There can be no subject more worthy of our attention right now than what happened when Hurricane Katrina rained catastrophe on the Gulf Coast.
I predict that the world will be riveted by how quickly the thin veneer of civilization was peeled away in the most powerful nation on Earth, as looters ruled the streets of New Orleans, as dead bodies floated by, as thousands of the barely living waited in desperation day after day without food or drinking water or sanitation or power or a place to sleep or a way to contact their families.
I also predict that the generosity of Americans and many around the globe will be unparalleled as they dig deep into their wallets to help their fellow beings.
Even as we salute the men and women giving everything they have to help the victims, it is hard not to give in to anger as we wonder why the levees weren’t built to withstand the storm surge every engineer and every meteorologist predicted was inevitable. How can we not roar with fury when we knew beforehand that the approaching hurricane was a Category 4 or 5, while the levees were only built to withstand a Category 3 storm, and yet preparations for relief efforts were delayed?
How can we not be outraged when we think of the billions of dollars we’ve spent on homeland preparedness after Sept. 11, 2001, yet watched as babies died for lack of water and food and electricity three days after the hurricane hit?
We understand that the flooding was a separate catastrophe from the hurricane. But why were there no plans to evacuate the one out of every three residents of New Orleans too poor or disabled or incompetent or unwilling to leave just before the storm struck?
Thousands of reservists from Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are serving in Iraq. Yet where was the National Guard as people in Mississippi and Louisiana desperately begged camera crews for help?
Why were water and food not airdropped to the thousands of the sick and the elderly and the children who went days with no help?
“This is not the time to get into finger-pointing or politics,” admonished Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, even as he confirmed that this may be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton also warned that it is not appropriate to cast blame.
Perhaps. But when people are dying and suffering in front of our eyes, how can we not ask why our government did not act more quickly and decisively when it became clear the scope of the disaster was monumental?
This is a tragedy too big to understand, too frustrating to comprehend, too sad to bear. One by one, for days, federal officials expressed confidence that everything that could be done in the wake of two disasters was being done, but that the scope of the disaster could not have been predicted.
Once again, as with 9/11, the federal government failed to be imaginative enough to think _ and plan _ for the worst-case scenario. For many, by the time troops were mobilized, it was too late.
The very thought of the United States for the first time witnessing the evacuation of one of its major cities is breathtaking. The devastation is too widespread to get a mental grip on _ far more like that of a Third World country than what we’re used to seeing in this country.
The sight, seen around the world, of so many shattered, destitute people with nothing left of normality has pricked a hole in our national pride. And rightly so.
The economic detritus will be horrific and lasting, despite gifts of refined oil from Europe and the opening up of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. President Bush vows that New Orleans will be rebuilt. But everyone who knew that remarkable, charming city _ so unlike anyplace else _ knows it will never be the same.
As guilty as we feel when we take a sip of fresh water, shower or sleep on clean sheets in our own homes knowing these are luxuries many don’t have, there is hope in the sheer goodness of the rescuers, the volunteers, the millions of people who will give in any way they are able.
It’s a time for conflicting emotions and realizing that we don’t yet know all the facts. But we have every right to ask questions and ponder, once again, why it appears that our government failed so many.
(Ann McFeatters is Washington bureau chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)