The pictures on television look all too familiar: Refugees, stranded by their government, cry out for help. Lawlessness abounds on the streets. Looters rule. Rescuers pull back under a hail of gunfire. Dead bodies lie rotting in the street. Others lay dying, listless in the baking sun.

But these aren’t the usual newscasts from the streets of Baghdad or Somalia. They are the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana and Gulfport, Mississippi. They are Americans, dead and dying in the streets, crying out for help, pleading for promised aid that has not yet arrived.

Strangely, the government that appears all too anxious to answer the call when the poor and oppressed are threatened in far off lands like Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq can’t seem to get its act together when Americans need help right here at home.

As Hurricane Katrina wiped Gulf Coast cities off the map and flood waters turned New Orleans into a sewage-filled, lawless third-world hellhole, our national leaders sat shell shocked, unsure what to do next.

“George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday, especially given the level of national distress and the need for words of consolation and wisdom,” The New York Times editorialized Thursday. “In what seems to be a ritual in this administration, the president appeared a day later than he was needed. He then read an address of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration: a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast. He advised the public that anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end.

“Nothing about the president’s demeanor yesterday – which seemed casual to the point of carelessness – suggested that he understood the depth of the current crisis,” the Times added.

Bush wasn’t the only clueless one. When Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu appeared on CNN, she did not express one second of remorse about the dead and dying but went into a long, self-serving political speech about how proud she was of the Congress and the government for “rising to the call.”

Rising to what call? Starving residents of New Orleans die in the streets while waiting for rescuers who never came. The bodies of children float in the floodwaters. Gangs of young toughs roam the streets, attacking older people and raping women. Baghdad on its worst day has more law and order than the Big Easy.

Bush flew over the devastation the other day – in Air Force One. You have to wonder how the victims of Katrina felt when they looked up to see that blue and white 747 cruise by with its escort of Air Force jets. Bush promises to return today but he won’t be on the ground seeing the victims first hand. He will again tour by air, this time in a helicopter with another politician – the governor of Lousiana.

Bush didn’t give a damn about New Orleans last year when he slashed funds slated for building up and strengthening the city’s flood levees and sent the money instead to his failed and hopeless war in Iraq.

The National Guard, its ranks depleted by units sent off to fight that same war, no longer has the manpower to respond to a domestic emergency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency can’t seem to get organized enough to get rescue teams into the city.

An America that’s stretched too thin trying to police the world learns the hard way that it cannot even take care of its citizens in times of crisis. But while the government lapses into a coma, Americans have responded, reaching deep into their pockets to donate to relief agencies to try and help those in need. Readers of Capitol Hill Blue have kicked in more than $5,000 in donations that were matched by this web site.

Americans, at least, were up to the challenge – even when their leaders were not.