Friday column, with links

Betsy experience in no way
prepared us for Katrina’s horrors

Editorial Page Editor
    I THOUGHT I knew what to expect from Hurricane Katrina. Boy, was I wrong.
    You see, I was there, at Ground Zero, for the last big blow to hit the Big Easy. That was Hurricane Betsy, 40 years ago.
    In fact, that experience at such a young age — I was starting junior high — is probably why I have such a jaded attitude toward weather. Or at least did have.
    I tended to sneer at people getting all worked up because a storm’s coming. And I definitely didn’t need those warnings that interrupt regular TV programming. Hey, I know when there’s going to be a thunderstorm — our remaining dog freaks out, yelping and demanding to come in. I did not share his attitude; as I saw it, the lawn could use the watering.
    And when I saw folks evacuate in the path of a storm that may strike their domiciles, I sniffed in a superior manner and thought:
    We didn’t run and hide back in ’65. We stood our ground — however untenable that ground may have been. We lived in an old barracks that had been converted into apartments for naval officers and their families — a big frame target that the Big Bad Wolf could probably have huffed and puffed away without trying too hard. It was located about a block from the Mississippi River levee, on a nearly defunct Navy base in Algiers, right across the river from the heart of New Orleans.
    The base had most likely been a very busy place during in the war that had ended two decades earlier. But you sure couldn’t tell that at the time I lived there. The base’s vital purpose was a thing of the misty past, and of no interest to a preteen. The base I knew was mostly abandoned buildings (for exploring, if you could dodge the Shore Patrol) and huge, empty fields for playing ball.
    My Dad was executive officer on the USS Hyman, DD-732, an old Sumner-class destroyer that was there to train reservists on weekends. That and an old diesel submarine were the only ships moored at the base.
    The night Betsy hit, Dad was aboard his ship, firmly held in place in the river by cables fore, aft and amidships, and with the engines fired up and running. (There hadn’t been time to put out to sea.) He and the crew spent the night trying to avoid being hit by civilian craft that hadn’t taken such precautions. They still got hit a couple of times. He recalls the shock on the bridge as one freighter headed upriver at eight or nine knots — breakneck speed in that sharply meandering stretch — particularly when the watch realized it was being blown against the current, with no one at the helm.
    My mother, brother and I spent the night in our rickety home with our flashlights and bathtubs full of water, listening to the wind tear and crack and howl around us. We experienced the eerie stillness of the eye passing over, then listened to the fury all over again, only in the opposite direction (at which point we closed windows that were now on the windward side, and opened the ones on the lee). I don’t recall being any more scared than I would have been on a ride at the Lake Ponchartrain amusement park. At my age, it was an adventure, and not to be missed.
    The next day, we saw what the storm had done. Enormous, aromatic red cedar trees across the street in my best friend Tim Moorman’s yard — his dad was a captain, so they rated a big house — were snapped in two. (We pulled off big shards and put them in our closets.) The only damage our apartment sustained was a rip to the screen on our porch, although other apartments in the building suffered from holes in the roof.
    I soon learned we had been among the lucky ones. Fifteen thousand civilian refugees — Ponchartrain spilled over that time, too — were housed for months in the base’s unused buildings and a mobile home village that filled the empty fields.
    My Dad’s destroyer was for several days New Orleans’ only official communication link with the outside world. (We weren’t able to call folks in South Carolina to say we were OK for a week.) The ship was called upon to help find a barge full of chlorine that had been lost — which Dad remembers as the most fouled-up operation he ever took part in. After the ship’s sonar and divers had located about a hundred other barges sunk by the storm, the one they sought was found in the one place everyone assumed the civilians had already looked: Right where it had been moored. The chlorine containers were intact.
    So all was well in the end. We had withstood nature’s worst (I thought), and life went on.
I had thought Katrina would be pretty much the same — especially with all the advance warning that modern technology provides. Sure, it was almost a Category 5 while Betsy was merely a 3, but the city only got brushed by the back side of the storm this time.
    And yet, as we’ve tried to take in the scope of this disaster in the last few days — thousands dead, devastation of apocalyptic proportions across several states — it overwhelms the mind.
    This has to be the worst disaster to hit the mainland United States in my lifetime. When was the last time a major city of this proportion had to be abandoned, possibly for months? And we still don’t fully know how bad things are in the less-populated areas that took the main brunt of this nightmare.
    This horror is so wide and profound that I really don’t know where to grab hold of it for an editorial point. Certainly, we should all seize any opportunity we can identify to reach out and help the victims. Beyond that, I really don’t know what to say.
    But from now on, I’m going to be less nonchalant about weather. Next time the dog starts yelping about a rising wind, rather than telling him to hush and calm down, I just may join him.

12 thoughts on “Friday column, with links

  1. Mike D in SC

    …with our flashlights and bathtubs full of water…
    Why on Earth would you put water in your flashlight?;-)

  2. Mark Whittington

    This horror is so wide and profound that I really don’t know where to grab hold of it for an editorial point. Certainly, we should all seize any opportunity we can identify to reach out and help the victims. Beyond that, I really don’t know what to say.

