After The Hurricane: What will we learn from Katrina?

Monterey County Herald, Sunday, September 11, 2005
By Leon E. Panetta

The images of the past two weeks out of New Orleans have been horrifying. The colossal failure of leadership at every level was there for the whole world to see. One of America’s greatest cities was transformed into a Third World nightmare. New Orleans had become Baghdad.

But Baghdad had a long history of oppression, poverty and ruthless indifference to life itself. In contrast, New Orleans was a beautiful and historic city of fascinating and diverse people, great jazz, good food and good times. It was the very symbol of a free society dedicated to the joy of life itself.

In a matter of several days, life was turned into the ugly agony of desperation and death. Hospitals with terribly ill patients were left without power. People unable to survive on their own, suffering from cancer, heart disease and kidney failure, slipped into comas and died in front of helpless doctors and loved ones.

Corpses were propped in wheelchairs and on lawn furniture or left to decompose on sidewalks or in floodwaters. Criminals roamed lawless streets shooting at rescue workers, beating, robbing and raping helpless victims. Tens of thousands were left without the basics of food or water or sanitation.

Those scenes of weeping mothers and children, of angry and frustrated Americans — mostly black, poor and abandoned in a nation of plenty — will be forever seared into the conscience of this country.

What is most disturbing is that all of this happened in the America of the 21st century. It has shaken our sense of confidence and security in the future. If we can fail so miserably to prepare for and protect our citizens from the obvious threat of a predictable natural disaster, how can we hope to survive the very real threat of unpredictable disaster?

The key obviously is to learn from the mistakes and lessons of Katrina and not simply make excuses for failure. If we blind ourselves to the reality of what happened, we will reap even greater disasters for the future.

First, the fact is that there was a total and complete lack of preparation at every level in the face of a Category 5 hurricane. On Aug. 24 — five days before Katrina hit — the National Hurricane Center warned that “tropical storm Katrina could cross Florida and intensify over the Gulf of Mexico.”

By Aug. 26, photos of the approaching storm were being flashed across national television and the Hurricane Center warned that the warm current of the Gulf is “like adding high octane fuel to the fire.” It was not until Sunday in the face of a Category 5 storm that people were ordered to evacuate.

Many of the 1.3 million people did, but the 28 percent of the population of New Orleans that lives below the poverty line — black, poor, less educated, disabled and older — did not.

There were no effective plans for evacuating this segment of the population — no buses, trucks, planes, trains or collection points for moving them out of the city. The people remaining were urged to go to the Superdome as a last resort. But even there, there were no prepositioned necessities such as food, water, bedding or sanitation. There was no effective plan to evacuate hospitals, the elderly and infirm. Every level of government involved with disaster preparedness failed. It was one big “roll of the dice.”

Secondly, there was a total failure to provide long-range protection for a city built on a flood-prone swamp. As the city grew over the centuries — wedged between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain — land continued to be drained, earthen levees and pumping stations were erected haphazardly and the consequence was a sinking city.

In the face of countless warnings that the city faced certain disaster if a major hurricane struck, constant compromises were made at every level because of costs, other priorities or funding cutbacks. This year alone, the New Orleans flood control district was hit by a $71.2 million cut.

In early 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that the most likely disasters to strike the United States were a catastrophic flood triggered by a hurricane in New Orleans, a terrorist attack in New York City and a major earthquake in San Francisco. So far, the nation has struck out on two of the three projected disasters. The lesson is clear — the nation cannot afford to compromise when it comes to protecting life.

Thirdly, the role of the National Guard in protecting the homefront has been weakened by long-term overseas missions. Almost one-third of the men and women of the Louisiana National Guard and an even higher percentage of the Mississippi National Guard were 7,000 miles away fighting in Iraq. Many of these part-time soldiers left behind full-time jobs in the police and fire departments of their hometowns. They were sorely missed in the crucial hours that spelled the difference between evacuation and flooding, between order and chaos, between life and death.

The point is clear — the National Guard must be treated as America’s most essential homeland security force and not as a convenient resource to bail out the Pentagon’s failure to fully staff an active-duty military force.

Lastly, FEMA has failed to do its job in preparing for and responding to a major domestic disaster. Ever since the agency was buried in the Homeland Security Department, it has lost its focus and its funding for dealing with natural disasters. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the major emphasis has been on dealing with threats from terrorists and al-Qaida.

From my own experience of dealing with FEMA in disasters such as the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, it was tough enough to deal with the FEMA bureaucracy when it was its own agency. Now as part of one of the largest departments in the federal government, it is virtually impossible. Bigger is not better when it comes to government accountability.

Perhaps of greater concern is the fact that whether it is FEMA or Homeland Security, if the federal government was not prepared to respond to a natural disaster, the likelihood is that it will not be prepared to respond to a terrorist or man-made disaster. The required response is very much the same — evacuation of the injured and displaced, the need for the necessities of life such as food and water, caring for the sick and infirm, maintaining law and order, mobilization of relief forces, deploying military and National Guard units, and centralizing command authority. This is the one role that the government is supposed to do right. If neither FEMA nor Homeland Security can effectively respond to a hurricane, what confidence do we have that they can respond to a terrorist attack?

These are some of the lessons that we need to learn from Katrina if we are to survive future disasters. But the larger lessons go to the very soul of the nation.

America, a land dedicated to the principle that we are all created equal, cannot tolerate the grim reality that those who live in the shadows of our society — the poor, the minorities, the disabled — should be more vulnerable than the affluent. That is just wrong.

The political leadership of this nation owes all of the people the full protection of a just society. This is not a time for political blame, excuses or spin control; this is a time to honestly acknowledge the mistakes that have been made, to correct them and to provide a strong vision of hope that every American can make it in our society.

And maybe, just maybe, having hope is the most important lesson of all. This nation has suffered through wars, depressions and disasters throughout our history and we are a stronger society because we never gave up on helping one another.

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast ultimately will not only survive but flourish again because in the end, the human spirit is stronger than any Katrina


Leon Panetta’s column appears every other month in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside 93955.



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