Finger-pointing should wait until the facts are in

The Katrina Catastrophe

September 07, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - I'm trying to picture a different aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans - one in which all residents were evacuated in advance, no lives were lost, order was perfectly maintained, emergency supplies were delivered and distributed in ample quantities with flawless precision and everyone was pleased with how well the government performed.

And you know what? I can't do it.

These things are called disasters for a reason: They have terrible consequences, most unavoidable and some unforeseeable.

When nature unleashes its fury, it leaves a mess no amount of human ingenuity can instantly dispel.

The images of chaos and death in New Orleans come as a shock, but what would we expect of the worst natural disaster in American history? Yet some people behave as though only incompetence or evil motives could account for anything that went wrong.

Large-scale catastrophes commonly create a shortage of many commodities and a surplus of two: misery and fault-finding. It took no time after New Orleans was flooded for commentators to start ladling out blame by the barrel. Assorted liberals assailed President Bush because he had pushed a cut in funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and had the nerve to send Louisiana National Guard troops to Iraq.

There were complaints that the president didn't end his Texas vacation sooner and gripes that when he took a look at the devastation, he did it from the air and not from the sodden ground. But it's juvenile to think that, with modern communications, the federal government cannot function optimally unless the boss is physically in the Oval Office. Parachuting the president and his entourage into a disaster area is a mixed blessing, given the disruption any presidential appearance creates.

I'm no fan of the Iraq war. Still, I find it hard to believe that in the first few days after the hurricane, things would have gone appreciably better if we were not fighting insurgents in Fallujah. When Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida in 1992, the United States was at peace - and yet the first President Bush was criticized for not sending enough troops to help.

When a natural disaster strikes, you're not likely to hear anyone say the president is doing too much, or even that he's doing exactly the right amount. It's always possible to think of something he hasn't done. Yet a Thursday editorial in The Washington Post, which is not a right-wing outpost, concluded that "the government's immediate response to the destruction of one of the nation's most historic cities does seem commensurate with the scale of the disaster."

As for the funding cuts, they don't look brilliantly farsighted. But it's fair to ask whether state and local taxpayers were willing to shoulder their fair share of the burden of protecting New Orleans.

In any case, the levees didn't fail because of money the administration proposed to cut from next year's federal budget. If there's been chronic underfunding of hurricane protection and flood control efforts in Louisiana, as we are told, it's a safe bet the problem originated before George W. Bush took office.

Even relatively measured critiques had the air of rushing to point fingers without adequate information. A news story in Thursday's Wall Street Journal said the storm exposed "serious failures by government leaders" and "flawed execution by relief agencies."

Of course, "flawed execution" is a term you could use about almost any human endeavor, given the intractable imperfection of Homo sapiens. As for whether our leaders seriously failed us, we might want to wait longer than 48 hours to try to assess such a huge and difficult undertaking.

In the coming weeks and months, we can learn a great deal about how to avoid and mitigate future catastrophes - but only if we put off affixing blame until all the facts are in. Snap judgments, after all, are not synonymous with wise judgments.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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