    Why don’t you start by reassessing your view on the role of government? Why don’t you get your head out of the sand?

    I’m one of these old-fashioned, tradition-oriented types who believes there are certain things that only government can do — provide universal education, enforce laws, bring democracy to oppressed peoples around the world, and a few others — and that we’re going to have to pay SOME taxes to accomplish those things. As opposed to fighting a (worthwhile) war and slashing taxes at the same time. But increasingly I’m in the minority on that, it seems.

    You’re perfectly willing to send our troops to kill and be killed in a foreign country when we don’t have a democracy here. Your pre-New Deal mentality is responsible for the terrible shape that the country is in. Where are the troops? Where are the C-130s? If any good comes from this tragedy, it will be that the entire world has seen the depths of poverty in the US caused by our capital investment pyramid scheme. Perhaps you can call your buddies at the Chamber of Commerce and the Palmetto Institute and reflect on the incredible damage that you’ve done.

    Bush, the entire pathetic administration, the Republican Party, and pro-choice republicans who pose as democrats, make me sick to my stomach.

    I do blame you.

  3. Mike C

    Hmmm, my flashlights use dry cells.
    Those levees are scary. According to an article (link requires free registration) in today’s NYT, whatever the funding issues may be, the breach occurred at one stretch where a lot of engineering work had been done.

    Often leading the chorus was Alfred C. Naomi, a senior project manager for the corps and a 30-year veteran of efforts to waterproof a city built on slowly sinking mud, surrounded by water and periodically a target of great storms.
    This week, amid news of the widening breach in the 17th Street Canal, he realized that the decadeslong string of near misses had ended.
    “A breach under these conditions was ultimately not surprising,” he said last night. “I had hoped that we had overdesigned it to a point that it would not fail. But you can overdesign only so much, and then a failure has to come.”
    No one expected that weak spot to be on a canal that, if anything, had received more attention and shoring up than many other spots in the region. It did not have broad berms, but it did have strong concrete walls. [Hat-tip to Captain’s Quarters]

    I guess I’m pleased that SCE&G did its dam work well.

  4. Mary Rosh

    Watching Bush’s performance during the latest disaster emphasizes even more how sad and pitiful was Warthen’s criticism of E.L. Doctorow for writing this:
    I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could be. On the eve of D-Day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower could bear.
    But this president does not know what death is. He hasn’t the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the weapons of mass destruction he can’t seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man.
    He does not mourn. He doesn’t understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
    But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the 1,000 dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be.
    Bush’s behavior showed once again how right Doctorow was. Thousands of people are suffering and dead or dying, and all Bush can think of to say is that no one expected that the levees would be breached. Even Mr. Bill warned that the levees could fail.
    And anyway, who cares? Everybody knew something bad was coming, and they had plenty of time to get resources in place to deal with it. Bush did nothing.
    Because, as Doctorow said, Bush does not know what death is. If he did, he would have done the best he could to help people NOT DIE.

  5. breen

    Yes, the federal government as a whole (of which President Bush is the chief executive officer) has failed to respond in a proportional and timely manner to this disaster.
    No, the majority of the post-storm devastation COULD NOT have been prevented even if the federal government had acted more quickly.
    Our nation has become one of back-seat drivers who (thanks in part to forums such as this, so I guess I am part of the problem) endlessly overanalyze every major national event and create a false belief that any bad thing that happens to anybody in the world could have been prevented “if only.”
    The post-hurricane devestation of New Orleans is a worst-case scenario of such extreme magnitude that trying to completely prepare for it would have required an expenditure of capital and intellectual energy that, frankly, would have been wasted. Wasted, because the odds of devestation on this scale were so slim, it would have been akin to every South Carolinian buying their own personal dump truck with a snow plow (and learning how to operate it in coordination with every other South Carolinian) to prepare for the once-every-25-years blizzards that hit the Palmetto State.
    The federal government has done a poor job in responding to this once-in-a-lifetime event. They could have done more before, during, and after.
    But in a practical world, one can never be completely prepared for everything, everywhere, every time. And that’s something no amount of water-filled flashlights and Tuesday-Wedneday-Thursday-Friday-morning quarterbacking can change.

  6. David

    To Mark – you need to calm down and spend some time reading the US Constitution. Our founding fathers were determined to limit government. I see several of the people on this thread who are pointing fingers at the “federal” administration over this catastrophe. Why?????
    To Mary – please go join up with Looney Tune Cindy where your Hate Bush speech will be appreciated. Here is one for you. W caused the hurricane to get Cindy off the networks and front pages. Write that down.
    To All – The actions and results post storm in New Orleans show what happens to those who believe in and want the nanny state. By nanny state I mean you never rely on yourself but count on the government for your medical, food, housing, education, and police protection among other things. That is not what the founding fathers charted for our code of government. I wonder how many of the New Orleans residents, shopkeepers, and others will change their thinking about this system now. Just dial 911, we are told, and help is on the way. Brad calls this cynicism toward the government. Be cynical, not hateful, and take some self responsibility should be the rule, not exception.

