Why America can't cope 

There are deeper explanations for the New Orleans catastrophe than anyone has dared suggest, writes Andrew Stephen. The roots lie in America's deluded self-image

By Andrew Stephen

09/09/05 "New Statesman"
-- -- We know, now, that there was not even a Prescott in charge in Washington. President Bush was exorcising heaven-knows-what demons by furiously riding his mountain bike in Texas - nobody, not even the Secret Service or a visiting Lance Armstrong, is allowed to pass him - while Vice-President Cheney was fly-fishing in Wyoming. Condoleezza Rice, next in charge, was shopping for shoes at Ferragamo's and watching Spamalot on Broadway and catching the US Open in New York; while Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, who is supposed to keep it all together, was taking in the sea breeze with much of the rest of the Bush crowd in Maine. 

Rats gnawing at corpses floating down the streets three days after Katrina struck, bodies left to decompose in the stairwells of New Orleans's main hospital because its basement mortuary was flooded, tens of thousands still trapped, hungry and thirsty: only then did the inquests into what the Los Angeles Times called the "surreal foreignness" of it all start. But then the questioning was imbued with a peculiarly American self-righteousness and aggressive need to pin blame on the guilty: on the inattentiveness of the Bush administration, its lack of foresight, the racial and class divisions within the US, and so on. 

In so far as they went, the inquests are justified. There is much guilt and blame to be shared around. It took the fury of Katrina to bring home to many the sheer hopelessness of Bush and his administration, both in their immediate response and in their prior lack of competent planning. The spectacle of countries such as Sri Lanka sending donations and Fidel Castro offering to send medical supplies with 1,100 doctors only underlined the desperate nationalistic need to find scapegoats to appease the shame. 

But nobody, as far as I can see, has dared to suggest that there are deeper explanations for so disconcerting a shambles, explanations that transcend political parties or individuals. The self-image of America, now largely adopted in Britain, too, is that of a nation of uniquely hardy and resilient people predestined by God to be omnipotent in the world, be it against the forces of nature or of bogeyman dictators. 

Because, in reality, the reverse is so often true - present-day Americans, after all, are the most pampered human beings in history - the myths, fostered by popular culture and especially Hollywood, have given rise to a complacency that is increasingly dangerous not only for the rest of the world but for Americans, too. Hardship is only momentary and can always be overcome, hard work will always be rewarded, and other such uniquely American traits, will result in a society that is matchlessly efficient and soars to ever greater triumphs: it ticks over so smoothly that even after the 11 September 2001 atrocities, Bush is still free to go off to bike, Cheney to fish, Rice to shop. 

Yet Katrina showed the fragility of the US and this belief that there is little need for strong collective leadership or institutions of the kind that European civilisations have come to value. The feelings date back to victory over the British in the American revolution: a distrust of government and a belief in the righteousness and inevitable prosperity of the little guy, equipped only with his gun, his initiative and his own humble patch of land. This culture of so-called private entrepreneurship blended with a disavowal of collective responsibilities actually gained under Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr and then Bill Clinton - leading to growths in gated communities, armed sentries and further class/racial divisions. 

It is also why, early in his presidency, George W Bush downgraded the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), the body designated to cope with national emergencies. Such departments, the reasoning went, are for feeble folk looking for government handouts (and that often meant blacks). In the words of Bush's budget director Mitch Daniels in 2001: "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into an oversized entitlement programme . . . expectations of when the federal government should be involved, and the degree of involvement, may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level." 

That very year, Fema itself warned that a hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country". The Texas crony Bush had appointed to lead Fema, Joe Allbaugh, left the following year to start a consulting firm that now advises US companies wanting to do business in Iraq, and which advised Bush on his 2004 re-election campaign. The main qualification of the man appointed in his wake, another crony called Michael D Brown, was that he had recently left the post of commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association after presiding over a decade of turmoil and internal rancour there. 

Thus, the task of spearheading the mighty US government's response to Katrina was left to a twit appointed because of his social networking rather than any sound qualifications to lead. The prevailing ethos, after all, is that government is unimportant and can be left to amateurs, just like Bush himself. Long after television viewers throughout the world saw thousands of suffering and dying men, women and children herded inside the ill-named Superdome in New Orleans, without food and water, Brown told NBC that "the federal government just learned about these people today". 

