Sunday, September 11, 2005

American Tsunami

It was the imperfect storm of the year, for sure, and maybe the decade: a collision of economic and sociological forces with a meteorological event almost apocalyptic in scale. As it approached the southeastern United States, and the achingly vulnerable Gulf Coast, you saw it in the infrared satellite photos: a white-hot pinwheel of raw energy streaming toward landfall, its motion so regular as to almost resemble breathing.


The storm first made itself felt a week or more before, killing 11 people in Florida as it perambulated around the Gulf of Mexico, seemingly gaining no momentum, destined to be another midlevel noisemaker with more bark than bite. Perhaps it was that complacency, or comfort, or the latent rise of the soul of a riverboat gambler that led many residents of the probable hot zone to stay put. Betsy was bad and they lived through it, they reasoned; Camille was bad, in some ways worse than Betsy, but they got through that too.

Or maybe it was the storied Southern sense of independence and fidelity to the land, so hard come by for many of its citizens. If it was worth dying for to acquire it, they figured, how can it not be worth dying for to hold onto it? Many did pull up stakes and leave, gassing up the SUVs, taking the advice of the weather professionals on the networks, the people who were calling Katrina a “catastrophic event” when it was more than a day from landfall. But others went into hunkerdown mode and stayed behind in Mississippi and Alabama.

And they stayed behind in New Orleans, black, thirty-per-cent-poor New Orleans. They lingered often with no choice, or believing they had no choice, no options beyond the government check at the end of the month, no way out of town except in the pine box they’d already resigned themselves to. They hunkered down with no alternatives in the birthplace of jazz, a city technically seven feet under water on a dry day, and hoped like hell the levees would deliver them from evil again.

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Hurricane Katrina managed to combine the biblical force of the Asian tsunami disaster and the riveting human after-spectacle of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. For the sheer scope of the disaster, still unfolding at this writing and any writing for months to come; for the forces of chaos and rage unleashed shortly after the energies of the ocean were spent against the land; for the depth of the human suffering revealed; and for the bureaucratic farragos that have snarled even the most basic attempts to feed and water a sudden diaspora of human beings, Hurricane Katrina was America’s tsunami, as powerful, as wrenching and devastating in the longest terms to this country as the cataclysmic December 26th event was to southeast Asia.

In typical American fashion, the fingerpointing has already begun, with the agencies in charge, however nominally, being readied to take the blame. The Homeland Security Department, the agency previously charged with overseeing domestic security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, has been ham-fistedly retrofitted to resolving a situation largely beyond the scope of its creation.

And FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency now under Homeland Security control, has come under intense scrutiny, with its director, Michael Brown, the former director of International Arabian Horse Association, a patronage appointee, a resume fabulist, a woeful incompetent ill-prepared for the still-evolving challenge at hand. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff more or less formally decapitated Brown at a Sept. 9 press conference, relieving him of overseeing the Katrina relief effort, leaving him if name only -- bet the ranch -- the director of FEMA.

Chertoff's General Patton-in-shirtsleeves act couldn't conceal the way things were coming undone, or appearing to. And administration protestations couldn't hide the rising edge of fear in the eyes of President Bush, the visible flopsweat on the brow of the commander-in-chief a day or two before, the day President Bush got a briefing from the soon-to-be-headless Mr. Brown and said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," a Beltway valedictory if there ever was one.

For the increasingly ill-at-ease George Bush and his handlers, it’s altogether inescapable now and will be more so in the future: Whether they like it or not, the Bush administration has a new agenda, a new mission to parallel the military mission now under way halfway around the world. The drive to achieve democracy in Iraq will be – and must be – accompanied by an initiative to restore democracy in Louisiana.

This new mission will require much of the same expenditure of capital, material, manpower and energy as the war we’re fighting in Iraq. And like with the Iraq war, the stakes couldn’t be higher: the integrity of the country and its ability to function. Whether he wants to or not, George Bush is compelled to open a new front in the war on terrorism, a domestic front, a tweak of a global mission whose necessity on these shores right now isn’t offset at all by the terrorism’s climatological origins.

Think about it: Katrina ushered into America vast and impersonal death; untold billions of dollars in insured and uninsured property losses; billions in revenue from the Gulf Coast port infrastructure, now badly compromised; billions in oil revenue from the ten refineries that owned and managed rigs offshore until the hurricane; certainly tens of millions of dollars from vanished casino, gaming and leisure revenue from two of the three affected states; the unfathomable price of an environmental nightmare of human and chemical toxins, a "toxic gumbo" (thank you Aaron Neville) that will require billions of dollars to clean up; and a deep and uneradicated sense of confusion and dread among the region’s people.

Was the effect of Sept. 11 any less deeply felt as a defining American experience? Is the devastation of that storm any less powerful than that in an act of human terrorism? Since there's no difference between the depth of the two tragedies, the current situation calls for at least the same intensity of response for this domestic tragedy as that which the nation took to fighting a foreign war -- a war that didn’t have to be fought in the first place.

But the intensity of the response to Katrina from this administration is up for debate, and a very uncertain thing. The same intensity of response to the terrors of Hurricane Katrina as our response to the tinpot tyranny of Saddam Hussein would mean having to repurpose billions and billions of dollars from an international purpose to a domestic one. That purpose would be fighting the effects of Katrina -- effects no less catastrophic, to the Gulf Coast, than the effects of Sept. 11, 2001, four years ago today, were to the City of New York and, by logical extension, the United States of America.

By choice or by demand, this will be George Bush’s new gulf war, fought not in the Persian Gulf but in the Gulf of Mexico. The shock and awe for this conflict will come from nature, the original superpower. And there won’t be any MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banners flying for many long months to come.


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