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Last Updated: Friday, 2 September 2005, 08:41 GMT 09:41 UK
Rescue effort falls short

By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was obvious that the disaster would be as big a test for the US as the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Elevated road damaged and houses under water
New Orleans will be rebuilt

Now, amid scenes of chaos in New Orleans and with an SOS cry from the mayor, one has to conclude that the first test - that of bringing aid to the distressed - has not been passed.

And before that, for whatever reason - whether lack of transport or lack of will to leave among the poorest - tens of thousands were not evacuated. Mayor Ray Nagin himself, who made a good call by ordering the evacuation, has questions to answer as to why it was not more effective.

It was not as if New Orleans did not know the potential. It has lived with and suffered from hurricanes throughout its existence.

In Cuba, by contrast, hurricane evacuations are carried out under orders. A free society finds that hard to do, but then should be prepared to act and explain when something goes wrong.

Help has clearly been inadequate.

It will pick up as organisation kicks in, but it has come too late to prevent the breakdown of order among those least able to cope.

Struggling

The rest of the world is watching and sees a great power struggling. Add that to its troubles in Iraq, and you have the enemies and critics of the US taking some pleasure in seeing it suffer.

President Bush made a promising start by returning to Washington and declaring that in Hurricane Katrina, "we are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history".

But even then some of his supporters, like columnist Peggy Noonan, were concerned that the federal government was a bit slow off the mark. She wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "More was needed in terms of sending a US military presence into New Orleans."

She asked about Mr Bush: "Does he understand that what has happened in our Gulf is as important as what is happening in the other Gulf?"

Mr Bush has since called the hurricane "a temporary disruption".

That was an off-the-cuff remark which his speechwriters, always so careful to try to reach for a phrase which meets the needs of the moment, must have groaned at.

In these situations, language provides leadership and the words "temporary disruption" would not have come from the lips of a Kennedy or a Reagan.

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Having lived in America on and off for seven years, and having seen its can-do attitude when faced with a natural disaster, I am in no doubt that in due course (and it will be a long course), New Orleans and the other Gulf communities will be recovered and rebuilt.

It has happened before, in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, for example. It will happen again.

But the authorities were not expecting this. Katrina was different. In 1998, Hurricane Georges threatened New Orleans and there was talk of an evacuation. But the storm was not the worst kind, and in any event it veered away at the last minute towards the East.

I was in Mobile, Alabama, during that hurricane and the aftermath of Georges followed what had become quite a familiar sight on television from previous hurricanes.

One drove easily enough to Biloxi (now almost wiped out) and walked around the wreckage of suburban middle class homes. People said they would rebuild and they did, with insurance or government help.

What happened in New Orleans was totally different. The floods caught the urban poor, the African-Americans who were left or who stayed behind.

Some have been looting. Some loot to get food for their families in the absence of food from elsewhere; the word "looting" should not apply to them. Some loot for gain. Most have just been waiting and wondering and getting angry.

The fate of these people will help determine the overall effectiveness of the relief effort and help determine how American society as a whole judges itself.

Could it have been prevented?

The New Orleans Times-Picayune, its printing presses under water, and operating online only, said: "No-one can say they didn't see it coming.

"Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation."

That newspaper had previously written a series of articles about whether federal funding for flood protection was sufficient.

Already, Mr Bush's political enemies have begun to attack him on this issue.

A former official in the Clinton administration, Sydney Blumenthal, has written in Der Spiegel: "In early 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a report stating that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters in the US, including a terrorist attack on New York City.

"But by 2003, the federal funding for the flood control project essentially dried up as it was drained into the Iraq war."

It remains to be seen whether any extra funding would have made any difference. For example, would the money have come through in time, and would it have been spent on those places which gave way?

And now the Clinton administration, too, is also being accused of failing to fund adequate flood defences.

Should New Orleans even be there?

For those of us who live in temperate climates, it is easy to forget the huge efforts needed to protect cities and communities in places where nature is not benign.

The levees or dykes which protected, or were designed to protect, New Orleans were the equivalent to engineers of the Great Wall of China.

There have been innumerable warnings.

Last year, the National Geographic magazine wrote about a disaster simulation which predicted that 50,000 people might die in the city in a Category Five Hurricane, which Katrina was for a time.

"The chances of such a storm hitting New Orleans in any given year are slight, but the danger is growing," the article said. "Climatologists predict that powerful storms may occur more frequently this century, while rising sea level from global warming is putting low-lying coasts at greater risk."

"It's not if it will happen," University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland was quoted as saying. "It's when."

And National Public Radio had a very prescient documentary which interviewed Walter Maestri, head of public emergencies in Jefferson County or Parish.

After the simulation exercise, he wrote something in large letters across a map of the affected area: "KYAGB - kiss your ass goodbye," it said.

But the answer to the question of New Orleans' future is that just as San Francisco was rebuilt, so will New Orleans be.

The levees will be made bigger and stronger. American engineers will not give in. They tamed the Mississippi on its run to the sea. They aim to tame it there as well.

The shadow of Iraq

The New York Times says that Mr Bush's foreign policy is linked to the issue of how he manages these monumental problems.

"He saw up close the political damage done to his father 13 years ago this week, when the senior Mr Bush was dispatching fighter jets to maintain a no-fly zone over parts of Iraq and promoting his trade agenda while 250,000 Floridians were reeling from the impact of Hurricane Andrew," the paper says.

Mr Bush believes that America can both stabilise Iraq and recover New Orleans and the other lost cities.

He will not be changed over Iraq. In fact, the hurricane led to a strong speech on Iraq being neglected.

In it he upped his rhetoric. "I've made my decision - we will stay," he declared.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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