Yet the response to Hurricane Katrina was "incredibly more efficient" than that of the international community to the Boxing Day tsunami, Brown thought. "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," the president duly congratulated him when Bush belatedly toured Louisiana. (Can a Presidential Medal of Freedom for Brown be far off?) Brown's boss, Michael Chertoff - a startlingly unremarkable 51-year-old whom Bush appointed this year to be head of the US department of homeland security, which ultimately subsumed Fema and downgraded the threat of natural disaster on the Gulf Coast - opined that "nature was unhelpful", but that the federal response had been "really exceptional". 

You do not have to look any further into such complacency and out-of-touch amateurism to see why there were no immediate landing zones (LZs, in US military parlance) set up, why fleets of Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters were not immediately sent in, or even why there was simply nobody to take visible control in the way that Rudy Giuliani did in Manhattan on the day of the 11 September attacks. Bush himself dismally failed to do so, exactly as he did that day in 2001 - a fact now conveniently brushed over by much of the world. But government leadership had demonstrated that its ability to be strong and professional in coping with catastrophe had been vanishing for decades. 

Since 1993 (Clinton fans, please note), progressively larger areas of protective wetlands had been lost forever in Louisiana alone. Bush then, in effect, froze spending on the US Army Corps of Engineers, the body responsible for protecting US coastlines and inland waterways from disaster. So that just at the point when the corps said it needed $62.5m for the Louisiana urban flood control project in the next fiscal year, the Bush administration slashed its projected budget to $10.5m. The impetus of its philosophy - that commerce and profits should flow unimpeded because they are the lifeblood of the nation - has meant that, when the government has become involved, it has sought instead to impede the natural flow of the Mississippi, so that ships can import and export goods more easily from Mississippi and Louisiana ports and new housing developments can proliferate, even while natural defences against flooding are destroyed. 

And so the indictments mount against the Bush administration, as well as its predecessors. In the 2000 presidential election debates, Bush lectured Al Gore that natural disasters are "a time to test your mettle". Bush's mettle, yet again, has conspicuously failed to measure up, both in the build-up to the disaster and in its denouement; a naive belief that the government will run itself in entrepreneurial America has simply fallen apart. Nor can he fall back any longer on yet another American characteristic that has sustained him since 11 September 2001: that nationalistic need for visible foes and quarries, such as the old Soviet Union or Osama Bin Laden, on which the country can vent its spleen. 

Now Bush is finding that this spleen is being turned against him instead - God hardly being an appropriate target for the collective ire - and the White House is being forced to start a campaign to blame local and state government (read again, for the most part, black) rather than itself. As Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi and a long-time Washington Republican wheeler-dealer (no Southern hill-billy he), spat out the day that Katrina hit, there would be "zero tolerance" of looters. But his macho rhetoric, of a kind that is normally enough to feed white aggression, suddenly sounded ineffably hollow to a nation that had witnessed the spectacle of its own citizens foraging desperately for food. (Though, even then, white people were widely depicted as "finding" food and black folk as "looting" it.) 

The decay of the nation's infrastructure thus continues apace. If there is no strong government, there is, of course, no one to supervise quality control. Fifteen yards from my house, less than a mile from the White House, in privileged, white Georgetown, a so-called "sinkhole", three feet deep and 18 inches across, appeared in the pavement this spring. It was enough to swallow a toddler or cripple a blind person or drunk, but after many weeks of phone calls and e-mails from a neighbour, the response of the DC government was finally to plonk a heavy steel plate over it. It will probably remain there for ever. 

Bush muted much of his planned Labour Day festivities on 5 September, and even preparations for the "Freedom Walk" of 11 September - designed to celebrate his heroic leadership - were suddenly cut back. He does not have the ability to respond instinctively to events, as he showed on 11 September 2001; he has only the capacity to respond retrospectively to public reaction to those events, which is very different. He can be effective one-on-one with people - he genuinely empathises with suffering once it is personified for him - but otherwise he remains hopelessly unable to rise to the occasion, politically or bureaucratically. 

