Katrina's Staggering Blow

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

THE WORST-CASE scenario, or something close to it, has befallen southern Louisiana and its Gulf Coast neighbors, Alabama and Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina's howling, lethal force has dealt an immense blow to the region, exacting a shattering price in treasure and lives. As a human tragedy, Katrina's magnitude is still difficult to comprehend, but spare statistics hint at it: tens of thousands of homes destroyed; 2.5 million people without power; a death toll running into dozens and possibly scores.

The rescue and relief effort over the coming weeks and months will have to address not only physical damage that may reach into the tens of billions of dollars, but also the peril to public health. In a major American city whose neighborhoods and streets are now submerged under water befouled by garbage, gas and debris, and whose hospitals -- if they have not been evacuated -- are overflowing, the authorities could have their hands full maintaining a decent level of public health.

For years New Orleans has issued dire warnings about the unique threat a powerful hurricane posed to the city; with floods inundating 80 percent of the Crescent City yesterday, it is clear that those warnings were not hyperbole. Characteristically compassionate in times of crisis, the nation is rushing aid to the storm-damaged area. President Bush, who has maintained his weeks-long holiday schedule without regard to the bloodshed in Iraq, is breaking off his summer idyll two days early to tend to the fallout from Katrina. The American Red Cross has mobilized thousands of volunteers for the hurricane -- the largest single mobilization undertaken in the organization's history for any natural disaster, its spokesman said. All that will be desperately needed, particularly in a part of the country where poverty and poor social services were endemic even before Katrina came smashing ashore.

In a society hooked on access to instant and overwhelming quantities of information, it was remarkable how much was unknown about the scope of the disaster wreaked by Katrina; the storm had simply destroyed much of the information network. More often than not, calls to southern Louisiana were answered by a polite recording saying that hurricane damage had rendered telephone service impossible. In most of the storm-socked area, there was no power to run computers, much less pumps to remove the water. The Times-Picayune, New Orleans's main newspaper, was doing a heroic job of covering the crisis until suddenly, at 9:40 yesterday morning, its entire staff had to evacuate the building to flee the rising waters coming through breached levees. On CNN, harried reporters told their anchors on camera that they didn't know much more than what they could see from the hotel rooftops on which they had taken refuge.

Images and reports of the devastation in Gulfport, Biloxi and other communities were breathtaking, but one could only guess at the fate of smaller, more isolated towns along the coast cut off by destroyed roadways. We hope that National Guard manpower, supplemented by active-duty Army troops if necessary, is sufficient to respond quickly to the immense needs of those places. The human response must be equal to the devastation wrought by nature.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company