Learning from Katrina
By Maxwell Pereira

I am in America. Flying in, I had for company in the upper deck among other big names also our former Minister of State for External Affairs and Member of Parliament Eduardo Faleiro, and we had got talking of hurricane Katrina. Anything associated with USA today has to cover Katrina and the havoc it wreaked on New Orleans and thereabouts. Talking about it, Eduardo told me how he had been there just a couple of months ago. His love of music had taken him there.

Apart from music – particularly jazz pouring out of every bar/ club/ saloon in town, New Orleans with people walking on streets in crowds as if it were one big festival, has long been known to be a fun city – popular with tourists keen for a safe taste of the seamier side of American life. The Katrina onslaught made it a ghost town playing host to another breed of voyeuristic tourists – television crews searching for the most garish snapshots of “America’s underbelly”. A kind of invasion and reporting not unfamiliar to us in India. We have it all the time, the Tsunami not too long ago showed us how even the usual diehard anchors from most TV channels headquartered in the nation’s capital too rushed in not to miss out on the piece of cake the tragedy offered.

As if the news of the tragedy is not bad enough, what is galling is the apparent endeavour of the likes of these to often make it seem worse by a type of reporting for which no horror story can ever be too horrific. In New Orleans what began as the grim story of a natural disaster soon became a grimmer moral tale of man’s inhumanity to man and woman. Each channel vying with another for exclusives, the overall effect ending up as an international outlet for the kind of rumours that always spread like wildfire in disaster zones – reporting riots, rapes, murders and lootings…. at times true, but more often as if they were established facts. Another favourite phantom chase, the inevitable threat of unsanitary putrid water caused by stagnation and rotting bodies, leading to cholera and typhoid.

In a cross-section of the coverage, one witnessed the initial optimism and hope of a final body count to be many times lower than the hysterical estimates of tens of thousands of death, fast receding! Amidst appeals against doom-mongering, the stark realities of unpreparedness, followed by inadequate initial response, has not been missed out. This has expectedly and rightly put President George Bush on the back foot.

Television has presented viewers with scenes depicting the extent of damage that rendered the city into a ravaged junkyard and debris town; of the New Orleans’ Mayor accusing the federal government in no uncertain terms of callousness and inadequate involvement and failure in its role in disaster management; live scenes of rampage and lootings followed by shoot at sight orders; of well orchestrated professional appeals for aid. And now in the aftermath, how even the unprecedented aid pouring in from almost every country around the globe becoming the playground for the criminal minded to make a fast buck.

For most Americans the Katrina pictures, a rude awakening that a part of them is still akin to a third world African ghetto! A cross-section of them admitting that money power elsewhere in the US would have made the response different and appropriate.

A visibly beleaguered President is perhaps hit even harder, in terms of the oil crisis that’s triggered nationally with the destruction of thirteen oil rigs in the path of Katrina, and the overall political fallout from lapses and mismanagement by his federal team. He is seen unfazed though, walking in shirt sleeves to give interviews to waiting crews every day – an attempt to broadcast to his nation his belated effort at making amends: "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong," he is forced to admit.

And so the channels are full of debates on how, why, where-for and what-for all this despite the advance warnings, and what next in terms of damage control, future prevention, and so on. On how the New Orleans trough – a bowl six feet below mean sea level, can be saved from flooding in the event of future contingencies.

On disaster management, this rather interesting comparison currently doing the rounds on internet on the two disasters in diametrically opposite locations on the globe merits mention. Mumbai in India was also flooded recently after a torrential rainfall, and causes there for are expressively aplenty. In a Mumbai(M) Vs New Orleans(NO) statistics listed in the internet account – Population: M=25,000,000+, New Orleans=484,674; Total rain in either city: on one day (July 27) in Mumbai= 37.1 inches…. due to Katrina in New Orleans=18; Deaths reported within 48 hours of the calamity: M=37, NO=100; People evacuated in M=10,000… in NO=the entire city (wohh!); Cases of shooting and violence in M=none, in NO=countless; Time taken to involve Army/Navy: in Mumbai=within12-hours…. in NO=72hrs; Status after 48hrs: Mumbai back to normal with business as usual…. New Orleans still groping, waiting for the army, for relief, and electricity.

Expected or unexpected natural disasters are not terrorist incidents, but bring into play all of the same issues and shortcomings. . . Invariably, and despite elaborate disaster management plans and infrastructure, whoever is responsible for acting fails to act. What else has to happen for people to act?

900 words: 20.09.2005: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com


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