The devastation of the city of New Orleans hangs inescapably over the fourth anniversary of September 11.
The suddenness of the destruction, the shattering of old assumptions, the assimilation of previously unimaginable loss, all evoke unwelcome old emotions at a time when summer turns to fall. But the damage visited upon the two cities is fundamentally different.
I am always angry when people refer the “tragic” events of September 11.My dictionary defines “tragedy” as a time when a subject “is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances.”
September 11 was an act of war; there was no tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope evident in the root of the attack or in our response. In fact, just the opposite: The latent greatness of our city and nation was brought to the surface in response to the man-made disaster.
In contrast, the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster, un-plotted and largely unavoidable. What was tragically avoidable, however, is the estimated 10,000 deaths that occurred after the levees broke, and the subsequent breakdown of civil society. In a time of heightened awareness of homeland security, the horror that has engulfed the city of New Orleans forces us to confront the lessons learned and lessons lost in the aftermath of September 11.
Out of the ashes of the World Trade Center, there were small redemptions that helped us find the strength to go on. There was the example of the rescuers’ selfless courage. There was also the example of our city itself – once so easily divided, we became fundamentally more unified in the face of a common crisis.
These hopeful reactions to September 11 have been heartbreakingly absent in aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Looting was virtually nonexistent on September 11; it has been rampant in New Orleans. Far from being appreciated, police officers and rescue workers are being shot at by roving gangs and sniper fire. One precinct has taken to calling itself “Fort Apache.” Under siege and understaffed, the police were unable to control the literally fluid perimeter of the destruction. The supposedly safe zone of the Superdome was transformed into Thunderdome, with rampant shootings and rapes – even, police Chief Eddie Compass told Oprah Winfrey, the rapes of babies. The despondent chief public information officer of the city police committed suicide in his automobile one week after the hurricane, as the death toll steadily grew from the initial day’s estimate of 65.
In the aftermath of September 11,there was – however briefly – political unity. Democrats and Republicans stood on the steps of Capitol Hill and spontaneously sang “God Bless America.” Now the partisan political attacks have been immediate. The city, state, and federal governments appear to be feuding on the ground and in the highest corridors of power, as the mayor criticizes the governor and the governor criticizes the president.
Even the causes of the storm have been anthropomorphized and demonized: Robert Kennedy Jr. blamed the storm on Mississippi’s governor, Haley Barbour, and the administration’s abandonment of the Kyoto Treaty; a Kuwaiti government official quickly forgot that we had saved his country from invasion and mused upon how “The Terrorist Katrina is One of the Soldiers of Allah”; here in America, members of the religious right represented by organizations such as Repent America.com and Columbia Christians for Life attributed the storm to acts of God designed to destroy a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah where abortions are held and decadence celebrated.
This is as absurd as personally blaming the president for the storm; but despite administration talking points decrying “the blame game,” there needs to be accountability for the unnecessary level of suffering and destruction that has occurred. The president was certainly mistaken when he said to Diane Sawyer, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” In 2002,the Times-Picayune published a five-part series warning of the devastation that could be caused by a major hurricane, while an eerily prescient National Geographic article from October 2004 anticipated a storm scenario where some 200,000 poor residents failed to be evacuated, and 80% of the city was flooded “in a murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste … the worst national disaster in the history of the United States.”
In other words, the breaking of the levees was both predictable and preventable. No adequate contingency plans were in place at a local, state, or federal level. There was consequently “inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances.”
Terrorists are the most clear and present danger facing the nation, but a holistic definition of homeland defense attempts to protect us from both natural and man-made disasters. There is now the sense that in the allocation of homeland defense resources, we may have been committing the classic sin of generals always preparing to fight the last war. Since September 11, we have spent less than $550 million to safeguard bus, subway, ferry, and rail service, compared to more than $22 billion on airline security. Likewise, our ports are not adequately protected from the full range of threats they face. In any case, funding for terrorist attack contingencies and natural disaster response should be largely complimentary – focusing on prevention and the safe evacuation of citizens.
This September 11, as we confront this still unfolding national tragedy, say a prayer not only for the brave individuals we lost four years ago, but also for the more than 10,000 who may be lost in New Orleans today. Say a prayer for the continued strength and resilience of our city of New York, and say a prayer that these same blessings may in time be absorbed by a resurgent city of New Orleans. Our country has suffered a great deal in this difficult decade, but if we are willing to learn from heartbreak, we can emerge better prepared and fundamentally more unified.