Across U.S., Outrage at Response

RV News
Published: September 3, 2005 WASHINGTON, Sept. 2 - There was anger: David Vitter, Louisiana's freshman Republican senator, gave the federal government an F on Friday for its handling of the whirlwind after the storm. And Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland and the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, declared, "We cannot allow it to be said that the difference between those who lived and those who died" amounted to "nothing more than poverty, age or skin color."

There was shock at the slow response: Joseph P. Riley Jr., the 29-year Democratic mayor of Charleston, S.C., and a veteran of Hurricane Hugo's wrath, said: "I knew in Charleston, looking at the Weather Channel, that Gulfport was going to be destroyed. I'm the mayor of Charleston, but I knew that!"

But perhaps most of all there was shame, a deep collective national disbelief that the world's sole remaining superpower could not - or at least had not - responded faster and more forcefully to a disaster that had been among its own government's worst-case possibilities for years.

"It really makes us look very much like Bangladesh or Baghdad," said David Herbert Donald, the retired Harvard historian of the Civil War and a native Mississippian, who said that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's destructive march from Atlanta to the sea paled by comparison. "I'm 84 years old. I've been around a long time, but I've never seen anything like this."

Around the nation, and indeed the world, the reaction to Hurricane Katrina's devastation stretched beyond the usual political recriminations and swift second-guessing that so often follow calamities. In dozens of interviews and editorials, feelings deeper and more troubled bubbled to the surface in response to the flooding and looting that "humbled the most powerful nation on the planet," and showed "how quickly the thin veneer of civilization can be stripped away," as The Daily Mail of London put it.

"It's very disappointing," said Dr. Kauser Akhter, a physician from Tampa, Fla., who was attending a convention of the Islamic Society of North America outside Chicago.

"I think they were too slow to respond. Maybe the response would have been quicker if it had occurred in some other area of the country, for example in New York or California where there's more money, more people who are going to object, raise their voices," she said. "Those people are the poorest of the poor in Mississippi and Alabama, and it seems they had no access to anything."

Jonathan Williams, an architect in Hartford, originally from Uganda, said the delayed arrival of relief and aid supplies in New Orleans made him wonder about how the United States responds to disasters abroad.

"I am in utter shock," he said in an interview at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan on Friday. "There is just total disarray. This far into the cleanup and they are still understaffed? I am just so disappointed. It's just a terrible, sad situation."

But Mr. Williams added: "You cannot just blame the president, or any one person. Everyone is partly to blame. It's the whole system."

It was the combination of specific and systemic failures that many of those interviewed - experts and ordinary people alike - echoed.

Andrew Young, the former civil rights worker and mayor of Atlanta who was Jimmy Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, was born in New Orleans 73 years ago, walked on its levees as a boy and "was always assured by my father that the Army Corps of Engineers had done a masterful job." But, Mr. Young said, "they've been neglected for the last 20 years," along with other pillars of the nation's infrastructure, human and physical.

"I was surprised and not surprised," he said of the failures and suffering of this week.

"It's not just a lack of preparedness. I think the easy answer is to say that these are poor people and black people and so the government doesn't give a damn," he said. "That's O.K., and there might be some truth to that. But I think we've got to see this as a serious problem of the long-term neglect of an environmental system on which our nation depends. All the grain that's grown in Iowa and Illinois, and the huge industrial output of the Midwest has to come down the Mississippi River, and there has to be a port to handle it, to keep a functioning economy in the United States of America."

Mr. Riley, the Charleston mayor, whose Police Department on Monday sent 55 officers to help keep order in Gulfport, Miss., said he had long advocated creating a special military entity - perhaps under the Corps of Engineers - that could respond immediately to disasters.

"It's not the police function," he said. "It's that it's an entity that knows how to quickly restore infrastructure and the essentials of order." He said his own experience with the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when he had the National Guard on standby and then requested Army troops and marines, had convinced him that civilian bureaucracy was sometimes too caught up in the niceties.

"With the eye of Hugo over my City Hall, literally, I said to a FEMA official, 'What's the main bit of advice you can give me?' and he said, 'You need to make sure you're accounting for all your expenses," Mayor Riley recalled. "The tragedy of these things is the unnecessary pain in those early days, the complete destruction of normalcy."

Few suggested the challenges of this particular storm had been easy.

Priscilla Turner, 55, of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., is a registered Democrat, but she said President Bush was being saddled with some unfair blame. "There is an instinct to be so negative," Ms. Turner said, "to wish for the worst, to anticipate the worse, to glory and wallow in the worst." If Mr. Bush had sent troops to New Orleans too quickly, she said, his detractors would have portrayed him as "going in with guns blazing."

As it is, criticism of Mr. Bush has been unsparing, especially abroad. European newspaper headlines used words like "anarchy" and "apocalypse" and some ordinary citizens in less fortunate parts of the world spoke with virtual contempt for what they saw as an American failure to live up to its professed ideals.

"I am absolutely disgusted," said Sajeewa Chinthaka, 36, watching a cricket match in Colombo, Sri Lanka, according to the Reuters news agency. "After the tsunami, our people, even the ones who lost everything, wanted to help the others who were suffering. Not a single tourist caught in the tsunami was mugged. Now with all this happening in the U.S., we can easily see where the civilized part of the world's population is."

There was anger closer to home, too, especially among blacks.

"Babies, the elderly are dying on the streets," said Rebecca Chalk, 60, financial aid director at Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore. "It doesn't speak well of America."

Ms. Chalk added: "People are desperate; they're hungry and panicky and they lost everything. The bureaucracy seems like it has to go through all these channels. They should have just gotten the people help by now."

Calvin Kelly, 40, works in a San Francisco food bank warehouse but was born in New Orleans and has been unable to reach elderly family members, including two grandmothers and a 99-year-old aunt, who still live there. "The National Guard is just now getting there," Mr. Kelly said, shaking his head. "The government should have been there when the storm first hit."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an unusual foray into domestic affairs, sharply disputed any suggestion that storm victims had somehow been overlooked because of their race. "We're all going to need to be in this together," she said in announcing offers of foreign aid. "I think everybody's very emotional. It's hard to watch pictures of any American going through this. And yes, the African-American community has obviously been very heavily affected."

But noting her own roots in Alabama, and her father's in Louisiana, Dr. Rice announced plans to visit the region this weekend and said, "That Americans would somehow in a color-affected way decide who to help and who not to help - I just don't believe it."

By no means did all the criticism come from blacks, or from Mr. Bush's political opponents.

Senator Vitter spent part of Friday touring the devastation with Mr. Bush and told reporters that he hoped a turnaround was in the offing. But earlier in the day, news agencies reported, he said the "operational effectiveness" of federal efforts to date deserved a failing grade, or lower.

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, who also spent part of the day with the president and went out of his way to praise the government's response, offered a sober assessment.

"We're going to be fine at the end of the day," Mr. Barbour said, "but the end of the day's a long way away."
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