Monday, October 17, 2005

Trying to puzzle out American politics

Like most of you, I imagine, I watched a lot of coverage of Hurricane Katrina. I saw the problems with the way the federal government, along with State and local authorities handled the immediate aftermath. And I listened to the criticism of the various authorities involved.

There was a lot of media attention focused on the issue and a lot of commentary. But yesterday, when I picked up my copy of The Atlantic Monthly, I learned something new about this story -- and I'm shocked that I hadn't heard it before.

Imagine if, in advance of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of trucks had been waiting with water and ice and medicine and other supplies. Imagine if 4,000 National Guardsmen and an equal number of emergency aid workers from around the country had been moved into place, and five million meals had been ready to serve. Imagine if scores of mobile satellite-communications stations had been prepared to move in instantly, ensuring that rescuers could talk to one another. Imagine if all this had been managed by a federal-and-state task force that not only directed the government response but also helped coordinate the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other outside groups.

Actually, this requires no imagination: it is exactly what the Bush administration did a year ago when Florida braced for Hurricane Frances. Of course the circumstances then were very special: it was two months before the presidential election, and Florida's twenty-seven electoral votes were hanging in the balance. It is hardly surprising that Washington ensured the success of "the largest response to a natural disaster we've ever had in this country." The president himself passed out water bottles to Floridians driven from their homes.

The author is Richard Clarke, who had his own run-in with the Bush Whitehouse after he published his memoirs about security concerns pre and post 9/11.

But what really floored me is that I hadn't heard anyone else compare the response to Florida a year earlier with Katrina. Why is that? It doesn't seem like it should have been that tough to point out, given that the Florida hurricanes were a significant news event. I do remember them. But I didn't realize just what kind of a response had been laid out in advance, and how that same level of preparedness had not been cranked up in advance of Katrina.

Looking at the steep decline in President Bush's approval ratings in recent days, one can't help but wonder whether the US public is beginning to see through the transparency (at least what appears that way to some of us in Canada) of how "homeland security" gets parcelled out. If it's a state in peril, with an election win in the balance (and your brother is the governor), that appears a lot more important than the fact a Category 4 or 5 hurricane is threatening a million people.

But it also makes me wonder about the apparent short-term memory of the media. In retrospect, the comparisons between Florida one year ago and Katrina and Rita this year seem like a natural. But I don't recall seeing or reading any stories about that. Do you? Perhaps I missed them, or maybe there's more to this than Richard Clarke is willing to admit.

I decided I should try to find out, so I went searching for articles that might have made the same link. Turns out there were a few. Here's one that talks about FEMA's response to Frances and Katrina. It also contains links to a number of other items about the same issue.

So there were stories out there, but they certainly didn't get the kind of play that I expected they would. But then again, hindsight is always better, isn't it?

By the way, if you want to read the rest of the Atlantic article, you'll need to subscribe to the Atlantic, or pick up a copy at the bookstore (or, what the heck, send me a note and I'll send you a copy. As long as you promise to never, ever, tell!).

1 comment:

Melanie said...

Wow, that's unreal. I think that all of us, including many in the media, have short term memories unfortunately. The pressure to meet deadlines and the sheer overwhelming flood of information that greets us everyday has something to do with that I'm sure. I'm having trouble keeping the expected avian flu pandemic and the good old-fashioned regular flu pandemic straight. Regardless, it sure seems like we ought to be bracing ourselves for our own "natural disaster" in the near future.