That is why the US is crying out for the leadership of, say, another Franklin Delano Roosevelt - which Bush persists in believing himself to be. Yet even FDR had to cope with a system designed to counteract British colonialism by diffusing political power and making it hard for any one branch of government to act decisively. Government here is thus intentionally sclerotic, but, given the demands of 21st-century consumerism, when Americans want their government to act, they want it to do so immediately. Here and now, no questions asked, OK? 

These innate conflicts must be resolved sooner or later. In the meantime, besides trouble in the economy - the Gulf ports deal with a critical proportion of US oil and gas supplies, as well as half of its grain exports - political strife looms. Will there be riots and calls for political change, as there were following the Johnstown flood of 1889 and the Galveston hurricane of 1900? Racial uprisings? There are already queues for petrol in my neighbourhood, more than a thousand miles north of the flooding: panic is another characteristic of a nation that has never really suffered privation. And the price of timber, as speculators anticipate the need for a huge programme of rebuilding, has risen steeply. 

Yet that sense of American omnipotence, the pride that American mastery can overcome all obstacles and evils presented by man or by God, is still inexhaustible. It is anybody's guess why New Orleans was built seven feet below sea level in 1718 in the first place, no less than why Washington, DC itself was built on a flea-infested swamp, when a perfectly good existing city such as Baltimore would have made a much more suitable capital, as Anthony Trollope pointed out. But $10.5bn has already been allocated to the rebuilding of New Orleans on the exact spot ("out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast", said Bush excitedly). 

Thus, on top of everything, there is an adamant refusal to learn the lessons of history or those of the forces of nature. New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen - just as, one day, a monumental earthquake will hit Los Angeles or San Francisco. It might not happen in our lifetime, but happen it surely will, and no amount of American know-how will prevent it. Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the House, timidly voiced reservations in the days immediately following Katrina that it might not be wise to rebuild New Orleans in the same place, but swiftly backtracked amid recriminations that such notions were defeatist and thus un-American. 

My own first experience of the disaster-hit area came long ago, during my student days, when, clutching my British Universities North America Club handbook, I arrived in the Gulf port of Biloxi on a Greyhound bus. I was bewildered when I could find neither the fleapit hotel to which I thought I was destined nor any of the other buildings that the handbook said were close to the coach station. I became so desperate for a shower, after spending more than a week sleeping on the buses, that I ended up at the local jail asking if I could have one in a cell, which I duly did. 

The redneck white jailer, bemused and amused by my willingness to step inside a hellish all-black cell block, finally explained what had happened: Biloxi had been levelled by Hurricane Camille, after the BUNAC book had been published. It duly rose from those 20th-century ruins - only, in 2005, to be razed again by the same forces of nature. Today, hundreds lie dead there, and barges haul bodies along causeways where the new visitors' centre and McDonald's stood only days ago. Lessons, alas, were simply never learned. 

To Americans, these lessons of Katrina - that their country may still be the world's military superpower, but it is neither all-powerful nor even particularly efficient at home - will be hard to absorb. Perhaps they will prove simply too humbling; perhaps there will be an impetus back towards isolationism, to pour more resources into strengthening life at home rather than trying to put the rest of the world to rights. The nation is nurtured on tales that America is paradise on earth but the reality is that it is increasingly falling behind western Europe in technology, education and healthcare - not to mention the kind of emergency and evacuation procedures and disaster preparedness needed to respond to Hurricane Katrina. A predictable natural calamity which inconveniently failed to fit in with the preordained scripts of this most cynical of US administrations has brutally exposed America's shortcomings. 

Copyright Andrew Stephen, 2005 

The warnings were there 

The disaster was predicted by many. In October 2001, Scientific American published an article entitled "Drowning New Orleans", by Mark Fischetti. Here is an edited extract: 

"A major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands. Human activities along the Mississippi River have dramatically increased the risk, and now only massive re-engineering of south-eastern Louisiana can save the city. A big, slow-moving hurricane would drive a sea surge that would drown New Orleans under 20 feet of water . . . New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further.The Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city, is also rapidly disappearing. Each loss gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities. Extensive evacuation would be impossible because surging water would cut off the few escape routes." 

New Statesman 1913 - 2005 

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