Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A city that the damned call home

Okay, here's the thing: Inappropriate politicization of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, left (and left and left and left) and right (and, to a lesser extent, right) has got to stop. It's a natural disaster, and manipulating events as they unfold to score cheap points - and often completely ludicrous and illogical ones, at that - is just adding to the hideously Hobbesian state-of-nature vibe currently emanating from the Gulf Coast. It's bad enough to be confronted with the stock-character spectres of looters rampaging through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Those trying to apportion blame while New Orleans is still consumed by fire and flood - thinking of their electoral chances in 2006, be it January or October - are just plain ghoulish, and way, way out of line. That said - and despite the fact that the city looks to be months if not years away from full recovery, if ever - probably the most counterproductive commentary is that which sinks into over-emotional despair. It's not unexpected, but neither is it helpful. NRO's The Corner (along with a number of network news anchors and reporters) have been preoccupied with this theme today. From editor Rich Lowry: Here's why Bush's reaction (so far) has been inadequate. I watched the CBS Evening News just now. They broadcast a jaw-dropping report from refugee encampments atop the interstates in New Orleans. Folks, it was one of the most heart-wrenching thing I've ever seen. I can hardly believe this is our country. There were plenty of desperate people stuck there under the boiling sun, with no food, no water, no nothing -- including mothers with babies. There was an elderly woman sitting on the curb next to the covered body of her husband, who died waiting to be rescued. She said that she'd flagged down a passing cop to ask for help, and all he could tell her was to move the body of her husband of 53 years out of the way, so the smell of his decomposition didn't bother people. CBS showed the covered corpse of a man the refugees said jumped from the interstate to his death in despair. These people have NOTHING, and they're growing desperate. The human drama playing out in Louisiana now beggars description. We don't need mere emoting -- the hapless Gov. Blanco shows how useless that is. But we do need our president to make an emotional connection of some sort with his suffering countrymen. You can be tough, competent AND emotional. It's called Giuliani 101. And a reader letter, endorsed thereby: A lot of Bush fans are frankly aghast at how tone-deaf the president is at this moment. They just showed clips of New Orleans prisoners sitting in a huge group, some of them handcuffed together with plastic cuffs with flood water lapping at their feet. They have been there for two days. Prisoners have their shirts pulled over their noses because the stench is too overwhelming. Fox News is the only news crew along a particular stretch of highway downtown. Hundreds of people are standing around, wanting to know where they should go to get water and food. They have not had either for days. Shep Smith showed a 3-year-old boy who was sitting in his mother's lap. He was sick and barely conscious. Dehydrated. Hungry. Not a single authority figure was anywhere around. Shep had to turn his interview with a state police spokeswoman into a plea to her to send help to his location for those poor people. The scenes I'm seeing on Fox are things you'd think you'd only see in Somalia or Bangladesh. This is the United States of America. We can't get a single truck full of water to these people? We can't get a single helicopter to fly over and drop supplies? A cop car and a military truck roll up from the distance, giving the suffering people hope. Do they stop as the desperate wave? No. They drive through. They can't even stop to tell them where they should go to get any life-saving water or food. The problem is that it's not about getting a single water truck to one particular group of people on one telegenic highway overpass - it's about triage, attempting to allocate resources where they'll be most useful immediately. In the same way that I don't imagine myself a military strategist, second-guessing ongoing operations in Iraq, neither am I a civil engineer experienced in logistics. Neither is Lowry. Nor, I'm willing to bet, are most of those demanding Something Be Done in a way that's immediately and substantially visible to us gawkers comfortably watching the horror from hundreds or thousands of miles away, on cable. (Of course, you'd have to be watching half a dozen channels at once just to catch everything, anyway; one reader e-mail posted on BoingBoing asked "Where are the military helicopters? Perhaps I missed seeing them on TV. Surely not every single one is in Iraq?" Interesting; Fox News was certainly covering Navy helicopters performing search-and-rescue operations, whether or not others were...) The point is, I'm willing to give the authorities - civil and military - the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they're doing everything they can with an eye to solving the overall problem. Becoming distraught at a heartbreaking scene, and lashing out at the inability of government to fix everything immediately, is not only futile; it's sure to spread the negativity around, too. Assuaging our collective survivors' guilt with high-profile feel-good efforts for those particular victims caught on camera - as opposed to the whole of those affected - is among the least essential things to be done at the moment. This is disaster on a nearly-incomprehensible scale, and no matter what any person or agency says or does in the short term, the loss of life (and property damage) will be mind-boggling. But a bit more stoicism, and less panicking, couldn't hurt anything right about now. UPDATE: On the other hand, maybe faith is better put in a well-armed populace re-establishing order for themselves, in the short term: Looters also chased down a state police truck full of food. The New Orleans police chief ran off looters while city officials themselves were commandeering equipment from a looted Office Depot. During a state of emergency, authorities have broad powers to take private supplies and buildings for their use. Managers at a nursing home were prepared to cope with the power outages and had enough food for days, but then the looting began. The home's bus driver was forced to surrender the vehicle to carjackers. Bands of people drove by the nursing home, shouting to residents, "Get out!" Eighty residents, most of them in wheelchairs, were being evacuated to other nursing homes in the state. "We had enough food for 10 days," said Peggy Hoffman, the home's executive director. "Now we'll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot." Every minute, it gets a little bit more Night of the Living Dead out there. (Via LGF, Damian Penny, and others.)

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