From Bad to Worse

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Friday, September 2, 2005

THE HUMANITARIAN disaster and the disintegration of public order in New Orleans are clearly outstripping the government's inadequate resources on the ground. Help is on the way in the form of thousands of desperately needed National Guardsmen, whose presence around the city was becoming slightly more visible as of yesterday afternoon. But the sluggish initial response to one of the nation's most devastating natural disasters has embittered and inflamed tens of thousands of people still awaiting relief, most of them poor and black and many of them old and sick. The Crescent City, a carefree mecca of wild parties, rich food and pretty architecture, has become a national tragedy.

The hardship and suffering that attended Hurricane Katrina when it lashed the city Monday morning had devolved by yesterday into something between a disaster zone and a state of nature: Officials said thousands may be dead; shots reportedly were fired at a rescue helicopter and a hospital trying to evacuate its patients; trash fires burned and fecal matter befouled the city; looters and carjackers, some of them armed, have run rampant. Bodies floated in the toxic water that covered four-fifths of the city, and corpses were filmed amid the refugees around the downtown convention center, where thousands of people awaited buses to evacuate them. The heat, the lack of plumbing, and the prevalence of human waste and garbage posed a growing risk to public health. Whatever food and water was delivered by guardsmen and officials was inadequate.

The nation's response must be equal to the need, and President Bush took some steps toward ensuring that it is. He proposed an emergency $10 billion infusion of funds to keep the Federal Emergency Management Agency solvent as it deals with the crisis, and he enlisted his father and former president Bill Clinton to raise private funds for Katrina's hundreds of thousands of victims. Acknowledging that gasoline shortages are a possibility, Mr. Bush has also moved to enhance supplies by tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, lifting the ban on foreign ships shipping the oil between American ports and relaxing standards on gasoline's composition.

When the mayhem is contained, the refugees are evacuated and the dead are counted, New Orleanians themselves are certain to demand some explanations, and they deserve answers. The nation had heaved a sigh of relief early Monday when Hurricane Katrina hit, believing New Orleans had been spared the worst when the storm veered just to the east of town as it made landfall. In Katrina's immediate aftermath, officials saw the damage to the city as grave but manageable. But they were unprepared for the worst, which came 24 hours later when the levees broke and the rising waters of Lake Ponchartrain submerged the city.

But how could the government have been so unready for a crisis that was so widely predicted? It is simply not true, as Mr. Bush said yesterday, that nobody "anticipated the breach of the levees." In fact, experts inside and outside of government have issued repeated warnings for years about the city's unique topography and vulnerability, and those warnings were loudly and prominently echoed by the media both nationally and in Louisiana. How is it possible that city, state and federal authorities lacked an emergency plan that could be quickly activated?


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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