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Why America Can't Cope PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Saturday, 10 September 2005 16:05
Why America Can't Cope

New Statesman - There are deeper explanations for the New Orleans catastrophe than anyone has dared suggest, writes Andrew Stephen. The roots lie in America's deluded self-image.
The decay of the nation's infrastructure thus continues apace. If there is no strong government, there is, of course, no one to supervise quality control. Fifteen yards from my house, less than a mile from the White House, in privileged, white Georgetown, a so-called "sinkhole", three feet deep and 18 inches across, appeared in the pavement this spring. It was enough to swallow a toddler or cripple a blind person or drunk, but after many weeks of phone calls and e-mails from a neighbour, the response of the DC government was finally to plonk a heavy steel plate over it. It will probably remain there for ever.


From: Caspar Davis <>
Subject: [NS2/CNS2] Why America can't cope

This article looks at some of the longer term reasons for the Katrina disaster.

Thanks to Dave Cull:


Why America can't cope

There are deeper explanations for the New Orleans
catastrophe than anyone has dared suggest, writes
Andrew Stephen. The roots lie in America's deluded self-image

By Andrew Stephen

09/09/05 "New Statesman" -- -- We know, now, that
there was not even a Prescott in charge in
Washington. President Bush was exorcising
heaven-knows-what demons by furiously riding his
mountain bike in Texas - nobody, not even the
Secret Service or a visiting Lance Armstrong, is
allowed to pass him - while Vice-President Cheney
was fly-fishing in Wyoming. Condoleezza Rice,
next in charge, was shopping for shoes at
Ferragamo's and watching Spamalot on Broadway and
catching the US Open in New York; while Andy
Card, the White House chief of staff, who is
supposed to keep it all together, was taking in
the sea breeze with much of the rest of the Bush crowd in Maine.

Rats gnawing at corpses floating down the streets
three days after Katrina struck, bodies left to
decompose in the stairwells of New Orleans's main
hospital because its basement mortuary was
flooded, tens of thousands still trapped, hungry
and thirsty: only then did the inquests into what
the Los Angeles Times called the "surreal
foreignness" of it all start. But then the
questioning was imbued with a peculiarly American
self-righteousness and aggressive need to pin
blame on the guilty: on the inattentiveness of
the Bush administration, its lack of foresight,
the racial and class divisions within the US, and so on.

In so far as they went, the inquests are
justified. There is much guilt and blame to be
shared around. It took the fury of Katrina to
bring home to many the sheer hopelessness of Bush
and his administration, both in their immediate
response and in their prior lack of competent
planning. The spectacle of countries such as Sri
Lanka sending donations and Fidel Castro offering
to send medical supplies with 1,100 doctors only
underlined the desperate nationalistic need to
find scapegoats to appease the shame.

But nobody, as far as I can see, has dared to
suggest that there are deeper explanations for so
disconcerting a shambles, explanations that
transcend political parties or individuals. The
self-image of America, now largely adopted in
Britain, too, is that of a nation of uniquely
hardy and resilient people predestined by God to
be omnipotent in the world, be it against the
forces of nature or of bogeyman dictators.

Because, in reality, the reverse is so often true
- present-day Americans, after all, are the most
pampered human beings in history - the myths,
fostered by popular culture and especially
Hollywood, have given rise to a complacency that
is increasingly dangerous not only for the rest
of the world but for Americans, too. Hardship is
only momentary and can always be overcome, hard
work will always be rewarded, and other such
uniquely American traits, will result in a
society that is matchlessly efficient and soars
to ever greater triumphs: it ticks over so
smoothly that even after the 11 September 2001
atrocities, Bush is still free to go off to bike, Cheney to fish, Rice to shop.

Yet Katrina showed the fragility of the US and
this belief that there is little need for strong
collective leadership or institutions of the kind
that European civilisations have come to value.
The feelings date back to victory over the
British in the American revolution: a distrust of
government and a belief in the righteousness and
inevitable prosperity of the little guy, equipped
only with his gun, his initiative and his own
humble patch of land. This culture of so-called
private entrepreneurship blended with a disavowal
of collective responsibilities actually gained
under Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr and then Bill
Clinton - leading to growths in gated
communities, armed sentries and further class/racial divisions.

It is also why, early in his presidency, George W
Bush downgraded the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (Fema), the body designated to cope with
national emergencies. Such departments, the
reasoning went, are for feeble folk looking for
government handouts (and that often meant blacks).

In the words of Bush's budget director Mitch
Daniels in 2001: "Many are concerned that federal
disaster assistance may have evolved into an
oversized entitlement programme . . .
Expectations of when the federal government
should be involved, and the degree of
involvement, may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level."

