Over the past week I could not tear myself away from the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. As the scenes of devastation and damage by the hurricane gave way to the coverage of the lawlessness and chaos that began to grip New Orleans, incredible footage of refugees lining up to receive food aid, army on the streets, corpses floating and rotting to death began to enter our consciousness. And the most confounding of it all was as I struggled to remember – this was USA – these were Americans. This was not some third world country in Asia or Africa, but New Orleans, USA. To me, that was the most unbelievable fact.
I was in Asia when the tsunami struck. My cousins were in Phuket. To those who are blaming the officials for not recognizing the extent of the damage immediately, I can say that such information is hard to obtain initially. We all assumed a death toll of 200 initially for the tsunami. Then it grew to 600. Then a thousand. Two thousand. Three. Four. It just went on increasing. The damage reports started to go up too, as more and more facts became known. People affected by the tsunami had to forage for food for days before any aid got to them. There were whole communities cut off by water. Death, disease, and chaos could have been rampant, but was somehow miraculously contained. The governments were slow to get moving. That was the tsunami. And now we are seeing repeat scenes in New Orleans.
Then why do we criticize the American government for being slow to react, the officials for being incompetent to predict the extent of the damage, and the city officials for whatever else?
Because this is an American disaster.
We, the rest of the world, still hold the Americans to a higher pedestal than the rest of us. Like it or not, Americans are still considered a standard of excellence. The USA is the most powerful country in the world. It is the richest country in the world. It is the most educated, scientifically advanced country in the world.
The Americans put a man on the moon in 3 days, but the aid took 5 days to arrive. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) officials earn their fat salary throughout the whole year for the one day they will be needed – the day after such a national emergency. They were ill-prepared, caught with their pants down. Congress stayed up all night to pass the 87 billion dollars needed for Iraq’s army, but did not pass an aid bill for New Orleans since the last 5 days. While Texas opened up their doors to refugees, the President did not see it worthwhile to immediately cut off his vacation. When National Guard officials were needed to stop looting and anarchy in their home state, they were off doing the same in a foreign country thousands of miles away. Somewhere, planning was improper. Scientists have warned for decades about the worst case scenario in New Orleans, so no one can see they were not warned.
And who is suffering? Society is judged by how they treat their poorest, their weakest, and their most vulnerable citizens. The people left behind in New Orleans are certainly those. I hope, for their sake, the American government gets its act together.
Americans deserve - and expect - no less from their leaders.