Response to Katrina starts with awe, ends with dread

September 06, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

YESTERDAY we peeled ourselves away from the television pictures of Katrina's wrath to remember hurricanes past. New Orleans is drowning, and we want some human comprehension.

We went to Fells Point, which resembled Venice with a bad hangover when Tropical Storm Isabel struck two years ago. We remembered Bowleys Quarters, where whitecaps bullied their way onto land and destroyed homes. We recalled the flooded dock in downtown Annapolis, and the relief center on Back River Neck Road that was filled with storm victims wondering where to turn next.

And we realized that nothing delivered by Isabel two years ago compares with the devastation of Katrina, and it filled us with awe.

We see the desperation on television, and we want to understand, but our own puny reality stands in the way. We've never known anything like this. It is our blessing, but also the thing that keeps us from fully understanding what people are going through.

Two years ago in Bowleys Quarters, we walked among the splintered rubble that had been people's homes a day or two earlier. Oil tanks floated along a family's flooded back yard, and an air conditioner lay on a grassy patch with living room curtains wrapped around it like a grotesque funeral shroud. A woman pointed to 2-foot-high water marks in her second-floor kitchen. Beneath the water marks lay big clots of seaweed. Furniture was spread across yards and alleys. Everybody agreed that nothing would ever be the same.

Yet, a few weeks ago, in the sunlight by a newly rebuilt home on that same property, we went to a wedding as joyful as any in memory. Life goes on, we told ourselves.

But that was before Katrina.

We want to understand what New Orleans is experiencing because their humanity touches our own. We hear about looting and wonder: How could people loot in the midst of such tragedy? But the question exposes our lack of connection. Last week in Baltimore, when false rumors were spread about gasoline shortages, we had lines of people at gas stations, and some were spitting curses at each other. Cutting into line was considered a capital offense. That thin veneer of civilization strips away pretty quickly sometimes.

But in New Orleans, they're not facing false rumors of shortages. These are people who didn't have food and water and medicine. Since when is it considered "looting" when the alternative is sickness or starvation - while the rest of the nation watches from a safe distance, and a government that had plenty of warnings stumbles belatedly to get into the game? Who among us could swear we wouldn't obliterate the old, accepted legal boundaries if we faced such desperate and frenzied conditions?

Two years ago, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isabel, we had hundreds of people line up for help, day after day, at a relief center on Back River Neck Road in eastern Baltimore County. They got hot meals from the Salvation Army. They compared stories about flooded living rooms and wondered where they would live until their homes were rebuilt. And they began the maddening experience of dealing with government agencies and insurance companies and wondering how to pay their bills while they took time off from their jobs.

It seemed utterly overwhelming - and it did not compare with Katrina.

But New Orleans fills us with another kind of dread: This was nature's version of a terrorist attack - and the government assigned to protect us has once again failed abysmally.

Four years ago, the White House sloughed off reports of Osama bin Laden's plans to attack the U.S. Now, we learn, they sloughed off reports from scientists, Army engineers, Louisiana officials, all written over the past decade, describing New Orleans' vulnerability and the need for government assistance before inevitable disaster struck. The assistance never arrived. Instead, Washington cut funding that was needed and now attempts to deflect criticism by shifting the blame around, or by propping up this president for a photo op with his arm around some pathetic victim.

It's George W. Bush's newest version of standing in the World Trade Center rubble in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The image of a caring president is supposed to obliterate the notion of a careless one: a man who ignored all signs of trouble on the way, from terrorists and from nature, and then reacted too slowly and too ineffectively.

In New Orleans (and in Mississippi) they've been hampered by the lack of National Guard troops who might have helped flood victims. These soldiers are, instead, fighting in Iraq: almost one-third of the men and women of the Louisiana National Guard, and an even higher percentage of Mississippi's.

Four years ago, Osama bin Laden attacked America from Afghanistan; so Bush invaded Iraq. Now Louisiana and Mississippi are devastated; we're lucky Bush didn't send help to Vermont.

Four years after the terrorist attacks, two years after little Isabel that seemed so big at the time - Katrina fills us with dread: at human vulnerability, and at government inability to respond.

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