Leadership sorely lacking when we need it most
Beyond the human tragedies that have played out before the world, what Hurricane Katrina has revealed Ð again Ð is the unwillingness or inability of the people in charge of governing this country to heed advance warnings about impending disasters.
On Aug. 6, 2001, President Bush received a formal briefing entitled “Bin Laden Determined To Attack Within the United States.” In response the administration held no high-level meetings or other follow-up. Five weeks later al-Qaida demolished New York’s World Trade Center and 3,000 people perished.
For years the Federal Emergency Management Agency has warned that one of the worst potential disasters facing the United States was a category 4 or 5 hurricane that would strike the New Orleans area.
Since 2001, the president chopped by two-thirds the funding requests of the Army Corps of Engineers for improvements to levees that surround the area and for shoring up defenses along adjacent Lake Pontchartrain. (Congress ultimately restored half of the cuts.)
On 9/11 our terrorist enemy hid its punches until the last few seconds. But the natural enemy that attacked us in August wasn’t hidden. It visibly began to marshal its forces and trek across the sea on its path to invading the United States. Gathering strength for all to see, its defiant challenge to the world’s most powerful nation was clear: We are an invasion force the likes of which you have not seen and we are coming to get you.
Katrina wound her way to our shores, briefly brushed Florida, regrouped in the Gulf, coiled and headed for the Louisiana coast.
But the people in charge of defending this country were asleep at the wheel. No Donald Rumsfeld here! And the commander-in-chief, who had continued reading to elementary school children on 9/11 when told that the second plane had hit the south tower, this time answered an imminent disaster whose advance the world watched by working on his tan and bicycling in Texas.
The enemy then stormed ashore near the Mississippi delta and destroyed New Orleans and damaged much of the southern United States.
As Katrina’s fury hit Louisiana and Mississippi, the president was busy keeping his politicking dates in California and Arizona. As the storm ripped up lives and property, he thought it was more important to repair the broken dikes of his Iraq war and Social Security policies than it was to repair the levees of Lake Pontchartrain. After all, you have to keep your priorities straight!
Oh sure, days later, as people who had lost everything were wandering in bewilderment with their homes gone, their bodies tired, worn, hungry, thirsty, as they crowded into the mayhem and filth of the Superdome or the Convention Center, as several slumped over lifeless, the president did a flyover.
Below, Nic Robertson of CNN, one of that network’s ubiquitous war correspondents, was reporting agonizing scenes on the ground in New Orleans which looked – well, painfully like Iraq. And the live shots from the Superdome or the makeshift triages at Louis Armstrong Airport were reminiscent of Selznick’s open-air hospital scene at Atlanta’s railroad depot following that city’s siege in “Gone With the Wind.”
On Friday Bush made a brief stop before the cameras and said, “We’ll deploy the assets necessary to get the situation under control.” Sounds an awful lot like the statements he makes about Iraq – you know, the ones like “We’re making progress” and “We will prevail!” Against the Louisianan backdrop of anarchy, looting, and only the first visible signs of police or military presence, it aptly defined the phrase “too little too late.”
In Mississippi the president told us that the response was “not acceptable.” True, but he should have been looking in a mirror. Yet the glaringly deficient leadership in this country is attributable not only to Bush. First in line of presidential succession is Vice President Dick Cheney, not seen or heard from this past week. Second in that line of succession is House Speaker Dennis Hastert; his contribution to dealing with the disaster is summed up in his comment: “It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that’s seven feet under sea level. It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.”
Goodness and sensitivity, played out all over the land through the gestures of ordinary citizens, celebrities and various organizations, define the heart and soul of this country, but sensitivity is wanting among those running the country who, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points out, “like waging war, but they don’t like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures.”
As a nation we look to our leaders to serve our most pressing needs during catastrophic moments. That’s their job. It is incomprehensible that the strongest country in the world with its magnificent collection of human and material resources could be standing helplessly inert when one of its major cities is running rampant with anarchy, disease, snipers, no food and no water.
The biggest lessons of both 9/11 in 2001 and Katrina in 2005 are how woefully unprepared we are to deal with major crises. Thousands of National Guard troops are unavailable because they are fighting a senseless war in Iraq. With troop levels thin, rotations multiplied, military recruitment sharply down, what is the state of preparedness to handle even one more simultaneous crisis, manmade or otherwise?
Bush and his entourage, whose inertia reveals their governing incompetence, need to reorder priorities. But don’t count on it. As a nation, we have to hold our collective breath until 2006 and 2008, the next time we have a chance to order a change.
– Michael Zucker is a resident of South Lake Tahoe and a stockbroker with Brookstreet Securities Corporation.