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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 September 2005, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
Lessons in dealing with disaster
The BBC's Daniel Lak
By Daniel Lak
BBC News, Mississippi

Tens of thousands of people on the US Gulf Coast have been made homeless by the devastation unleashed by Hurricane Katrina. And with the number of dead continuing to rise, Daniel Lak considers whether the US could have been better prepared.

A woman being carried by a rescue worker
Evacuations are taking place, but many people are still stranded
I have learned, or perhaps allowed myself, to be cynical about media coverage of hurricanes.

That is because I spent a year and a half, and four hurricanes, in Florida.

The pattern each time was typical. As each storm approached the coast, coverage of impending doom would get under way.

Meteorologists would speak of "potential for major damage and loss of life".

Wind speeds would be "hurricane force", there would be warnings of a tsunami-like storm surge that would inundate coastal areas and lay waste inland.

Hurricane Katrina is the worst storm ever to hit America and it has done untold damage to lives, livelihoods and communities
Then correspondents would appear on television, staggering and being blown about by high winds on camera and shouting in barely audible terms about what was already obvious to the viewer's eye. It was stormy out there.

Much would be made of traffic signs bending over, tree branches across roads and rain driving horizontally in the wind.

Then invariably, on the next day, under a pristine blue sky, the same reporter would intone about less damage than expected and a lucky break for so and so county.

Of course, there were exceptions.

Hurricane Charley last August ripped apart a trailer home park in a small, but deadly strike on central Florida's west coast.

At the time, I remember feeling shock at the way that comfortable lives could be scattered and broken in such a rich country.

So when I watched concerns mount about Hurricane Katrina, the odd thought of "here we go again" crept into my mind.

Psychological toll

Hurricane Katrina refugees try make their way through rain and floodwaters in Louisiana
Thousands of people have been made homeless in New Orleans
No, in the event, here we did not go again.

Hurricane Katrina is the worst storm ever to hit America and it has done untold damage to lives, livelihoods and communities.

A survivor in Mississippi called the storm "our tsunami" and that is no exaggeration.

In many ways, Katrina was worse than last year's tsunami because it lasted longer and had wind as well as surging seas to kill people and smash their homes.

But the scale of the psychological impact on survivors and most Americans is similar to that of the tsunami in Asia.

It came out of the blue, at least the intensity of the storm did, and left in its wake damage so severe, so comprehensive, so widespread that fixing it seems impossible, beyond the abilities of mere men and women.

There are other ways, though, in which this crisis is worse than many I have seen in the developing world.

I am sure President Bush and his emergency management people will get on the ball in the coming days and start to offer the sort of comfort and relief that the millions of victims of this massive event require
In India, where I spent many years covering natural disasters, there is a greater sense of resilience and urgency.

I do not know, perhaps it is the frequency with which nature's wrath hits Asian societies, perhaps the level of income, the permanent poor, are hardier and more willing to work together in times of crisis than in a place that values rugged individualism.

"Less me, and more we", as a commentator put it on a radio programme, describing the developing world.

Disaster management

US President George W Bush
The US government's response to the crisis has been criticised
Also, and I hesitate to say this at such an early stage of the relief effort here, but the authorities in India at least, and some other countries in the region, have become quite good at dealing with severe flooding, or earthquakes, catastrophic events on a tsunami scale, if you will.

Certainly quicker with both material and political comfort to survivors.

It did not take long for huge field hospitals and vast camps of toilets and clean water tanks to be set up in southern India for example, after the tsunami hit there last year, whereas here in Mississippi, the authorities are still begging people to boil their water and watch where they go to the toilet, lest they give or receive some water-borne disease.

And politicians in India, often cursed by their constituents for flocking to disasters to show their concern, compare rather well with a US president whose first big gesture after Katrina's damage became evident is to cut a five-week vacation short by two days to give the matter his full attention.

Now I am sure President Bush and his emergency management people will get on the ball in the coming days and start to offer the sort of comfort and relief that the millions of victims of this massive event require.

They had better.

Frustration

In fact, it was a hurricane named Andrew in 1992 that struck south of Miami that is generally blamed for the first President Bush losing the state of Florida to his challenger Bill Clinton in that year's election.

In Florida, they say, that is because it took them days to visit the victims of Andrew amid the wreckage of their homes and lives.

So son, George W, has a salutary lesson staring him in the face.

Not to mention a vast crowd of needy, increasingly frustrated southerners, some of whom even voted for him, demanding more action from their government than they have seen so far.

This is not to say that America's wealth and resourcefulness will not triumph eventually.

Of course they will, eventually.

Some victims' lives will be changed irrevocably for the worst. Others, the vast bulk, I suspect, will get on with it and eventually recover fully.

But in the meantime, a lesson might be learned from India, and other poorer places in Asia, on the best way to deal with disaster. Mind you it is a lesson that I doubt anyone here will heed.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Satuday, 3 September, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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