What Katrina Means To Me

What Katrina Means To Me
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When something as terrible as Katrina occurs, it raises a lot of questions. They’ve been on my mind, as I try to make sense of all the different threads. Here’s what I’ve been able to come up with so far.

1. Nobody wants to be a disaster victim. Yes, it’s dangerous to live in a city that’s below sea level and needs pumps running 24 hours per day. But it’s also dangerous to live in an earthquake zone. In general, I’m going to make the assumption that if someone is still stuck in NOLA, it’s because they couldn’t get out, and I suggest that other folks do the same.

2. There is no conspiracy. As Coyote Blog often points out, never attribute to malice that which can be explained by simple incompetence. Politicians don’t know squat about dealing with emergencies. First of all, most of them are lawyers. If you were stranded in the middle of a flooded city, would your first phone call be to a lawyer?

Second, the Darwinian pressures on politicians are ruthless and simple: Do what it takes to get re-elected. In our gerrymandered world, that means making sure you win your primary by energizing your party’s base with hot-button issues and sound bites. Sadly, governing is secondary.

This doesn’t excuse the federal and state governments’ poor response to the disaster. Clearly, both were inadequate and borderline criminal in terms of their negligence. But not intentional or malicious.

3. During disasters, top-down command-and-control is even less effective than usual. The bureaucrats in charge have been turning away help because they don’t feel like they can control the process. Yet in a chaotic and shifting situation, such control is A) unnecessary, B) unhelpful, and C) illusory. Again, quoting Coyote Blog, “Nearly everyone who is in government has a technocratic impulse – after all, if they believed that bottom up efforts by private citizens working on their own was the way to get things done, they would not be in government trying to override those efforts.”

Just by reading my blogroll, I seem to have learned more about the situation than many of the federal officials in charge of the situation. If you were to establish some broad guidelines and then let the people in the field make decisions (which is what the U.S. military does), you could respond more quickly and flexibly, like the 18-year-old who commandeered a bus and drove to New Orleans and rescued 100 survivors.

4. Authenticity and caring action are far more effective than waffling and doubletalk. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has won a lot of fans for his honest, emotional, authentic interviews. The same can be said for the top-ranking military officer on the scene, General Russel Honore (known in the Army as the Ragin’ Cajun, himself a native of Louisiana). General Honore ordered the troops to shoulder their weapons and focus on humanitarian relief. Instead of upbraiding residents for the actions of a few, he simply said, “By-and-large, these are families that are just waiting to get out of here. They are frustrated; I would be, too. I get frustrated at the cash register counter when the paper runs out.” And he helped a young mother carry her twin babies to safety.

It’s okay to make honest mistakes. At least you’re trying and learning. Franklin Roosevelt made a lot of mistakes when he tried to pull the country through the Great Depression. But what he signaled to the American people was that he cared, and that he was willing to try anything to help them. It’s a lesson our current administration should take to heart.

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