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New Orleans Rescuers Did a Good Job

Monday, 12 September 2005 12:00 AM

I'm writing this column in fear and trepidation, and I'm certain to face ridicule and even anger from all sides. Would you like to take a peek at MY absurd-looking puppy? Here it is.

I THINK THE RESCUERS OF NEW ORLEANS HAVE DONE A GOOD JOB!

Take a breath, please, and don't lose your place. In spite of ample warning and abundant confusion, lateness of aid, paralysis of movement, deer-frozen-in-headlight non-reaction at high levels, bipartisan screaming for rolling heads, complaints everywhere, compliments nowhere, and a suddenly-withdrawn FEMA boss whose resume about Arabian horse management may have been padded – in spite of these things, I think the rescue was commendable.

The heavy artillery of the New York Times is in Tet-Offensive mode. Op-ed star Paul Krugman lets fly with "... the federal government's lethal ineptitude wasn't just a consequence of Mr. Bush's personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good." And furthermore, "[Bush's] contempt [for FEMA] reflects a general hostility to the role of government as a force for good."

Bob Herbert begins his Labor Day column with "Bush to New Orleans: Drop Dead." As far as dead bodies floating in putrid water or slumped over in wheelchairs, Herbert deadpans, "The president didn't seem to notice."

Listen to just part of a letter to the editor of the New York Times from reader Kathleen Sorce of Holmdel, N.J. "I am shocked, ashamed, and disgusted by the government's response to Katrina and its aftermath. I didn't think it was possible to feel more vitriol toward this administration, but its arrogance, incompetence, ineptitude, disregard for humanity and lack of leadership have made this a reality."

I always thought legends took centuries to gestate. The legend looms over the land that President Bush and his crusty clique of incompetent misanthropes don't consider a major disaster a big deal if it happens to happen to poor people who also happen to be black. That legend needed no such gestation period. It was born full-blown overnight.

Some splinters plunge into the skin too deep to work themselves back out over time. I fear the one about rich whites not caring and therefore not bestirring themselves to save poor blacks is one of them.

It's hard to think of an insult more untrue and unfair. Someone once described a communist as somebody who could never see a fat man standing beside a thin man without concluding that the fat man got that way at the expense of the thin man. The new racist is somebody who cannot see poor black people waiting desperately for help without concluding that help is delayed because the recipients are poor and black.

The spectacle of so many white rescuers doing so much to rescue so many black victims propels such blather beyond the absurd all the way over to the obscene. A plain old helicopter ride may be nothing to write an adventure story about, but the perpetual day-in and day-out mid-air acrobatics of rooftop rescues are life-endangering. And there seems to be no shortage of Coast Guard pilots willing to take those risks.

I know about the cosmic stupidities that seemed to erect instant iron curtains between what was needed and those who needed it. I know about all the hapless thousands of people sent to the Superdome with nothing but promises to eat or drink. I know about all the ill who were told of all the well-equipped medics waiting to treat them inside the Convention Center – where they found exactly one doctor equipped with exactly one stethoscope!

I know about the looting, robberies, rapes and shootings. And the waiting in circumstances that convert hours into eternities.

We've all heard the "failure" stories. I've probably heard more than you, since my work lets me have the news channels on all day. I'm not claiming that a single one of those "failure" stories was overstated.

I'm claiming that the scope of the disaster itself was grossly understated. Slap that lens on top of everything and in that context, I insist, the rescue effort was commendable.

In the thick, high and loud chorus of complaints I hear a disturbing theme. I call it "entitlement inflation." Entitlements in life aren't limited to Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment compensation and the like. It now seems to be generally assumed that "By golly, if my boat sinks, the world owes me a Coast Guard cutter right up alongside and, by the way, make sure they understand I don't want to get my feet wet!"

Splendid aspiration; but we'll all be drawing seven-figure Social Security checks monthly before THAT entitlement can be achieved.

Back when almost every man served in uniform of some kind at some time, the futility of that kind of "universal coverage" by government was widely understood. Today it's an easy sell to convince a Katrina-plagued victim that his suffering has a cable connecting it to some other specific human's specific failure. Wrong. Bad. And potentially civilization-destroying.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld enjoys reminding us, correctly, that "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." Everybody who has known combat understands that, and so do most who've played football or run political campaigns. During World War II the phrase wafted from the battlefront to the home front that everything was "SNAFU."

As a small boy I asked Aunt Selma what "SNAFU" meant. She explained that SNAFU meant "Situation Normal, All Fouled Up!" which was just one sanitized word away from the beachhead meaning. Today aunts and nephews feel free to give the "F" word its original value, but almost nobody appreciates the ubiquity of and the inevitability of SNAFU, particularly when dealing with category four and five storms hitting populated areas below sea level.

Let's review. After a weekend of warning and evacuation, the headlines Monday morning, August 29, were giddy with good news. New Orleans, we were told, had "dodged the bullet." It wasn't until Monday afternoon the seawall broke and New Orleans went under water.

In most hurricanes the after-blow brings the aid and the rescuers pouring in to move fallen trees, clear roads, deactivate downed power lines, and go to work. And in every one of those typical cases you've got the identical confusion, swine-skullery, turf battles, paralysis, perversity, stupidity, etc., but it all blows over quickly because the only consequences are that the help sets in a little later when it might have set in a little sooner.

Even in the one memorable case when the exasperation of the hurricane victims boiled over into major media attention – Hurricane Andrew, which demolished the southern outskirts of Miami in 1992 – the matter never rose to the level of "Hey, we can change the next election with this!" in the nostrils of the out-of-power party, at that time the Democrats.

In the unfortunate case of Katrina, the problem didn't end when the wind passed on. The problem BEGAN when the wind passed on! As Hitler annexed Austria, as Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait, the Gulf of Mexico annexed New Orleans. And if Gulfs have feelings, the Gulf of Mexico felt justified. After all, New Orleans was lower!

I hear my fellow Americans anguish over "Not Being Prepared" as though skilled hands could have prepared for a Katrina as effectively as one might prepare for a flute recital or a math test. Alas, if only!

When a football team wins, the winners and the losers on that team – the heroes who return punts 95 yards as well as the runners who drop the ball – ALL win. And that's the feeling I sense as families find each other and the bodies found as the water is pumped out turn out to be far fewer than feared.

Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, who ordered the pre-Katrina evacuation, didn't provide transportation. TV provided pictures of a huge parking lot of school buses in New Orleans – under water.

The Red Cross says it was told by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to quit trying to supply victims because it was too dangerous. The governor also had as-yet-unexplained problems with calling up the National Guard. President Bush and the feds would have made it a very long movie if we'd had to wait for the scene of the cavalry storming to the rescue.

Nonetheless: They're all on the winning team, considering what they were up against. Bear in mind, not everybody on every winning team deserves to be signed up for next season.

I'm not here defending any party that's been attacked. I'm attacking the

Meanwhile, we'd be a stronger nation if we could agree on one simple bit of advice.

"Turn the hose on the fire, not the fire chief."

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I'm writing this column in fear and trepidation, and I'm certain to face ridicule and even anger from all sides. Would you like to take a peek at MY absurd-looking puppy? Here it is. I THINK THE RESCUERS OF NEW ORLEANS HAVE DONE A GOOD JOB! Take a breath, please,...
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Monday, 12 September 2005 12:00 AM
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