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To Be Accountable

As I write this, it's been nearly a week since hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and we're surrounded by an almost overwhelming amount of information, rumor, gossip and commentary.  Television and radio news has covered the disaster heavily, of course, but the blogosphere has also exploded with coverage of the hurricane and its aftermath: first predictions, then news of the landfall and the aftermath, followed by analysis of the government's response, the socio-economic factors involved with the evacuation, and information about ways to help.

I remember when "the news" was something we watched in the evenings before we sat down to dinner, and 24-hour news coverage of a tragedy or a natural disaster was a novelty reserved for the most cataclysmic events.  Now we not only have multiple cable news networks providing 24/7 coverage, but there are people blogging within the affected areas, describing their experiences and providing digital images and streaming video of corpses in the streets and survivors wading through chest-deep flood waters searching for food.  I've been tied to my computer for days, trying to process the horrific news that seems to keep getting worse, and growing increasingly angry with a federal government that seems oblivious to the scale of this tragedy. 

In many ways, this feels like a dreadful replay of 9/11: the horrific images on the TV, the outpouring of support for the victims, the painful reminder that we should all count our blessings lest they be snatched from us without warning.  And in others ways, it's completely different.  In spite of all the information, the reaction to this tragedy (especially on a federal level) has been unbelievably, shamefully slow.   

Yesterday, the headline on msn.com was "Aid Arrives at the Gulf."  Why did it take almost a week for the relief efforts to kick into high gear?   The lack of organization, the lack of leadership, in the face of this crisis has been appalling.  If the telecommunications company that Adam works for could anticipate that this was coming and prepare for the effects it would have on their network (Adam's group was working around the clock monitoring their equipment several days before the hurricane hit), why wasn't FEMA prepared?  If I can watch CNN and see shot after shot of people clamoring for food at the Convention Center, why did Michael Brown claim that he had no idea they were there? 

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No one can change the weather, but the damage from Katrina could have been ameliorated with planning and preparation.  Bush keeps saying that no one knew the levees could be breached, despite the fact that there have been numerous governmental studies and magazine articles documenting the high risk of exactly this scenario.  He cut the Corps of Engineers funding, and utilized resources and manpower (such as the National Guard) for the War in Iraq, leaving us shorthanded at home.

After the hurricane hit, FEMA dragged its heels, allowing precious days to go by without acting, and, in many cases, actually hampering the efforts of private relief organizations.  Survivors were penned up in overheated, poorly lit stadiums and shelters for days on end.  Food and water was thrown down from overpasses to be squabbled over, rather than distributed in an orderly fashion.  Instead of protecting the innocent from the inevitable few who will take advantage of the chaos to rape and steal and kill, the guardsmen treated all the survivors as enemies, at times shooting at civilians who posed no threat, but merely dared to approach the guards in search of assistance for themselves or others.  Where is the compassion and empathy for people who've lost everything, who are scared and confused and bereft?  Where is the leadership that would bring this situation into hand and stop the suffering?

Bush and his appointees dropped the ball, both before and after the storm hit.  They failed to prepare adequately for a scenario that nearly everyone knew was likely to occur at some time or another, and when it happened, they failed to respond in a timely, efficient, or caring fashion.  Their incompetence certainly contributed to the death toll, although all Bush seems concerned about is Trent Lott's porch.  Republicans get offended when anyone tries to pin responsibility on the Bush administration, claiming that this isn't the time for politics, but pointing these things out is accountability, not political game playing. 

Of course, government officials have been glad to blame others for this debacle, especially those who didn't evacuate.  They fail to take into account the extreme poverty in this region, the large number of people without cars, and the fact that the Greyhound Bus Station apparently closed on Saturday morning.  How exactly, were those without cars or the money for a plane ticket supposed to comply with the mandatory evacuation order? 

Everywhere I've been the past few days, everyone's been talking about ways to help.  This is as it should be.  We need to rally around and help now.  But we also need to be aware that these kinds of disasters are inevitable.  We can't just jump from crisis to crisis.  We have to be prepared, to build up our reserves, so that when the next calamity occurs, we're ready.  That means donating blood and donating money to relief organizations, even when there's no big media event.

But more than that it means holding the government accountable.  Providing aid on this scale shouldn't be dependent upon volunteers and private organizations.  We pay taxes under the assumption that the government will protect us (and not just from the illusory threat of weapons of mass destruction in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries).  What we are witnessing in the wake of hurricane Katrina is nothing more or less than the disintegration of the social contract.  Something must change before the next disaster strikes.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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