It’s the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The media usually cannot resist anniversaries, particularly when there is powerful film footage to show, and this one is no exception. This CNN story on the anniversary is typical — a rehash of what happened, some hand-wringing about it, and plenty of retrospective blame being put on President Bush and the federal government, but curiously not much blame being apportioned to the State of Louisiana or the City of New Orleans itself.
I’m not sure what to make of such stories. With Katrina, the federal government did not cover itself with glory in dealing with an enormous catastrophe, and neither did the state or city government. People were marooned on the roofs of their homes, were not readily supplied with food and water, and could not be evacuated quickly from the hellish environs of the Superdome. We learned that the federal government is a ponderous entity that does not move with lightning speed. Was that unique to the Bush Administration? Apparently not, because we recently saw a plodding, uncoordinated federal government make a similarly muddled response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Katrina also taught us that the Louisiana state government and the New Orleans city governments were corrupt, inept and seemingly hamstrung by politics. Has anything changed in that regard?
If I had my way, every retrospective story on a disaster like Hurricane Katrina would focus not on what happened — we can safely leave that to historians — but on how things have changed to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. No blame-shifting politicians or social scientists could be quoted. Instead, facts would be the focus. Have the levees been sufficiently strengthened? Have cumbersome federal bureaucracies been streamlined to better deal with disasters? Are evacuation plans reasonable and capable of being implemented? If Katrina were to happen again today, would the results be any different? If so, why? Those are the tough questions that “retrospective” stories tend to leave unanswered.