From out of the sky

September 11, 2005

THE ATTACKS of Sept. 11, 2001, were a shock to the system, and the government's response was gigantic and generally wrong-headed. Consider, for instance, the Patriot Act, pork-barrel security spending, the mindless obsession with airport screening, torture of detainees, the war in Iraq - all accompanied by a startling neglect of actual planning and preparedness for another real emergency.

Four years later, Hurricane Katrina was a bigger blow, in terms of property damage and, probably, lives lost. Can America be smarter this time?

The initial reaction is not encouraging. It's not that politicians are trying to make hay from the disaster - that, after all, is what politicians do - but that they are reaching for easy and expensive solutions that miss the mark by about a mile. Funneling billions in new aid money, for instance, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, when that agency is an obstacle to setting things right, staggers the imagination. It's like giving the Medal of Freedom to former CIA director George Tenet after his organization let the country down on 9/11 (and again on Iraq).

There's the matter, too, of investigations into what went wrong. President Bush, who opposed the creation of the 9/11 Commission and resisted cooperating with it when he was forced to sign it into existence, says that this time, like O.J. Simpson, he'll launch an investigation himself. The nation deserves better.

What Katrina brutally revealed was a fatal complacency. New Orleans had a half-baked evacuation plan; Louisiana's levee system both exaggerates the effects of storm surges and is insufficient to contain the biggest of them; government agencies are still incapable of communicating with each other. None of this could have been news to anyone.

And the complacency goes further. Though Americans have been unparalleled in their generosity toward storm survivors, for generations they have turned a blind eye to the anger and bitterness that flourish in the country's neighborhoods of neglect. The horrifying eruption of thuggery in New Orleans once the normal social restraints had been destroyed by the hurricane should be taken as a warning to the whole nation.

Where did this storm come from? Conservatives have ridiculed suggestions that global warming had anything to do with it, and, considering the normal fluctuations of hurricane intensity and other climatic phenomena, they have a point, though a narrow one. But in fact, the Gulf of Mexico is signifcantly warmer than usual, and the truth is that if global warming trends continue we can be sure to see more storms like Katrina. Prudence dictates that America should try to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases while it can. Blaming global warming for Katrina is not anywhere near as off-base as blaming Saddam Hussein for 9/11 - and then launching a war to overthrow him.

The American response to the attacks four years ago today was overwhelmingly a military one. Katrina demands something more - a civilian effort to make this country one better able to stand up to adversity. Since 9/11, the nation has not been asked to share in sacrifice. Now is the time - so that America can better maintain its crucial roads, bridges, tunnels and levees; so that government agencies, and especially the police, can wield the resources and professional expertise they require. Now is the time, also, to begin reweaving the social fabric so that the poor are no longer so casually abandoned to their fate.

Katrina was a tough lesson to endure. The likelihood of its being repeated is far greater than the likelihood of another 9/11. But the hurricane showed us what we need to do. Now, we have to do it.

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