In the unfolding disaster that has turned one of America's most beloved cities into a third-world slum, a few things are becoming clear:
1. Much of this was preventable.
No, we don't know how to stop a hurricane; and no, nobody could have predicted a month ago that a strong Category 4 hurricane would strike New Orleans. But the city was unprepared for even a Category 3 storm, and there were plenty of warnings.
And there was much the government could have - indeed, should have - done to reduce the threat. Hurricanes derive their energy from warm water; development of a major storm depends on a surface temperature of at least 81°F. Not surprisingly, most if not all global warming models predict increased hurricane severity. A recent MIT study confirms that over the past 50 years, the strength (as measured by maximum wind speeds) and duration of tropical cyclones has increased by 50% - and that the strength variations from year to year parallel ocean temperature changes, implying a causal relationship. While the rest of the world, and even some US states, implement programs to reduce the threat of global warming, the Bush administration refuses to cooperate.
2. The situation is being badly mismanaged, and the effects are falling disproportionately on the poor.
The governor of Louisiana bemoans the fact that so many people"chose" not to evacuate before the storm. But the overwhelming majority of those who stayed had no choice in the matter. New Orleans has a larger percentage than any other American city, including New York, of residents who do not own cars. The poor (New Orleans is also a national leader in per capita poverty) and the homeless had no way out of harm's way, and now those who survived the hurricane and the initial flooding are dying in the streets while they wait for relief.
It's apparent that planning for hurricane recovery also did not include caring for the survivors. Within 48 hours of the tsunami that hit Asia last December, food and water were being air-dropped to the survivors. It has taken twice that long for supplies to begin to trickle into New Orleans. Meanwhile, President Bush has announced a policy of "zero tolerance for looters." Press Secretary Scott McClellan, asked if the zero-tolerance policy applies to desperate people taking only what they need to survive, confirmed that it does. There are other ways to get what they need, he said. Let them eat cake.
The same policy is espoused by the Democratic governor of Louisiana, the one who gave the mandatory evacuation order but did not provide a means for the destitute to comply, and now has given the National Guard shoot-to-kill orders.
3. This tragedy is not an isolated incident, and it will not be the last.
Americans are opening their hearts and their homes and their wallets to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Across the nation, donations are pouring into disaster relief efforts. As we were in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we are united in sympathy and support for those affected by this disaster.
If the storm clouds that rained death and destruction on Louisiana and Mississippi have a silver lining, it is that they have awakened Americans to the fact that the path down which the corporate-sponsored right has taken our country is a path fraught with peril. If we're lucky - if we're very lucky - it might not be too late to turn things around.