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Remembering Katrina or How I stopped hating and learned to loathe the first anniversary.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Written by Adam A. Donaldson

One year ago today, the biggest natural disaster in the history of the United States hit the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Mississippi with a thud, which also oddly enough was the exact same sound the government response to the disaster made. One year later, New Orleans is still the picture of disaster it was after Hurricane Katrina peeled up the Mississippi River leaving the city flooded, survivors stranded and nearly 1600 dead.

As of this grim anniversary there are some signs that the great city of New Orleans is coming back to life after being nearly decimated by Katrina, but even the most optimistic observer recognizes that there’s still a long way to go. According to the Brookings Institution, an independent research and policy institute in Washington D.C., some signs are more positive than others. As it stands only 3 in 5 homes have their electricity hooked up, public transportation is at 17 per cent, less than a third of the schools are open and the total work force is at 70 per cent of pre-Katrina levels.

But improvements like these are almost in spite of the fact of the cataclysmic failure at all levels of government before and after the hurricane hit. To many, Katrina cast the administration of President George W. Bush as an emperor without clothes; that years of talking points about readiness in the face of any impending disaster were pure bull. If the government couldn’t prepare for something as mundane and predictable as a hurricane, how could they possibly be ready to respond to the unpredictable? The media finally found a voice in the aftermath as glad-handing government officials patted each other on the back for increment successes while people starved to death and the living were left waiting on rooftops and in toxic conditions.

The utter failure of government could be summed up in eight little words, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” President Bush’s high praise of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown demonstrated a huge misconnect between how the government saw the matter and what was being seen by the everyday people on TVs the world over. The words rang so hollow; weren’t people living in human waste in the Superdome? Isn’t there wide spread looting and violence? Wasn’t the vast majority of New Orleans underwater? And Brownie’s doing a heck of a job. The Bush administration once again showed a huge disconnect between what is and what it thinks is; a government where upward mobility happens by slipping on a banana peel and falling on your ass.

Brownie became a scapegoat, but was it all his fault? No, there was more than enough blame to go around. Mayor Ray Nagin reacted about as swiftly to the pre-landfall danger Katrina imposed as FEMA did in the aftermath; evacuation centres were left to function with provisions and last-ditch shelters were used as a first and only option. Both Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco were lax in following pre-arranged evacuation procedures that could have saved lives. But going back even further in time, the Army Corp of Engineers had since the early 90s warned the Federal government that levees would breach should a hurricane of significant force strike the Gulf Coast area.

But what should have been was inconsequential in the face of the huge humanitarian crisis that loomed over the millions affected by Katrina. Whether it was because of the managerial impotence of Michael Brown or the fact that the organization faced an identity crisis after being folded into the behemoth known as Homeland Security; FEMA screwed up big time. And by all accounts it’s continues to screw up as the US General Accounting Office recently reported that over $1 billion US was misspent and is presumed defrauded.

One year later, there are still homeless in New Orleans while thousands of FEMA rented trailers sit in Arkansas doing nothing but costing the American taxpayer by the day. One year later, experts say that one good storm is all it will take to rip open the repaired levees allowing tons of fresh floodwater back into a city that’s barely dry from the last time. Fortunately, this year’s hurricane season has been relatively timid as compared to 2005, but recent fears over Hurricane Ernesto have only reiterated concern that New Orleans is about as storm ready today as it was a year and a day ago.

Despite initial media outrage, the disaster wrought by Katrina was more or less forgotten by all but a few dedicated reporters that highlighted the ongoing struggle to rebuild the devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi whenever they could. But as we’ve recently seen with the case of media parasite John Mark Karr; news networks will gladly drop everything of boring importance for the chance to revisit a more sensationalistic story that involves upper-class suburban white people.

If it bleeds it leads, because scenes of people struggling to rebuild a shattered existence is a real downer. You can’t boil the complexities of intergovernmental cooperation in regards to responding to a disaster area into a convenient soundbite or clip that can be run over and over again five or six times an hour. Pictures of the poor piecing together a shattered life, rebuilding from the debris that was once their furniture and photo albums and good china are nowhere near as compelling as the sight of a tarted up little girl in a pink cowboy suit.

At least, that’s what they want you to think. Until the first anniversary rolls around and an entire day of programming can be built around the fact that news networks and other media can look like they care by “holding them accountable,” not matter who ‘they’ are. Big words to be sure, but very little in actual, quantifiable action seem to go with them. So today, the cameras are back in the Gulf Coast region, as is President Bush who, in the weeks following Katrina, practically made New Orleans his second home, only to seemingly forget the plight of the people there in the months that followed. Once again we will marvel at the discrepancy between the President’s words and his actions as the media rolls clips and “remembers” before packing it in for another year and finding something more ridiculous to waste our time on.

What can be learned from the events of one year ago? There’s still a class structure in the States that is as pervasive as ever, that big government can’t possibly work when political appointees think in too small terms and no matter how much the media thinks it’s changed, it really hasn’t.

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