Wake Up America: 

Time to reconsider our priorities

By Sharon Alexander

09/06/05 "ICH" -- -- The aftermath of the hurricane in New Orleans has brought frighteningly home the fragility of the line between living in a "civilized" first world condition and being reduced to third world struggle for survival. Are you asking yourself, as I am, how you would fare should such a situation befall you and your family? Would I survive? Would my survival depend on my wealth, my mobility and my connections? Would I be looting for survival? Could I be reduced to violence? Would I wish I had a gun? What would happen to my sense of community? common dignity? law and order? Would I be satisfied with my president's promises to "fix" the problem, days into my misery.

In recent years, many Americans have allowed themselves to be convinced by arguments against taxation and "big government". We have been told to look to the free market, our churches, and private enterprise as the agents of our welfare. But, as can clearly be seen in this terrible tragedy, we should all take very seriously the responsibility of our governments to protect the population. 

I sincerely hope that you are among those who are taking their news about the catastrophe in New Orleans from print sources as well as TV. But in case you are not, let me pass onto you some of the analysis that has come thru such sources as the International Herald Tribune in the last days.

Did you know that immanent disaster had been predicted for New Orleans and that a comprehensive plan (coast 2050) had been drawn up in 1998 to avert such a disaster? The price would have been $14 billion. But Congress and the Louisiana government both ended up not acting on the proposal, thus setting the stage for this disaster waiting to happen. The country had other priorities for its use of funds. Even as recently as a year ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to study how New Orleans could be protected from a catastrophic hurricane, but the Bush administration ordered that the research not be undertaken. A Corps of Engineers Project to strengthen levees and pumping stations saw its funding dry up in 2003 as it was drained into the Iraq war. 

In 2004, the Bush administration cut funding requested by the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80 percent. Additional cuts at the beginning of this year (for a total reduction in funding of 44.2 percent since 2001) forced the New Orleans district of the Corps to impose a hiring freeze. The Senate had debated adding funds for fixing New Orleans' levees, but it was too late.

Did you know that as early as 2001 the Federal Emergency Management Agency tried to prepare itself to deal with an impending New Orleans disaster but failed, whether due to funding shortages or simply lack of attention, to come up real planning for certain issues, such as the need to provide shelter for thousands of people? 

Can you imagine being evacuated to a large holding area with inadequate sanitation and no food or water and then being forced to wait there up to five days? Once again, as in the World Trade Towers tragedy, the major complaint is that communications among disaster relief agencies has been abominable. Another complaint is that there were not enough National Guard troops on hand to protect the peace, because they are all engaged in our battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. How secure does that make you feel when the next catastrophe strikes in your neighborhood, whether it be a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or a flu epidemic?

Did you notice what subgroup of citizens were unable to evacuate the area ahead of time and so got caught up in the horrendous aftermath of the hurricane? The poor, the elderly, those who had no access to a car or to other safe havens; thousands and thousands of them. Whose job was it to organize buses to get those people out of there in time? And whose job was it to make sure that there was a safe place to go to once they had left their homes? And whose job is it to make sure that these people have enough resources to pick up their lives again in the foreseeable future?

Everybody should be concerned about what we are seeing unfold before our eyes. This will not be the last disaster that America will have to face in the coming years. We need to see much more civic and governmental discussion about where government funding should come from and where it should go in maintaining the health of the country. We can not afford to sit back and let things just take their course.

How do the Europeans view all of this? Saturday's New York Times contained an article by Richard Bernstein, noting the following that although Europe offered empathy and help, it was with mixed feelings: "Why? For one thing, there are other disasters occupying the minds of many Europeans - the famine in Niger, the deaths of Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad, the killings in Darfur, Sudan - are taking place in poor countries less able to take care of themselves than the most powerful and the richest country on earth."

But, in addition, continues the article, "Europeans are dismayed to be witness to the spectacle of a hurricane causing a disaster of third world proportions in the United States.

As a reporter on BBC Television said on Friday, not able to keep the anger from his voice, the looting, the armed gangs, the gunplay, and, especially, the arrogance, in his view, that mostly white police displayed toward mostly black residents, represented "the dark underbelly of life in this country." "Why should hundreds die, mostly African-Americans, in a predicted disaster in the richest nation on earth," was one expression of a widespread feeling in Europe, this one appearing Friday in a letter in the Guardian, the British paper.

There were many comments to the effect that earlier predictions of the disaster did not lead public officials to make sure the levees would withstand any possible onslaught, and there was the unspoken opinion that such would not have been the case, say, with the likes of the Netherlands, or in any of the rich European countries.

"These are incredible scenes from the richest and the biggest country in the world," an anchorman, Jean-Pierre Pernaut, said on one of the main midday French news program on Friday. On the competing channel, the news program had an interview with a specialist on the United States, Nicole Bacharan, who said, "These images reveal to the world the reality in the southern states: the poverty of 37 million Americans.""

Of course, there were also recriminations against the Bush administration for its policy (or lack of one) on global warming and its unwillingness to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

The NY Times article continues:

"But the real problem noticed by Europeans is the inherent inequality of suffering. The tragedy has been visited disproportionately, indeed almost exclusively, on the city's African-Americans. The particular circumstances of New Orleans and Biloxi have tended to confirm many of the worst visions of America that prevail in Europe, the vision of a country of staggering inequalities, of a kind of political indifference to the general welfare (especially in the Bush administration), and an absence of what the Europeans call "solidarity." Europeans note that there were no scenes of armed gangs of looters in gun battles with police in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. 

That things have gone so badly so quickly after the storm in New Orleans has produced something beyond sympathy in Europe: disappointment, distress, fear that a major city in the world's most powerful nation could have fallen into something that looks, from this side of the Atlantic, like anarchy."

I want to say one last thing in response to this horrifying tragedy. Look around you. Have you created the society you want for yourself and your children? Do you have the social support you need? Do you know where food and water would come from if a disaster would strike? We all must empower ourselves. Things may get worse before they get better. Living in a "civilized" country may not be enough. Having money (unless we have lots of it) may not be enough. The next time you are tempted t think that running the government has not much to do with you, think again.

Oh, PS: You should know that while the major oil companies have pledged $11 million towards relief efforts, these corporations made $72.8 billion last year, making four of them among the 7 most profitable corporations in the world. Even as insurance companies are expecting $25 billion in damage claims from Katrina, gasoline prices rise dramatically, and the oil companies keep making money. Bush's Energy Bill just gave these energy companies the bulk of $14.5 billion in tax breaks. But, of course, oil and gas companies are responsible for 95% of the campaign contributions to the Republicans in the last two presidential elections, giving about $50 million. Exxon-Mobile is the most profitable, making $25.3 billion last year. Oh, did I happen to mention that Exxon Mobil has been the major funder in efforts to discredit global warming predictions, spending at least $8 million dollars on this effort? .

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