Seeing the pictures from New Orleans in the past week triggers questions about how ready our nation really is to handle a domestic disaster. It should have been easier to save the Big Easy.
Certainly, Hurricane Katrina is among the worst disasters of this century, already drawing comparisons to the Chicago fire of 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Yet with our country as interconnected and strong as it is now – the unchallenged "leader" of the free world – why did it take so long to send help, and why is the rescue operation not yet complete?
The vast spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds within the afflicted population take a great deal of the blame. One in five New Orleans residents live below the poverty line and the same number quantifies how many do not own a car. When a mandatory evacuation was ordered on August 27th, some 80,000 to 100,000 people stayed behind, some by choice, but many by necessity, with no transportation available or provided to get them out of the city.
But the greatest blame lies solely on federal government. Supposedly our nation is prepared for the deadliest terror disasters we can concoct, thanks to a Department of Homeland Security. Yet this same department, which commands FEMA and emergency resources throughout the country and is supposed to handle manmade as well as natural disasters, cannot coordinate rescue efforts in Louisiana.
I would severely question our perceived safety and protection from terrorist attacks. If our government cannot handle a hurricane, a type of storm that has hit our southeastern coasts since before America was conceived, how would they respond to the new and relatively unknown threat of a dirty bomb or biological attack on an American city?
While the National Guard responded sluggishly in part to complicated bureaucracies, their resources are thinly stretched. President Bush was asked Friday if it was too thin and responded, "We've got a job to defend this country in the War on Terror, and we've got a job to bring aid and comfort to the people of the Gulf Coast, and we'll do both." We of course were not fighting a war on terror in the Persian Gulf until after we fought a war on an oppressive regime and invited the terrorists in.
The government could have activated the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet, which could have launched cargo and passenger planes to aid in relief efforts. The fleet has only been activated twice, once for the 1991 Persian Gulf War and once again for the war in Iraq.
For years the Army Corps of Engineers have asked for money to repair and update the levees in New Orleans, originally built to withstand a category three hurricane. When category four Katrina hit, the money had never been received. In fact, funds were cut last year in order to help pay for the war in Iraq.
I believe there will be congressional hearings on the slow and deadly response to Katrina, and they too will question the authority the Department of Homeland Security holds as well as the thinly spread military – ultimately questioning the Iraq war itself.