I find it eerie that on the fourth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we are in the midst of another disaster, Hurricane Katrina, which brought an even higher level of devastation than the attacks. Both events are similar in that among tremendous destruction and suffering, we find wonderful displays of heroism and compassion.
Hurricane Katrina, however, differs because it was identified as an imminent threat over a week before landfall, and because Americans have been responsible for both the magnificent and dismal behavior in its aftermath. Within this dichotomy, I see one common factor that largely defined, success and failure for Gulf Coast residents and the government relief response: the choice to exercise personal responsibility.
Many point to race and poverty to explain the large numbers who suffered in hastily managed shelters, who had to be rescued from rooftops or perished in the storm; but this is a simplistic and inaccurate distinction. The reality is that those who took personal responsibility to escape the path of the storm, regardless of their circumstances, are safe and sound, with the obvious exception of those who were physically or mentally unable to do so. In the case of New Orleans, 80 percent of the city’s residents successfully evacuated, and surely most of them were either poor or African-American.
Similarly, while citing inadequate social programs, many somehow portray the widespread poverty in the Gulf Coast region as a key cause of the high level of human strife caused by Katrina. However, government safety net programs have not neglected this region – on top of state and local spending, Louisiana alone has received over $10 billion in federal funds for dozens of anti-poverty programs during the last five years. Yet Louisiana still has the fourth highest poverty rate in the country, and a third of New Orleans residents are below the poverty line. Statistically, poverty is heavily linked to the absence of education and two-parent households: the Louisiana school dropout rate is estimated between 35 and 50 per cent; over forty per cent of New Orleans adults are functionally illiterate; forty per cent of all Louisiana births are out of wedlock. The reality is that the cycle of poverty cannot be broken by any amount of government spending if those affected do not take some degree of personal responsibility to become self-reliant citizens.
In the same way, evacuation and disaster relief plans – although they certainly should have been stronger – require the vigilance, civility and self-reliance of citizens to work. Many in New Orleans and elsewhere appeared to be lacking in these qualities. Unfortunately, there seems to be a correlation between a state of mental dependence on government hand-outs and the looting, shooting at evacuation helicopters and other barbaric crimes committed in the days following the storm.
The other side of the response to Hurricane Katrina is government officials’ lack of accountability for disaster prevention and relief. From the mayor of New Orleans up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, those in charge appeared to be both unsure of how to react and unwilling to work together to follow emergency plans. This dysfunction is not only the fault of those currently in office, it is the culmination of years of personal irresponsibility on the part of elected and appointed officials at all levels of government to serve and protect Americans. In the weeks since Katrina, many officials in the region are still reluctant to accept any blame for things that went poorly, but are quick to point out others’ mistakes. Ironically, the President – who is routinely accused by critics of being stubborn and short-sighted – is the only major official I have found who has publicly accepted responsibility for the insufficient national disaster relief effort.
As for prevention and relief of disasters, federal and state legislators have a long history of poorly utilizing disaster prevention funds for “pork” projects that do not address legitimate public safety concerns. For example, in the last five years Louisiana has received $1.9 billion in Army Corps of Engineers project funds for disaster prevention a total second only to California, which has a population seven times greater. Hundreds of millions of those dollars have gone to unrelated water projects that were demanded by state legislators. If money allocated precisely for the type of projects that would have saved lives in the Gulf Coast is purposely misused, how can anybody be surprised when the disaster prevention and relief measures are inadequate?
Despite the many shortcomings in the response to Katrina, most Americans, myself included, have little doubt that the Gulf Coast region will rebound from this disaster. There is recent speculation that the death tolls will be lower than originally feared, and negative economic consequences are projected to be generally mild and short-term. Already, Americans have contributed $500 million, private companies have donated amounts exceeding that by hundreds of millions of dollars and countless grassroots efforts continue to help evacuees are increasingly strong. These efforts reflect the true strength of America.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina is damning evidence that America is not prepared to handle another disaster of its magnitude – whether it comes via nature or terrorism. However, as is evident in the national response to Katrina – both good and bad – the key to some day becoming prepared for such events begins and ends with the personal responsibility of each American.