This week marked the fifth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, which finally showed how much damage it could inflict on America's most historically unique city. In fact, FEMA had predicted for years that the three worst disasters that could happen in the U.S.A. would be: a terrorist attack in Manhattan, a hurricane making a direct hit over New Orleans, and "The Big One" striking San Francisco. Those three events have been known for years as likely possibilities that Americans needed to be ready for.
Interesting that after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush was quoted as saying: "Nobody could have anticipated the breach of the levees." It was an example of one of Bush's stupidest lies, because FEMA had warned about this possibility for years. When Clinton was president, as a matter of fact.
More to the point, my sister and myself KNEW that New Orleans was in serious danger of being underwater if a hurricane made a direct path towards the Crescent city. In fact, so fearful was I that New Orleans would be destroyed by a hurricane before I got a chance to see it, that over my birthday and New Year's 2002 / 2003, I went on vacation to New Orleans and loved it. Less than three years later, the city's worst nightmare came true.
So, how was it possible that someone like me, who does not have a degree in history from Yale like our president did, was able to know that New Orleans would be a complete disaster area if a hurricane hit, while the president, who is paid to know these things, was completely clueless? He even went so far as to praise Arabian Horse trader-turned-FEMA director (with no disaster preparedness or relief experience) Michael "Brownie" Brown ("You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie!") for the work he was doing. Which is to say, not a damn thing! That's the problem when Republicans are in power. They are grossly negligent and incompetent. Democrats are born bureaucrats, but Republicans would rather play golf and collect money from their lobbyist buddies for deregulating the restrictive rules that benefit the American consumer. How does a person who spent his life trading horses for profit end up trading horseshit for propaganda?
The Hurricane Katrina disaster was so devastating and shocking that it proved to be a national embarrassment. This story fascinated the world press, as well. In fact, I was so riveted by this story that I wanted to know what foreign news organizations were saying. There have only been a few times where I was passionately interested in how a story played in the foreign press: the election of Barack Obama, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the 2000 election, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Hurricane Katrina was such an embarrassment in the world press that one could argue that this was George W. Bush's equivalent of his father's embarrassing food sickness that caused the previous President Bush to vomit on the Prime Minister of Japan in 1992. In other words, it showed how weak our president was.
Even more outrageous, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Bush was strumming a guitar in San Diego at a birthday bash for Senator John McCain, his rival for the 2000 Republican nomination for president. Many progressives had a field day with this, showing how Bush was similar to Emperor Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned. Bush was so uncommunicative to the nation about this disaster that his aides had to force him to watch a DVD featuring clips of news stories. A DVD!!! Never mind that Bush has access to cable news 24 / 7 and the Fox Propaganda Network was definitely covering this story, taking a break from the Natalee Holloway story. Was our president that out of touch with reality that he would not even turn the TV on to get some sense of what was going on?
I can't say that I was really surprised, though. His pattern in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina matched exactly his behaviour in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He ran and hid for a few days and only emerged several days later. In Manhattan with a bullhorn for the 9/11 attacks several days after the event; in a flyby on Air Force One to survey the damage caused by the hurricane. His dispassionate response for both disasters (amazing that two of the three "worst case scenario disasters" that FEMA predicted happened during Bush's presidency) reveals what knowledgeable people knew about Bush. He wasn't interested in being president from a leadership perspective. He was more into it for the power trip and the perks / prestige of the office (similar, I suspect, to why Palin might want to be president). Doing the actual "hard work" that Americans expect of our president was something else entirely!
Its interesting to note that Bush's approval ratings dipped below 50% in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and for the remainder of his presidency, he was never able to cross back over that 50% mark, hovering mostly in the 30-40% range (an indication of his "true believers"). I believe events like these are watershed moments in American history, and I think the election of Barack Obama as Bush's successor is the result of Hurricane Katrina. Images of impoverished African Americans being left to die on rooftops while flood waters kept rising, or the horror stories of the Superdome and the Convention Center (where I ate a couple of meals during my 2002 vacation in New Orleans), which lacked food and the bathrooms became so clogged that people just urinated or defecated anywhere, got pretty ugly. Adding to the ugliness was the president's mother laughing to a reporter when she talked about New Orleans residents being bused to Houston to stay in the temporary shelters set up at the Astrodome. Barbara Bush said that living in large space with many people and no privacy was something that "they" were used to and it was "working quite well for them."
