurricane Katrina has brought to the Gulf Coast. While hundreds of thousands of people try to cope with the life-altering consequences of the natural disaster, the catastrophe has ignited debate on unexpected fronts.

• The War in Iraq. Life in storm-ravaged communities – sewage-fouled water, unburied corpses, no food, drinking water, medicine or shelter – has been compared to living in a war zone or a third-world country. The lawlessness – rape, sniper fire, arson, looting – that’s erupted has been compared to the violence in Iraq. There’s no small irony in that, as some have blamed the slow federal response, in part, on the deployment of so many National Guard troops in Iraq and the slashing of hurricane preparedness and flood control funds from the federal budget to pay for the war.

• Global Warming. Respected scientists say that while the hurricane can’t be blamed on global warming, its intensity can. The waters in the Gulf of Mexico are warmer than they used to be, and warm water fuels hurricanes. These scientists say the increase in higher-intensity hurricanes over the last 30 to 50 years is a direct result of global warming. But like many conservatives, members of the Bush Administration have pooh-poohed global warming, just like many doubt evolution. It’s interesting to note that many conservatives’ positions on global warming and evolution are directly opposite to the positions most scientists take on these issues. When it comes to science matters, I’ll continue to give more weight to what scientists, not politicians, say. After Katrina, I hope most voters will do the same.

• Homeland Security/FEMA. Former Gilroy Mayor Mike Gilroy was surprised by the lack of disaster plans for “… a place that is … under sea level…” Gilroy said he thought that “… you’d have a plan for a catastrophic hurricane … just as the city of Gilroy has plans for a catastrophic earthquake.” These are important, reasonable questions. The apparent lack of advance planning and slow federal response to Katrina has many people questioning the Bush Administration’s decision to downgrade the Federal Emergency Management Agency from a cabinet-level agency and fold it into the new Department of Homeland Security. Debate about the wisdom of this move will undoubtedly continue and is a good thing.

Meanwhile, I wonder about the people in charge. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said of those who did not leave after a mandatory evacuation order was issued, “Some people chose not to obey that. That was a mistake on their part.” Setting aside the utter insensitivity of Chertoff’s comment, it stuns me that Chertoff ignores or is ignorant of the fact that in the poverty-stricken regions of New Orleans, many people don’t own cars, or if they do, can’t afford to pay for several days, let alone weeks or months, in motel rooms. It’s reasonable to wonder why a plan wasn’t in place to evacuate those without the means to evacuate themselves.

• Insurance. For me, the hurricane is a reminder of the arbitrary way the insurance industry treats natural disasters. Tornado, blizzard or hurricane? That’ll be covered by your homeowner’s insurance. Earthquake or flood? Sorry, those natural disasters require special insurance on top of your homeowner’s insurance. I asked Rep. Richard Pombo about this when he met with the editorial board last week, and he said he’s heard of a plan promoted by some real estate and building industry lobbyists to create a privately administered insurance pool for all natural disasters, but it has never gained traction in Congress. Here’s hoping one positive effect of Katrina is reformation of the arbitrary system of homeowner’s insurance coverage for natural disasters.

• Blame or Accountability. I’ve heard people say now isn’t the time to point fingers, now is the time to help the storm’s victims. I say now is the time to do both. Once again, I’m reminded of the wisdom of Bill Maher’s exhortation of the importance of holding two thoughts in one’s head at the same time. Yes, now is the time to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Check Saturday’s Dispatch for ways you can help locally, or just write as big a check as you can to the American Red Cross.

At the same time, we must also consider the important questions this catastrophe presents. Now is the time to evaluate what went wrong, to hold those responsible accountable, and to harness our horror and passion to make sure our government never fails its duty to citizens so dramatically ever again. Let’s do it before the next congressional election, which is just 15 short months away.

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