Lessons from the deluge

August 29, 2006

There never will be another Hurricane Katrina. Not long after the weather system that began inauspiciously over the Bahamas as Tropical Depression 12 brewed into an ugly storm with a comely name and struck the Gulf Coast one year ago today, the World Meteorological Organization retired its appellation to the ranks of hurricanes so notorious for their destructive power that they are a genre unto themselves.

But as surely as the sun rises and sets, there will be another hurricane equal to or greater than Katrina. No one knows its name or where it will strike. It could come this year or in the next decade. All we know is that we were not prepared for Katrina - neither for the physical damage nor for the emotional toll - and most likely we are not ready for the next big one. But why not? There's no shortage of lessons to be learned.

Americans have more to rebuild than the devastated lowlands of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Our confidence in government's ability to respond to natural emergencies is as wobbly as a magnolia in an August gale. And our doubts begin at the top: Second to the Iraq war, the Bush presidency will be judged by its disgracefully slipshod handling of the country's costliest natural disaster. History books will not be kind.

Although our hubris is great, our compassion is greater. We shake our heads and wonder why so many people choose to dwell in low-lying coastal areas that are routinely in the path of deadly storms. But when tragedy strikes, most of us give without condemning. Less than a week after Katrina, Americans had pledged nearly $100 million in aid. To date, U.S. charities have raised $3.3 billion, and tens of thousands of everyday people have volunteered to help with the recovery, from filling out government forms to removing heavy trees uprooted by the hurricane.

Greed is the noxious weed that grows from grief's tears. Contractors have been caught double-billing. A Texas hotel owner is accused of charging the Federal Emergency Management Agency $232,000 for hurricane evacuees who never stayed in his rooms. More than 1,100 prison inmates collected millions of dollars in relief funds. FEMA officials took bribes from contractors. Looters looted and corporations scalped.

We forgive Nature before we forgive ourselves. In the thick of the 2006 hurricane season, coastal resorts are packed with late-summer vacationers. What, me worry? But in Connecticut's hotly contested U.S. Senate race, Democrat Ned Lamont pulled out the Katrina card by accusing Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, running as an independent, of aiding post-storm misery by having supported moving FEMA, formerly an independent agency, under the control of the tragically inept U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

When we most need government, it is not there. President Bush didn't inspect the ruins of the Crescent City until two weeks after Katrina. (We bet he won't be tardy for today's National Day of Remembrance appearances.) The catastrophe of the storm was followed by the catastrophe of government - from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. - failing to come to the timely aid of Katrina's victims. And now, a year later, we learn that sections of the 220-mile New Orleans levee system may be as vulnerable to storm surge as they were the day before Katrina.

When we least need government, its presence can be obstructive. Mobile trailers worth $75 million sit empty in Arkansas because FEMA regulations prohibit them from being relocated in coastal areas where people lost their homes. The most recent issue of the New Orleans phone book is half its normal size, indicating that many of the city's pre-Katrina residents have not returned home. In many cases, government red tape blocks the way of individuals' efforts to reclaim and repair their property.

We probably shouldn't count on the generosity of foreign countries after the next Katrina. France, China and many other nations around the world contributed $126 million in hurricane relief, but little of it has been dispersed along the Gulf Coast where it is needed most. About $60 million was put uselessly into a U.S. Treasury non-interest-bearing account.

The catastrophe that was Katrina was so great that one year later, we still do not know the total cost. Physical damages are estimated to be more than $80 billion. The White House has pledged aid exceeding $110 billion. So far, the death toll is put at 1,836, but bodies continue to be discovered.

This is the anniversary of Katrina. But it is not the end.

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