Thursday, September 22, 2005

American Tsunami III

What the country and the Gulf Coast have grown to fear over the past three weeks now seems to be less than a day from actually happening. Tropical Storm Rita has completed its transformation into a full-blown hurricane -- it's been wobbling between Category 4 and Category 5 for the last twenty-four hours -- and is now veering toward landfall at some point between the coastlines of eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Within the last few hours, in fact, unlovely Rita has taken a turn to the northeast, and as of now may well be tacking back toward New Orleans, sodden, beleaguered New Orleans. ...

Some are beginning to call the situation in the gulf “the Katrita phenomenon,” a conflation of hurricane names that’s more than just a cute way to describe the impact from two storms three weeks apart. Both Katrina and Rita, likely to be this hurricane season’s most cataclysmic one-two punch, will have a huge and resonant impact not just on the region but on the country as a whole.

You have to consider the human tragedy of the first hurricane; it's been all but impossible to come up with a firm body watch from that one, and a second storm maybe just as bad or worse is on its way. The suffering in the Gulf Coast is starting to take on the worst aspects of a new and tragic continuum in American life, a fabric of suffering so total and smothering we can't be sure where the pain of one event ends and another begins.

Then there's the financial cost. The analyst wags on Wall Street are already talking audibly about gas at upwards of $4 a gallon by Halloween – trick or treat! – and commodities brokers have gone on the air with dire forecasts about higher costs for everything from orange juice to coffee to any number of goods brought into the port of New Orleans, the city at the mouth of the Mississippi, the national carotid artery for commerce.

The Katrita effect may have created yet another casualty. The National Enquirer, that fount of journalistic integrity, has reported that the President of the United States and heretofore teetotaler-in-chief is said to be drinking again. The Enquirer, citing family sources that are unnamed for a damn good reason, reports that in the wake of the Katrina catastrophe and the still-chaotic situation in Iraq, President Bush recently downed a Texas-sized tumbler of whiskey.

One unnamed insider told the Enquirer it was something of an open secret that Bush had been indulging before he was caught by first lady Laura Bush, who yelled “stop, George!” as the commander-in-chief put one down the hatch. "The sad fact," one source said, "is that he has been sneaking drinks for weeks now. Laura may have only just caught him, but the word is his drinking has been going on for a while in the capital. He's been in a pressure cooker for months."

Another source, ominously, told the Enquirer that a family member "told me they fear George is 'falling apart.'"

One hopes the bad-Hamlet history of Richard Nixon doesn’t repeat. We want to believe this won’t lead to W rattling around the White House a la Tricky, strolling the halls at midnight, sloshing Glenlivet on the carpet, jabbering at the portraits on the walls of the Lincoln Bedroom. But we’ll see. At a press conference earlier this week, the president looked a mite green around the gills, unusually unhealthy for a man obsessed with workouts and fitness. There were probably other reasons as well.

This was the week that the fatality count for Americans in Iraq hit another of those numerical milestones. Nineteen hundred killed in uniform. For George Bush, a man said to take every American combat death almost personally, that bloody benchmark of the war was probably bad enough.

We shouldn't wonder at his surrender to temptation in the wake of Katrina; the president may have discovered the ways in which the separate and discrete come together, reveal their interconnectedness, in ways you didn't see coming. It took something the magnitude of an apocalyptic event, and its aftermath, to renew the debate about the war in Iraq and its human and financial cost. In an instant, all the abstract talk about homeland security took on another dimension. Katrina's impact wasn't terrorism per se, despite the similarity of effect when you watched the news: the flattened landscapes, the military's frantic dispersal of goods and presence; the eyes of locals in three states, vacant of hope.

But the Homeland Security Department, the agency created to at least oversee a reaction to such disasters -- having ingested the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that body directly responsible for the federal response -- was slow to react. And people, certainly some in the three states affected so far and more around the country, wondered how much better, how much more uniform and immediate the response to Katrina might have been if such a large percentage of America's citizen soldiers weren't half a world away doing another country's business, but not their own.

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