Friday, January 15, 2010

A Comparison of the Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian Earthquake

The difficulty in distributing aid to the Haitians quickly underscores the magnitude of the catastrophe of the earthquake near the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and the logistical challenges it poses, especially given the weakness of the Haitian government even before much of it was destroyed by the quake. The damage to Port-au-Prince’s airport, the destruction of the city’s port and the blocking of the roads leading into it, as in Louisiana after the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina, will slow the distribution of aid.

The difference between a disaster and a catastrophe is that the former is manageable and the latter not. Put another way, if it is manageable, it is not a catastrophe. Indeed, it is incomprehensible how the critics of the Bush Administration’s response Hurricane Katrina fail to grasp the destructive energy of a hurricane as strong as Katrina, especially considering that many of them claim to be environmentalists who, therefore, ought to understand power of nature.

The biased political critics who maintain that the Bush Administration’s response was “slow” and “ineffective,” do not appreciate that the federal response was nonetheless the largest and fastest in American history, even though the U.S. is not obligated to do anything for individual states in the Union, which must request federal help. In other words, President George W. Bush did not do a bad job in response to Hurricane Katrina, because it was not his job or any responsibility of the federal government whatsoever to respond to natural disasters in the first place.

Nevertheless, because of federal meteorological monitoring, the Bush Administration declared a state of emergency before the storm – an unprecedented step. It urged the states in the path of the storm to order mandatory evacuations, which Louisiana was reluctant to do. Thankfully, some people did obey the order. Even the U.S. Navy had had to evacuate its ships from the area, which meant that they could not be available immediately to participate in the federal relief effort that the Bush Administration’s critics insist should have been managed neatly like a typical disaster.

It is worth noting that Mississippi and Alabama were hit harder by Hurricane Katrina and the storm surge it produced than Louisiana, which was apparent until the waters rose to the catastrophic flood stage. The difference, however, in those states’ responses to what was a major disaster, was also evident. Louisiana had not prepared as properly as they had done and had relatively ineffective leaders. As a result, it was overwhelmed by the catastrophe and had to depend upon federal assistance. A general difference in public attitudes about dependency on government was also in contrast between Louisianans and the citizens of other states, who did not sit and wait for federal help and then complain about the delay in receiving it once it did arrive, but worked to help themselves. The leaders and citizens of the other states expressed their gratitude for the Bush Administration’s help.

The U.S. responded rapidly in Louisiana once that state belatedly requested federal aid. For example, the Coast Guard rescued a record number of people, all of whom had failed to obey the evacuation order. Blocked roads and destroyed bridges made the logistics of providing relief to the U.S. Gulf Coast a significant challenge, but the flood exacerbated the problem. The critical port of New Orleans was rendered unusual because of the damage from the hurricane, which was one of the few legitimate areas of federal responsibility. Assistant U.S. Maritime Administrator Kevin Krick, my good friend from the Reading, Pennsylvania area, invoked a federal contingency plan that had never before been implemented to federalize private shipping in order to reopen the port quickly -- a move, which was successful, and for which Krick was awarded a medal. The Bush Administration also freed up oil from the Strategic Petroleum reserve because of some of the interruption of supply because of damages to the oil industry rigs and facilities in the path of the hurricane. In short, the Bush Administration went above and beyond its call of duty in successfully responding to the largest catastrophe in American history. Instead of criticizing the Bush Administration’s response to the catastrophic hurricane, these critics ought to have expressed gratitude for what it did accomplish.

As in response to Hurricane Katrina, the American military is quickly responding to Haiti’s desperate time of need, which occurred without warning. It has assumed control of the Port-au-Prince airport, but, as was the case in Louisiana, the logistical difficulties caused by the earthquake damage and the lack of adequate support from the local sovereign government will limit what it can do in such a short time, as is the case in any catastrophe.

Political critics have been praising the Obama Administration’s vigorous response to the earthquake in Haiti by contrasting it to the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which they condemn. The facts already had disproved their criticism of the Bush Administration’s record on the hurricane, which was far batter than they maintain. Now, however, the earthquake in Haiti is beginning to prove just how unfair and biased the criticism directed against the Bush Administration was.

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