Without Katrina happening, I don't believe Obama would have had such an easy time to become president. The embarrassment was so deeply rooted psychologically in the minds of most Americans that we wanted to show the world that we were better than President Bush and his incompetence that made no preparations for the disaster. It had been reported for a few days before making landfall that New Orleans was directly in the path of this ferocious hurricane. People had time to evacuate the city and most people did.
However, rightwing radio indulged in their favourite pasttime: blame the victims! Always with the right, its a defense of conservatives in power and blaming the victims for their own suffering. Many conservatives seemed to think that if people did not evacuate the city as ordered to, then they "deserved" what happened to them.
As the news reported, though, many residents of New Orleans are desperately poor. It is one of the poorest cities in the country. The Hurricane also came at the end of the month (29 August), when many people who live paycheck to paycheck simply did not have the money to leave town. Besides, where were they going to go? Where were they going to stay? Many did not have their own vehicles, so they would have had to purchase a Greyhound ticket and then pay money for a motel for several days, and food. Its not cheap. So why blame the victims for staying? They truly had no choice but to stay.
One of my favourite quotes that I read in one of the many essays that followed this huge news story was that the writer claimed that this was Senator Jesse Helms' view of "The Rapture": white people disappear while the black folks get left behind to deal with the hellish aftermath.
As details emerged from New Orleans, I was shocked that the French Quarter was actually on higher ground, so it was not flooded at all. During my visit to the fascinating city, I was stunned by how some areas were below the level of the Mississippi River. I even walked along a levee at Algiers Point. I imagined that the areas below the level of the river were likely to be underwater if a hurricane hit, so I thought that the French Quarter would be gone. Nope. The same for the residential area in the Garden District (where author Anne Rice once had a mansion). The part of the city that was flooded out was the lower Ninth Ward, which was an impoverished neighbourhood. No surprise. The wealthy class live in the higher elevation, while the poor neighbourhoods were below the level of the river and Lake Pontchartrain. When the levee system broke, the water poured through until the lower Ninth Ward became an extension of the lake.
Should New Orleans rebuild? That's a question that got asked a lot in the days and weeks that followed the disaster. The city has historical significance and it is truly unique among U.S. cities (the city of New Orleans and state of Louisiana is the only place in the U.S. that follows the Napoleonic code for their basis of law; the architecture with the fancy ironwork designs on balconies; the mixture of Catholicism and voudou / Santeria; the French influence in language, culture, and food; the birth of jazz music; and the longstanding tolerance towards interracial relationships). Since we now know which parts of the city are most likely to be devastated by flood waters, I don't think its worth the expense to rebuild housing on such lands. I don't see New Orleans ever coming back from this disaster, as many displaced residents were moved to various other cities (Portland has quite a few former New Orleanians). A better system of protecting this vital American city from the rising sea levels as well as future hurricanes needs to be built. The Netherlands and Venice, Italy have flood control systems worth looking into, since both places have historical treasures for cities that need to be preserved for tourists.
Save New Orleans, but only the best parts of the city. Rebuilding the lower Ninth Ward would be a waste of time. Its unfortunate that the wealthy buy the best land in any city and the poor have to live in the riskiest parts of the city, but knowing what we know, why would you want to build a house in a potential flood plain? Its just asking for more pain and misery as one's entire belongings get wiped away.
Had Hurricane Katrina struck one year earlier, I doubt that Bush would have been reelected because of the incompetence and dispassion he showed. Those who hate President Obama, well, you can thank your beloved President Bush's incompetent handling of the post-Katrina fiasco for why we have our first African American president. It is the result of deeply rooted shame for how we weren't able to protect the poorest among us. Conservatives love to claim that they are more patriotic than liberals, but how patriotic is it when the whole world saw how poorly we managed a disaster and how deeply entrenched poverty is, particularly to a minority racial group.
I was angry about Katrina five years ago and a part of me is still angry today. Angry that conservatives continue to blame the victim rather than hold the appropriate people accountable. But, on a good note, at least we got a President Barack Obama out of the deal. Without the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, I would venture to say that we would likely have a President John McCain or a President Hillary Clinton. The jokes about Obama's messianic appeal probably stems from the belief that America was looking for atonement from the sins of the elitist Bush family and their racist jokes and disinterest.
This disaster also made me feel bad for ladies named Katrina (I know one). There are so many vulgar jokes people have made about Hurricane Katrina (for example, I saw a T-shirt online that said something like: "I got blown by Katrina in New Orleans"). I'm still waiting for the year when Hurricane Nicholas will appear. I'd love to see one share my name. No joking allowed!