  7. breen

    It would seem that the framers of the Constitution would admit that a multi-state catastrophe covering some 5,000 square miles would merit federal-level consideration.
    Someone who has been stuck on a roof or a bridge overpass since Tuesday doesn’t need a nanny. A coherent, coordinated rescue effort would probably suit them just fine.
    Or maybe all those people who earn minimum wage cleaning hotels and frying burgers so their bosses can afford to offer us tourists two-dollar margaritas and free continental breakfasts should have been more self-responsible, and purchased their own Chinook helicopters and rescue boats.

  8. David

    Breen, you took my point wrong. Yes, the feds should and are responding and helping in this crisis and this is very proper. But what I detest is the immediate finger pointing about what Uncle Sam did not do. Look at Mike C.’s post above, a solution was presented years ago. And ignored. There is a real tendency to make everyone a victim of what the feds did or didnt do. That is nonsense. I am sure that out of this tragedy some will now want to create a new Federal Dept of Tragedies, where we can put 200,000 new employees on the payroll to be on standby to handle any tragedy. Mudslides in California, forest fires in New Mexico, extended blizzards in Minnesota, the list is endless. Is that the kind of system we all want to pay for? I don’t.
    As for the poor souls stuck at the dome or on the interstate, for many of them who are handicapped, have little ones, or are sick, they need all the help conceivable. I will be writing checks for that type of help and I hope everyone who can does.

  9. Mark Whittington

    I just returned from Pennsylvania last night and the people there were horrified, not only by catastrophic consequences of Katrina, but also by Haley Barbour’s (former RNC chairman and current Governor of Mississippi) response with a police action, when it was obvious that the situation requires a massive federal humanitarian intervention. Just as always, another Southern right-wing politician was making threats against the black population, and the people in Pennsylvania knew it. His two-bit, fundamentalist sounding demagoguery really disgusted them: you should have seen their faces. I was ashamed to have been from the South after witnessing this episode.

    Today, Bush was back-slapping Haley for doing such a good job only hours after proclaiming that the federal relief response was “not acceptable”. Bush used Trent Lott’s home loss as an example of how Mississippi would be rebuilt. I guarantee you, when it is all said and done, that the black people in the coastal lands of Mississippi will be forced out of their land so that Bush, Haley, Trent, and people of their ilk can build some casinos and upper-end condos in the coastal areas.

    Bush would have done as little as possible, but early this morning reporters on CNN and MSNBC were so revolted by the administration’s lack of action in Louisiana, that they started bashing him (deservingly so) big time. This bit of unscripted commentary was the most refreshing bit of truth that I’ve heard from the corporate media in years: it was short lived though. By noon, the corporate media was rebuilding Bush as the hero by him even bothering to show up. They kept showing the National Guard trucks pulling up to the Superdome and with the soldiers entering the facility. They kept a close-up on the helicopters to give the impression that a massive relief effort was underway, when in reality there were only five or six helicopters at the airport. The co-commentator on CNN, a supposed native of New Orleans and obvious Republican operative, kept assuaging and mitigating the genuine sentiments of the primary anchor as they viewed a fly over of the disaster in New Orleans. Bush has been out doing a lot of photo ops today-he’ll be the reluctant hero by 6:00PM.

    Misplaced priorities:

    Current amount of money spent on the war in Iraq=191.7billion

    Current amount of money spent for hurricane victims=10.5 billion

    I’ll pull a Mike C style link trick here. There is something very wrong, and here is some commentary that many people reading this blog will never see otherwise (excluding the first one):

    Transcript of radio interview with New Orleans’ Nagin”

    A Can’t-Do Government by Paul Krugman

    Katrina Compounded by Matthew Rothschild

    Two Americas: Sink or Swim by Laura Flanders

    In America by Joy-Ann Reid

    Ending the Impunity of the Bush White House by Norman Solomon

    Bush Strafes New Orleans, Where’s Huey Long? by Greg Palast

    Nasty, Brutish — Society’s Net Snaps by Doug Saunders

  10. Mike C

    I heard a tape of Mayor Nagin’s morning press conference and it did not sound like a Rudy moment. New Orleans is a failed city, with entrenched poverty, endemic corruption, and little industry that’s not tourist-related.
    Folks had high hopes for Nagin — he was a political newcomer who’d been a business executive. The second paragraph of this post rings true and is only a little harsher than what this Times-Picayune political columnist has to say. I’d read elsewhere that a former chief had cleaned up the police department in the early 1990s, but the force started to deteriorate after he left. It’s good news that they’ve recently stopped hiring convicted felons, no?
    Other answers as follows:
    Where is the LA National Guard?
    Did the police loot ?
    Who is doing the giving?
    Gotta love Sri Lanka, no?

  11. Mike C

    Mark –
    Nice links! Yes! BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome) exists and is sighted yet again!
    And I knew that if I were patient, the Reverend Jesse Jackson would come through, and he did!

    Racism is partly to blame for the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, calling President Bush’s response to the disaster “incompetent.”

    Finally, the contrast in news coverage is interesting; CNN seems a little shrill.

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