The greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States, captured in searing images televised throughout the world, will necessarily have a profound impact on the perception of the United States throughout the world, challenging the assumptions of its allies and confirming the resentments of its critics. Those same images of human suffering, reminiscent of disasters in third world countries, should have shattered whatever complacency the citizens of the United States might have had about the kind of society we have become in the first decade of a new millennium. The disproportionate numbers of refugees who were poor and black are a painful reminder that the American proposition remains a promise unfulfilled for entire classes of American citizens.
Without cheapening the terms of the debate by playing partisan politics and pointing the finger of blame at others, our elected leaders must recognize that our government’s response to the disaster was an embarrassing failure on every levelfederal, state and local. For days, while televised images of human suffering filled the airwaves, the response of the federal government, most notably the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, seemed snarled in bureaucratic indecision. When state and local officials called for the evacuation of New Orleans, they made no provision for the evacuation of thousands of poor families who did not have access to cars or buses.
The response of American citizens to the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens driven from their homes to other parts of the country has been immediate and generous. Relief organizations were inundated with cash donations; emergency teams of police officers and firefighters from different cities hurried to New Orleans with supplies and equipment. National Guardsmen, as well as U.S. troops, took control of the streets of New Orleans, ending days and nights of anarchy. But the delay in responding to the crisis at a national level shattered the confidence of U.S. citizens in their government’s ability to plan and protect the nation from natural disasters, as well as terrorist attacks.
Perhaps the saddest commentary on the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina was the discovery that authorities had been warning of such a danger for many years. Funds allocated for strengthening the levees that protected the city of New Orleans from flooding from Lake Pontchartrain had been diverted for other purposes. Plans drawn up in 1998 for a series of engineering projects that would have addressed, over the next decade, the vulnerabilities of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities did not receive necessary federal funding. Elected officials at all levels, with few exceptions, appear to have been victims of that short-range thinking that is bounded by election campaigns rather than long-range concerns about the environment and the infrastructures of our cities.
It seems fair to say that the response of the American people to this disaster has been more admirable and more reassuring than the response of elected officials and government agencies at all levels. There were, of course, individual local public servants, police officers, firefighters and others, whose concern about their own families did not prevent them from answering the needs of others in heroic fashion. What the citizens of the United States deserve now from their elected leaders is a serious and honest review of what Hurricane Katrina has told us about our society: How well prepared are we to deal with future disasters, whether they be terrorist attacks or killer hurricanes? How attentive have we been to concerns about the natural environment, including repeated warnings about global warming? Why has the percentage of American families living in poverty increased over the past decade? Why have a disproportionate number of these families been African-American?
The issues in this national debate are too serious to allow it to degenerate into partisan political squabbling or, even worse, to be personalized by attacks on the President’s style of communication. At the same time, to insist that the government’s response was beyond criticism or that no fault lines in American society were revealed in the wake of Katrina would be the most disastrous response of all to the wake-up call that the richest nation in the world has received at the start of a new millennium.