An old elementary school joke familiar to all is distressingly relevant to the tragic events unfolding in New Orleans. This schoolyard classic involves a vocabulary quiz, a revolving door and what was called a “fat woman” in a less politically correct time. The punch line was something to the affect that the door nearly dis-assed-her.
Sadly, that is probably the most thought most Americans have ever given to disaster planning.
Some of us are thinking about it. Big Business has been very active in what is known as business continuation planning for several decades. As a result of legislation imposing personal liability on Directors and Executives for failure to plan adequately and insurance premium rate pressure from property insurance underwriters, business has had little choice but to get serious about the future even in spite of the quarterly earnings focus. The 9/11 attack should have woke the rest of us up to the perils of catastrophic disasters and invoked a vigorous preparedness response.
What we got instead was a new ineffective bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security.
The failure of this Presidential administration to achieve any kind of readiness over the past four years could not be plainer than it is in the wake of Katrina. There has, of course, been copious coverage on the slow and poor emergency response from FEMA and other organizations charged to answer national distress calls. This is certainly an important topic and deserves substantial attention. There is a lot of information to digest there and I’m sure plenty of relevant stories yet to be told both of heroism in the face of inadequate resources and the incompetence which helped produce the situation. Steadfastly focused by the media on these juicy stories, the American people will as usual miss the greater significance of what is playing out before their eyes.
Missed entirely will be the big picture: the breakdown in social order that occurred when civilization ceased to exist. While the lurid facts of rape, robbery and irrational violence have made headlines, the broader implications deserve serious consideration.
Consider if you will the misfeasance of the government in allowing four years to pass without any serious effort to educate American citizens on how to react in disaster situations. Four years of rhetorical frothing without any apparent attempt to actually plan for the aftermath of an event of this scale.
I suppose that if this administration could not foresee the social breakdown caused by its military invasion of Iraq, it should not surprise us that they could not foresee that natural disasters could have the same effect here at home.
Immediately after 9/11, I remember discussions with a lot of people concerning what would happen if we have another 9/11 scale event. The number one concern in the minds of everybody I talked to was the prospect of civil unrest. The possibility of the total collapse of society around us is very real and this above all else should be what terrifies us about Katrina. Though the problem is both obvious and real, this administration has produced much noise and little else.
I for one am not so naïve as to attribute this mess to unforseeability. While the specific scenario that has permanently changed the face of the Crescent City was perhaps hard to detail, the risk of living below sea level on the Gulf of Mexico was well understood. When The Big One finally hits California we will probably call it unforeseeable no matter what the facts might say to the contrary.
I suppose that if you are one who can not foresee the inevitable large scale disasters of varying scope and nature, then perhaps you are also inclined to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on this one. I view recent history and history generally as teaching that mankind will continue to endure a succession of large scale disasters.
In my short span on this globe, we have had the New York City blackout, the Arab Oil Embargo, Hurricane Andrew, Mississippi River flooding, the San Francisco earth quake and 9/11. What these disasters are cumulatively showing us is that our social cohesion is at an all time low. And even were it not, anyone who has seen Deliverance can tell you that bad things can happen even in America when one is sufficiently removed from civilization. Or in the case of Katrina, when civilization ceases to exist.
Armed with ordinary schoolhouse knowledge, there is simply no excuse for not being better prepared. We live in an era that is truly on the edge in a more real way than at any time since the Great Depression. Thinking about a nuclear device detonated in Houston Harbor should give you serious pause as to the viability of America in the aftermath. Just follow the pipelines and see how quickly our world of material excess could go dark.
And this is just one scary scenario out of a multitude.
Viewed soberly it is clear that there is no substantive difference between what has happened in New Orleans as a result of Katrina and what would might have happened there in the event of a dirty bomb attack. Katrina has exposed how vulnerable America remains.
Unfortunately, this is no schoolyard and the joke is on you and me.