Sunday Night Journal — September 4, 2005
Sunday Night Journal — September 18, 2005

Sunday Night Journal — September 11, 2005

A Few More Hurricane Notes

I haven’t felt much like writing since the hurricane, and still don’t. I don’t, in fact, feel like doing very much of anything. I realized a couple of nights before the storm, as we made merry in a restaurant after a high-school football game, that the discomforts I kept feeling were the early symptoms of a cold. That was over two weeks ago, and I haven’t felt entirely well since. And there’s been quite a lot of work to do, along with a vague uneasiness that seems to be some sort of effect of the disaster.

So here, in lieu of anything requiring that I think very hard, are some additions to the hurricane story:

First, regarding the question of global warming and its role in this year’s epidemic of hurricanes: this chart from NOAA seems to put that question pretty well to rest for the time being, at least as far as this country is concerned. There is no correlation between whatever warming has occurred since the 1850s and either the number or severity of hurricanes striking the U.S. The possibility remains, of course, that the U.S. is not representative of the entire planet.

This piece by Quin Hilyer strikes me as a pretty sound appraisal of the events surrounding the storm. Hilyer is an editorial writer at our local newspaper, the Mobile Register. He grew up in New Orleans and knows (or knew) the Mississippi coast well. He gets at the agony of knowing that a place one loved is, for all practical and near-term purposes, gone. He’s also seriously ticked off at everybody who had anything at all to do with the government’s response in New Orleans.

If this is not too paradoxical a thing to say, I’m not sure that all the anger is reasonable, although it’s certainly understandable. That is, I’m not sure exactly how much culpability to assign, and to whom. It can’t be denied that the failure of the levees was a possibility that could have been foreseen and prevented, and it certainly appears that the response, after the storm, was bungled in many ways. But I would like to see a serious and reasonably dispassionate investigation into both problems.

Regarding the first of them, let’s note that the widely-cited Times-Picayune story about the potential damage a big hurricane could do to New Orleans discussed the levees mainly with regard to the possibility of their overflowing, not breaking., which seems to be a reasonably even-handed source, confirms that yes, it’s true that the Bush administration cut funding for levee work, but that the failure of the levees was not considered a high probability. As a co-worker said when we were discussing this the other day, nobody builds for the absolute worst-case scenario. That’s why your car can move at speeds far greater than any at which it could protect you from the effects of a head-on collision.

Regarding the second, well, there seems to be hardly any doubt that some egregious errors were made, but I’m waiting for a balanced appraisal before I pass judgment on the entire effort. In sheer scale, if not in loss of life (at the moment reports on this count are encouraging), this is one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history. But it’s also been one of the largest rescue efforts, with an enormous number of relatively happy endings (I mean, how happy can the ending be if it involves losing everything you own?). This editorial provides a needed reality check. I don’t think we should be surprised that things did not go smoothly, but I also don’t think we should leave it at that. There are worse things that could happen, and, wherever the blame may lie, we need to be better prepared to deal with them.

I’m afraid that the political climate is going to prevent an honest appraisal of what went wrong. My most intense disdain right now is for those who have leapt upon the crisis to exploit it for immediate partisan advantage. In that war, truth is not just a casualty but a primary target.


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