That very year, Fema itself warned that a
hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the
three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters
facing this country". The Texas crony Bush had
appointed to lead Fema, Joe Allbaugh, left the
following year to start a consulting firm that
now advises US companies wanting to do business
in Iraq, and which advised Bush on his 2004
re-election campaign. The main qualification of
the man appointed in his wake, another crony
called Michael D Brown, was that he had recently
left the post of commissioner of the
International Arabian Horse Association after
presiding over a decade of turmoil and internal rancour there.

Thus, the task of spearheading the mighty US
government's response to Katrina was left to a
twit appointed because of his social networking
rather than any sound qualifications to lead. The
prevailing ethos, after all, is that government
is unimportant and can be left to amateurs, just
like Bush himself. Long after television viewers
throughout the world saw thousands of suffering
and dying men, women and children herded inside
the ill-named Superdome in New Orleans, without
food and water, Brown told NBC that "the federal
government just learned about these people today".

Yet the response to Hurricane Katrina was
"incredibly more efficient" than that of the
international community to the Boxing Day
tsunami, Brown thought. "Brownie, you're doing a
heck of a job," the president duly congratulated
him when Bush belatedly toured Louisiana. (Can a
Presidential Medal of Freedom for Brown be far
off?) Brown's boss, Michael Chertoff - a
startlingly unremarkable 51-year-old whom Bush
appointed this year to be head of the US
department of homeland security, which ultimately
subsumed Fema and downgraded the threat of
natural disaster on the Gulf Coast - opined that
"nature was unhelpful", but that the federal
response had been "really exceptional".

You do not have to look any further into such
complacency and out-of-touch amateurism to see
why there were no immediate landing zones (LZs,
in US military parlance) set up, why fleets of
Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters were not
immediately sent in, or even why there was simply
nobody to take visible control in the way that
Rudy Giuliani did in Manhattan on the day of the
11 September attacks. Bush himself dismally
failed to do so, exactly as he did that day in
2001 - a fact now conveniently brushed over by
much of the world. But government leadership had
demonstrated that its ability to be strong and
professional in coping with catastrophe had been vanishing for decades.

Since 1993 (Clinton fans, please note),
progressively larger areas of protective wetlands
had been lost forever in Louisiana alone. Bush
then, in effect, froze spending on the US Army
Corps of Engineers, the body responsible for
protecting US coastlines and inland waterways
from disaster. So that just at the point when the
corps said it needed $62.5m for the Louisiana
urban flood control project in the next fiscal
year, the Bush administration slashed its
projected budget to $10.5m. The impetus of its
philosophy - that commerce and profits should
flow unimpeded because they are the lifeblood of
the nation - has meant that, when the government
has become involved, it has sought instead to
impede the natural flow of the Mississippi, so
that ships can import and export goods more
easily from Mississippi and Louisiana ports and
new housing developments can proliferate, even
while natural defences against flooding are destroyed.

And so the indictments mount against the Bush
administration, as well as its predecessors. In
the 2000 presidential election debates, Bush
lectured Al Gore that natural disasters are "a
time to test your mettle". Bush's mettle, yet
again, has conspicuously failed to measure up,
both in the build-up to the disaster and in its
denouement; a naive belief that the government
will run itself in entrepreneurial America has
simply fallen apart. Nor can he fall back any
longer on yet another American characteristic
that has sustained him since 11 September 2001:
that nationalistic need for visible foes and
quarries, such as the old Soviet Union or Osama
Bin Laden, on which the country can vent its spleen.

Now Bush is finding that this spleen is being
turned against him instead - God hardly being an
appropriate target for the collective ire - and
the White House is being forced to start a
campaign to blame local and state government
(read again, for the most part, black) rather
than itself. As Haley Barbour, governor of
Mississippi and a long-time Washington Republican
wheeler-dealer (no Southern hill-billy he), spat
out the day that Katrina hit, there would be
"zero tolerance" of looters. But his macho
rhetoric, of a kind that is normally enough to
feed white aggression, suddenly sounded ineffably
hollow to a nation that had witnessed the
spectacle of its own citizens foraging
desperately for food. (Though, even then, white
people were widely depicted as "finding" food and black folk as "looting" it.)

The decay of the nation's infrastructure thus
continues apace. If there is no strong
government, there is, of course, no one to
supervise quality control. Fifteen yards from my
house, less than a mile from the White House, in
privileged, white Georgetown, a so-called
"sinkhole", three feet deep and 18 inches across,
appeared in the pavement this spring. It was
enough to swallow a toddler or cripple a blind
person or drunk, but after many weeks of phone
calls and e-mails from a neighbour, the response
of the DC government was finally to plonk a heavy
steel plate over it. It will probably remain there for ever.

Bush muted much of his planned Labour Day
festivities on 5 September, and even preparations
for the "Freedom Walk" of 11 September - designed
to celebrate his heroic leadership - were
suddenly cut back. He does not have the ability
to respond instinctively to events, as he showed
on 11 September 2001; he has only the capacity to
respond retrospectively to public reaction to
those events, which is very different. He can be
effective one-on-one with people - he genuinely
empathises with suffering once it is personified
for him - but otherwise he remains hopelessly
unable to rise to the occasion, politically or bureaucratically.

