Unnatural Disaster

Bush finds a new pet goat, loses a race he doesn't care about

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Paul Morse/White House

Help: Above, Bush and Mike Brown pretend to listen in September 2003 to information about Hurricane Isabel. Below, FEMA community relations worker Joe Buckman hands out water at a convention center — in Orange County, Florida, in October 2004 in the aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne and just before the presidential election in that key state

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FEMA

Truckloads of analysis of the Hurricane Katrina pre-disaster disaster and post-disaster disaster are on the way. But BBC's Paul Reynolds has a practical suggestion for U.S. officials: Turn on the friggin' TV!

Reynolds's September 5 analysis is otherwise pretty even-handed — he blames everyone:

    There was no one cause. The failures began long before the hurricane with a gamble that a Category Four or Five hurricane would not strike New Orleans.

    They continued with an inadequate evacuation plan and culminated in a relief effort hampered by lack of planning, supplies and manpower, and a breakdown in communications of the most basic sort.

    On top of all this, there is the question of whether an earlier intervention by President Bush could have a made a big difference.

Reynolds doesn't say so, but the race to New Orleans was lost because the race in New Orleans doesn't count.

Bush is finally going near enough New Orleans to get hugs from black people in an effort to repair his image. But reporters were in that city's downtown late last week while hordes of people, mostly black, were still starving and thirsty at the Superdome and Convention Center. Why weren't there troops and rescue workers there? How did the reporters get there? Were they reverse-raptured? Reynolds wrote:

    The scenes which most shocked the world were at the Superdome and the nearby Convention Center. Yet it turns out that neither Mr Brown nor his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, knew about the crises there until Thursday.

    This, despite numerous television reports from the scene. It was not until Friday that the first relief convoy arrived.

That's two days after the military quickly and efficiently evacuated 400 of its elderly own — judging from the photos I've seen, most of them are white — from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Mississippi.

But what about New Orleans? Reynolds wrote:

    Ironically the failure at the Convention Center would have been fairly easy to put right. Reporters drove there without problems. One took a taxi.

    What one wonders was FEMA/the mayor's office/the governor's office doing while all that was played out on live TV?

    One lesson agencies might want to learn is that someone senior should do nothing but monitor TV.

In other words, they should emulate the behavior of the campaign-trail media, most of whose reporters are transfixed by the CNN feed as they write their stories.

Bush's neglect of the black people of New Orleans reminds me of how our political process — and the press — marginalize Southern blacks even in non-crisis situations. I saw the parallel universes of blacks and whites when I traveled to South Carolina in March 2000 to cover John McCain's GOP primary campaign against Bush. This is part of what I wrote back then during a campaign stop in Charleston:

    Just as most reporters have swallowed G-Dub's view of himself as a "compassionate conservative," they have swallowed McCain's invention of himself as a reformer. And the "hero" stuff has them captivated. During his last frenetic day of campaigning, McCain's staff schleps around other Vietnam War POWs to punctuate their man's own ordeal as a captive. South Carolina knows all about captives.

    In a state that's 30 percent African American, his audiences are practically all white, as are the reporters and camera crews following him around. During one stop for a breather, reporters relax on the gracious patio of the Hampton Inn, on Meeting Street in the charming former slave port of Charleston, and put on the feed bag courtesy of McCain. While they rest, a local journalist is quietly at work across the street. Krenston Price, accompanied by his son Jordan, is filling a newspaper box with copies of Black News, part of a big chain of black papers here.

    To Price, the campaign seems irrelevant. Neither candidate is talking about the constant in-your-face racism that people of color have to put up with here. The old plantations are now resorts, but still called plantations, and black folk still clean the toilets in the Big House. The Confederate battle flag flies over the state capitol in Columbia, but don't think it's a matter of history or heritage. It's been up there only since 1962, erected in defiance of integration.

    So how's that civil rights struggle going, now that the Civil War's been over for 135 years? Price points to his leg and says, "It's as if you once had an open sore and now it's got a scab over it. But it's infected. It's under the surface, but it's deeply infected."

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