Is this America’s Tsunami?

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, one local official described it as follows: “This is our tsunami”, and whilst being in the area of most devastation he is hardly going to be objective, it seems that a number of people beg to differ, also Sarah has posted a response to a comment on her site about her showing less sympathy to the Americans.

There are calls from some quarters about not politicising the tragedy, however others are asking questions as to what has happened. The BBC also published an article discussing New Orleans flood defences, most interesting being that this was not a catastrophic failure – essentially these were small breaches, hence the slowly rising water level. However it was total luck that this wasn’t a direct hit, the night before everybody thought this was ‘the big one’ and that it would hit the city, but at the last minute it changed course.

As a result of knowing this, and seeing the current pictures, I find I’m primarily getting angry. Why is it that thousands of people are trapped in the city? If it is known that the city flood defences couldn’t withstand a category 5 hurricane, why were all those people still there?

Looking at the news, in the days beforehand, everybody who could, drove away as fast as their cars could carry them, leaving others to face the disaster. This I think is probably the biggest difference between the tsunami and the hurricane – America knew it was coming – for days. They knew it had the potential to destroy the city, and yet only days after the event did they order a complete evacuation, once anarchy had broken out, people were being shot, raped and starving in the shelters, and the flood waters were rising. The tsunami happened without warning, and took thousands indescriminately, here although there were some chose to stay, most didn’t. Many of the poor of the city, old, infirm or people in hospitals were trapped, and the rich left. Oh, and Mr Bush carried on with his vacation, and in the words of the New York Times made a speech that was “casual to the point of carelessness”, and reported both by the BBC, and the Guardian.

Whilst questions on the response are really questions for the US public to deal with, it also throughs up challenging questions for ourselves. If something like this were to happen in the UK, given a warning of something catastrophic, would it be every person for himself, leaving the poor, the old and the sick behind? I’d like to think that we’d never have to find out, but if, was discussed earlier in the year the recent rise in hurricanes is caused by global warming, maybe we will have to contend with something similar some day as our climate changes, and our seas warm up.

So back to the original question, is this America’s Tsunami? I don’t think in the simple terms of the disaster it can be. However, in the same way that the tsunami has been a wake up call resulting in the long needed warning system, maybe this crisis will be a wake up call to the USA. Maybe as a result we’ll see better evacuation procedures in emergencies, better flood defences for vunerable areas, or dare we hope the realisation that the effects of climate change may be more costly than the effect on the US economy of cutting emissions under Kyoto?

But that is for the longer term. In the mean time, the BBC has an extensive list of organisations through which you can offer help for the people affected and the ongoing crisis in the region.

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