Bill Long 9/4/05
A Region Ravaged; A Struggle for Interpretation
In the midst of one of the largest upheavals of nature since Birnham Wood moved to Dunsinane, where we were constantly greeted by images more gruesome than those of the previous hour, there are efforts afoot not only to begin cleaning up the human and natural damage of Katrina but to clean up the way that Katrina is interpreted. Even statements warning others not to make politics out of Katrina are political statments. Interpretations of the crisis will now fly back and forth until we see which ones "stick." As for now, all heads are still firmly intact on administration shoulders, but the coming months will not only see bodies discovered and a region cleared and rebuilt but also whose interpretation of what happened prevail. If, as historians suggest, history is written by the "winners," who really will be the "winners" in this catastrophe? This essay probes some questions that have to be answered as well as some initial attempts to "spin" Katrina that have come over the air waves.
Questions to Answer
Though there are legitimate questions that can be raised about disaster preparedness (funding for levee strengthening) and evacuation orders (whether they came soon enough), I think the more burning questions will relate to federal response time. In short, will a consensus emerge that Federal first response efforts were woefully inadequate? only slow? as good as could be expected? good? I think that an important factor in answering this quetsion is one I haven't heard discussed because it lacks the "sexiness" of the blame game. It is, what is the "chain of command" between Homeland Security and FEMA and how did that chain of command work after Monday, August 29th?
To be more precise, the emergency management agency has been around for a long time, but Homeland Security has not. One of the humonguous jobs in creating a Department of Homeland Security was to figure out who fits under this Department's large umbrella, and who reports to whom when needs arise. This is all the more acute in the case of emergency response because all know that large movements of people cannot happen if the two people in charge (Chertoff and Brown) aren't clear who has responsibility for what. My sense is that the federal delay in even dealing with the most basic human needs at the Convention Center and Superdome for approximately 72 hours after the levees broke was largely a bureaucratic issue--who is responsible for what? And, who has authority to do what? Who, so to speak, makes the phone calls to get 100,000 bottles of Dasani dropped on parched and trapped people? Or, who has the responsibility of calling in helicopters and getting medical supplies, etc? I would venture to say that at least 50% of the time in which there was no response was not a result of human indifference or racial concerns--it simply was that no one had really worked out lines of authority between these two agencies in the thousands of questions that would arise in the case of serious crisis.
Spinning the Story
But the spin has begun in earnest now. In the remainder of the essay I want to mention two facts that are going to be difficult for the Republicans to spin, the attempts they are making to spin the story, and the response of the Democrats.
The two facts that the Republicans are going to have most difficulty explaining are large areas of dry lands that could have accommodated help near the convention sites during 72 hours (Tues-Fri) and the massive number of deaths and illnesses that were seemingly related to tardy response. The conditions in both the Superdome and Convention Center were fetid and noxious. But picture after picture showed that the ground was bone dry near the Center and that there were large stretches of parking lot that could have been used as a staging area to help people. The question that will not fade is why something wasn't done with respect to security and food (and perhaps rudimentary medicine) with these open spaces nearby. I haven't heard any convincing answers to this question.
Second, Republicans are going to have to deal with the huge body count in the coming days. It will be interesting to see how deaths are explained. If they are explained as part and parcel of the natural disaster--apart from the levee break or the tardiness of response, then the President and his Administration will be off the hook. If, however, there is no convincing way to blame nature for many of the deaths, the Republicans may have a real public relations problem on their hands. Though I don't believe that the racism allegation will stick, even though there might be communities of people who feel that the race of most of the sufferers contributed to Administration tardiness, it will be a subtext informing some of the debate.
Efforts to explain Katrina are already underway. The apologists for the Administration are subtly dividing the whole event into three separate "periods," with a way to handle each one of the periods of the event. The first period is from the giving of the storm warnings to the coming of federal troops. The second is from the coming of the troops until the final evacution of the city. The third is from the evacuation through cleanup. My "read" of the Republican response is that they want to put all their interpretive emphasis on the third period--and the need for all of us to "work together" to "rebuild a great American city." Their interpretation of the first period is to admit mistakes were made but that they were largely corrected during the second period. But they have a great deal of interest in making sure that you don't dwell on the first period.
The Democrats, in contrast, and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) may rise as an indignant spokeswoman in this case, will need to agree that cleanup and rebuilding must occur, but will also want to emphasize not only that the federal intervention was woefully inadequate and slow but that when the President arrived his interest was in creating a photo op than solving problems. The picture of one lonely crane trying to repair the dyke when three were in place for the President's visit might just be the image that helps the Democrats unravel the Republican explanation.
I think it is too early to decide if the lapses/tardiness in New Orleans rescue will stand as a sort of judgment on the wealth gathering and distribution schemes of the last two Presidents. But we can be sure that the interpretive efforts are just beginning.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long