Sunday, September 04, 2005

United States of Wal-Mart

It's hard not to say something trite at times like these. From the comfort of my living room, it's easy to talk about some people's suffering or another's incompetence. However, there's a general feeling that the federal government did much to aggravate this tragedy. Here's Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson parish, Louisiana, talking to Tim Russert this morning in Meet the Press:
Broussard: We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. I am personally asking our bipartisan congressional delegation here in Louisiana to immediately begin congressional hearings to find out just what happened here. [...]

It's not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now. It's so obvious. [...] FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] needs to be empowered to do the things it was created to do. It needs to come somewhere, like New Orleans, with all of its force immediately, without red tape, without bureaucracy, act immediately with common sense and leadership, and save lives. Forget about the property. We can rebuild the property. It's got to be able to come in and save lives. [...]

Russert: Shouldn't the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of New Orleans bear some responsibility? Couldn't they have been much more forceful, much more effective and much more organized in evacuating the area?

Broussard: Sir, they were told like me, every single day, "The cavalry's coming," on a federal level [...]. The cavalry's still not here yet, but I've begun to hear the hoofs, and we're almost a week out.

Let me give you just three quick examples. We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. FEMA--we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. The Coast Guard said, "Come get the fuel right away." When we got there with our trucks, they got a word. "FEMA says don't give you the fuel." [...] Sheriff Harry Lee said that if America--American government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn't be in this crisis. [my emphasis]

[...] And I want to give you one last story and I'll shut up and let you tell me whatever you want to tell me. The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night.

Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary [Chertoff] has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.
He then broke down crying. The last few sentences are now being shown repeatedly in MSNBC. But before the emotion got the better of him, he put forward a persuasive, non-partisan argument for "good government". Although this sounds almost intuitive to a European like me, it obviously needs to be repeated here in the US. American politicians, Republican ones in particular, have spent decades decrying the evils of "big government". I don't know whether the government needs to be bigger, but I do know that it needs to be better. When it is easy to find $231 million to build a bridge for a small, uninhabited Alaskan island, but the $105 million requested by the Army Corps of Engineers for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans last year had to be cut, then something is seriously wrong. Denying that problems exist, be they social or environmental, be they in the Gulf Coast or the Persian Gulf, or saying that "stuff happens", is not good enough.