That is why the US is crying out for the
leadership of, say, another Franklin Delano
Roosevelt - which Bush persists in believing himself to be.

Yet even FDR had to cope with a system designed
to counteract British colonialism by diffusing
political power and making it hard for any one
branch of government to act decisively.
Government here is thus intentionally sclerotic,
but, given the demands of 21st-century
consumerism, when Americans want their government
to act, they want it to do so immediately. Here
and now, no questions asked, OK?

These innate conflicts must be resolved sooner or
later. In the meantime, besides trouble in the
economy - the Gulf ports deal with a critical
proportion of US oil and gas supplies, as well as
half of its grain exports - political strife
looms. Will there be riots and calls for
political change, as there were following the
Johnstown flood of 1889 and the Galveston
hurricane of 1900? Racial uprisings? There are
already queues for petrol in my neighbourhood,
more than a thousand miles north of the flooding:
panic is another characteristic of a nation that
has never really suffered privation. And the
price of timber, as speculators anticipate the
need for a huge programme of rebuilding, has risen steeply.

Yet that sense of American omnipotence, the pride
that American mastery can overcome all obstacles
and evils presented by man or by God, is still
inexhaustible. It is anybody's guess why New
Orleans was built seven feet below sea level in
1718 in the first place, no less than why
Washington, DC itself was built on a
flea-infested swamp, when a perfectly good
existing city such as Baltimore would have made a
much more suitable capital, as Anthony Trollope
pointed out. But $10.5bn has already been
allocated to the rebuilding of New Orleans on the
exact spot ("out of this chaos is going to come a
fantastic Gulf Coast", said Bush excitedly).

Thus, on top of everything, there is an adamant
refusal to learn the lessons of history or those
of the forces of nature. New Orleans was a
disaster waiting to happen - just as, one day, a
monumental earthquake will hit Los Angeles or San
Francisco. It might not happen in our lifetime,
but happen it surely will, and no amount of American know-how will prevent it.

Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the
House, timidly voiced reservations in the days
immediately following Katrina that it might not
be wise to rebuild New Orleans in the same place,
but swiftly backtracked amid recriminations that
such notions were defeatist and thus un-American.

My own first experience of the disaster-hit area
came long ago, during my student days, when,
clutching my British Universities North America
Club handbook, I arrived in the Gulf port of
Biloxi on a Greyhound bus. I was bewildered when
I could find neither the fleapit hotel to which I
thought I was destined nor any of the other
buildings that the handbook said were close to
the coach station. I became so desperate for a
shower, after spending more than a week sleeping
on the buses, that I ended up at the local jail
asking if I could have one in a cell, which I duly did.

The redneck white jailer, bemused and amused by
my willingness to step inside a hellish all-black
cell block, finally explained what had happened:
Biloxi had been levelled by Hurricane Camille,
after the BUNAC book had been published. It duly
rose from those 20th-century ruins - only, in
2005, to be razed again by the same forces of
nature. Today, hundreds lie dead there, and
barges haul bodies along causeways where the new
visitors' centre and McDonald's stood only days
ago. Lessons, alas, were simply never learned.

To Americans, these lessons of Katrina - that
their country may still be the world's military
superpower, but it is neither all-powerful nor
even particularly efficient at home - will be
hard to absorb. Perhaps they will prove simply
too humbling; perhaps there will be an impetus
back towards isolationism, to pour more resources
into strengthening life at home rather than
trying to put the rest of the world to rights.
The nation is nurtured on tales that America is
paradise on earth but the reality is that it is
increasingly falling behind western Europe in
technology, education and healthcare - not to
mention the kind of emergency and evacuation
procedures and disaster preparedness needed to
respond to Hurricane Katrina. A predictable
natural calamity which inconveniently failed to
fit in with the preordained scripts of this most
cynical of US administrations has brutally exposed America's shortcomings.

Copyright Andrew Stephen, 2005

The warnings were there

The disaster was predicted by many. In October
2001, Scientific American published an article
entitled "Drowning New Orleans", by Mark Fischetti.

Here is an edited extract:

"A major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under
20 feet of water, killing thousands. Human
activities along the Mississippi River have
dramatically increased the risk, and now only
massive re-engineering of south-eastern Louisiana
can save the city. A big, slow-moving hurricane
would drive a sea surge that would drown New
Orleans under 20 feet of water . . . New Orleans
is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies
below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees.
And because of a damning confluence of factors,
the city is sinking further.The Mississippi
Delta, which buffers the city, is also rapidly
disappearing. Each loss gives a storm surge a
clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into
the bowl, trapping one million people inside and
another million in surrounding communities.
Extensive evacuation would be impossible because
surging water would cut off the few escape routes."

? New Statesman 1913 - 2005

Last Updated on Saturday, 10 September 2005 16:05

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