Over and above the horror and the tragedy and the devastation of the Katrina disaster hangs a bigger question: about the ability of an advanced industrial nation to cope with large-scale disasters that are man-made rather than orchestrated by nature.
FEMA — the US federal agency that is supposed to deal with what happened in New Orleans — has been rolled into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the super-department created to make the US secure after the 9/11 attacks. (This may explain, by the way, why Bush & Co apparently knew so little about the impending threat to the Southern states. It’s clear that FEMA had always ranked the flooding of New Orleans as one of the three biggest disasters that could befall the US. In the old days, the head of FEMA had a seat at the Cabinet table and might even have had the ear of the President. But now, advice and information from FEMA has to be filtered through another layer of bureaucracy — the Homeland Security Secretary, who is probably obsessed with terrorism. It would be interesting to know when the impending hurricane made it onto the agenda for the President’s daily security briefing — if indeed there were such briefings during Dubya’s five-week summer vacation.)
But I digress. There is a connection between New Orleans and the kind of global terrorism that obsesses the Homeland Security boys. The connection exists because one accepted scenario involves Al-Qaeda getting hold of a nuclear weapon — either as a Russian army-surplus item, or as a homemade ‘dirty’ bomb made by mixing conventional explosives with some radioactive materials — and setting it off in a major Western city. In such an event, an entire city would have to be evacuated and effectively sealed off — much as Chernobyl was over a decade ago.
What the New Orleans case suggests is that such an evacuation is currently beyond the competence of the US authorities. There was clearly no plan for getting people out of the threatened city — just exhortations and injunctions and advice to people to get the hell out of it. But those in charge must have known that something like 100,000 of the city’s poorest residents possessed neither the means nor the vehicles to flee. The police service clearly did not have the resources to nudge or force them into action. There was no serious provision of free public transport for these people. And so on.
Which leaves me with the thought that despite all the hoo-hah about ‘Homeland Security’, despite all the border checks and fingerprinting and watch lists, despite the DHS’s $41 billion budget, the US would be unable to do what would need to be done in the event of an Al-Qaeda ‘spectacular’ along the lines suggested above.
I’m sure that there are lots of people in Washington — in the civil service and the Congress – who are thinking about this. But I doubt that the Bush regime will be much moved by such thoughts. As Paul Krugman pointed out, this is a regime that lives in a reality-distortion field, uninterested in the real responsibilities of governing, and hijacking the resources of the state to pursue private obsessions (stopping stem cell research, outlawing abortion, toppling Saddam, ignoring global warming and looking after the oil and aerospace industries). This is a regime that believes you can invade a country without doing any planning for the aftermath, that you can wage war without killing American soldiers, that you can treat the global environment with contempt, and that you can do all this while reducing taxes.