Hurricanes and politics

By Sean Carroll | September 3, 2005 7:18 pm

I’m back from a brief but busy trip to Syracuse, where I hung out with co-blogger Mark and gave a talk or two. No time for any substantive blogging, which is just as well, as the rest of the crew has been discussing the Katrina fiasco better than I could have.

In fact, had I been stuck in front of the computer with nothing to do but blog, I would likely have posted something early on about how this is no time for partisan political sniping — it’s a massive human disaster, you can’t blame the President for the weather, and there will be plenty of time for sorting out responsibility later.

What a mistake that would have been. Sure, you can’t blame Bush for the hurricane, but the tragedy has been needlessly magnified by massive incompetence at all levels, foremost at the very top. The extent to which things have been screwed up is only gradually becoming clear, but we already know that the response strategy included funneling large numbers of poor people into the convention center and locking them in, while refusing help from other countries and cities, and keeping out the Red Cross on the theory that the refugees wouldn’t leave the city if there were food and water and medicine there.

The incompetence is staggering. If nothing else, the one thing that should have been figured out after September 11 is how to coordinate a response to a large-scale disaster. Don’t you think they’ve had time to settle on a plan? Of course they have, but perhaps the decision to gut FEMA rather than strengthen it was a little shortsighted. And perhaps political hack Michael Brown’s job experience as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association — from which he was fired for incompetence — didn’t really prepare him for the realities of being Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Oh yes, and perhaps it would have been good if more of the National Guard were here guarding the nation, rather than somewhere else.

Yes, there will be time for recriminations later. (And for gathering more synonyms for “incompetence,” I’m running low.) But as James Wolcott stresses, later never comes for these people. Right now, when the stupidity and mendacity of the administration is visible in sharp relief, is the best time to hold them responsible for their mistakes. I’m sure there is plenty of blame to go around, and I’m sure a lot of it will deservedly fall on state and local officials, and I’m sure many of them will be Democrats; it doesn’t matter, anyone who failed in their job in this time of crisis deserves to be held accountable. And it starts at the top.

Update: If you’d like to see an actual attempt to use the disaster for a brazenly partisan political advantage, see this. (Via Pandagon.)

  • Clifford

    Hi Sean. Three comments –

    (1) We have Risa to thank for keeping a sharp eye and a clear head and pointing up several of the issues very rapidly (and usefully) here at CV. Thanks Risa!

    (2) We have some excellent readers and commenters who helped point to excellent sources, (which I for one was then able to share with everyone by writing posts based on them) and in addition those readers and commenters contributed to the usual high quality of discussion we’re getting used to here. Thanks everyone!

    (3) Actually, the discussion is not so much about party politics as it is just trying to bring faster action and some accountability to the people in power who have been entrusted to look after us. Not too much to ask. I for one would be just as angry and vocal if it were Democrats who had screwed up so royally. We are going to need a focus on infrastructure for emergency rapid response in the future. If we don’t shout about this lack of action and preparedness now, we’ll be partly to blame if we have another mess like this in the future….whoever is in the White House.



  • Arun

    A global disaster watch group has the following warning, first here is
    info about the 1997 incidents:

    As surely as Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf of Mexico, at some point – today, tomorrow, 10 years or perhaps decades from now – a catastrophic earthquake will strike California with equally cruel fallout. But unlike Katrina, there will be no warning signal, no chance to evacuate communities close to the quake’s epicenter. A major quake near the Sacramento Delta could bring flooding on an unimagined scale by destroying the 1,100-mile maze of earthen levees, many built a century or more ago. This is an area 30 times the size of Manhattan that is now 20 to 30 feet below sea level. In addition to inundating Delta communities where some 400,000 people live, the Delta flood would cover millions of acres of agricultural land and contaminate the water supply for 22 million Californians. These are not just doomsday predictions. The Association of California Water Agencies reported in a May 2005 report, “No Time To Waste,” that “the “risks posed by levee instability, land subsidence, major flood events, rising sea levels and earthquakes … could imperil the water supply for much of the state.”

    It was desperate in the Sacramento area in 1986, when residents had to be rescued by boat. Again in 1997, there were 40 levee breaks in a 100-mile radius. Today, 1600 miles of shoreline are in a constant state of repair. Three of Sacramento’s most desirable neighborhoods are at risk. In fact, so are many developments up and down the valley. “The risk of flooding in Sacramento is higher than most every major metropolitian city.” Local officials believe that Sacramento is one freak weather season from a castrophic flood.

    Here is an editorial

  • JoAnne

    From Merriam-Webster Thesaurus:

    Entry Word: incompetence
    Function: noun
    Text: the lack of sufficient ability, power, or means — see INABILITY

  • Savyasachi

    I am sorry to say that the incompetence that the US administration has shown is more than a third-world country like India had over three decades ago; and the one instance I can remember is that of Indira Gandhi refusing to save millions of West Pakistanis in a very avoidable bloodshed.

  • Savyasachi

    Ouch! I meant East Pakistanis……

  • Quantoken

    What happened in New Orleans shocked the whole world and deeply disgraced America in front of the whole world.

    There is a great contrast here in This photography.

    It is worth noting that the Chinese government donated 5 million dollars as a guesture of sympathy. That is certainly a generosity of astronomical scale, comparing with the two million US cents the US government donated in the 1991 flood of Eastern China, which affected 50 million people and was far worse, but the people responded in far more rational manner than the people of New Orleans.

    It’s a total disgrace! I just can not put two pictures of New Orleans together that some one who had been without food and water for 5 days and in dying condition can at the same time openly assault and rape women under broad daylights on the streets. Is 5 days without food enough to destroy human dignity? Such lawlessness in unimaginable!


  • Amis

    I thought God would take care of the Republicans in the south.

  • Amis

    And not $

  • jepe

    Last I heard, at least the Superdome is evacuated. So, it’s a start on a very very long road to recovery. As far as accountability, it’s a sure bet that the Rove-Cheney-etc etc team will try to blame local officials in Louisiana and New Orleans. The spin challenge will be how to spew toxic nonsense efficiently while handling the shakeup w/Rehnquist’s passing at the same time. But I’m confident the Rove-Cheney team is up to the job.

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    The latest news here is that the swedish help offer has today been refused into US air space due to lackings in US logistics. So it is stuck here, in standby.

    The paper cites the Rescue Services international manager as surprised. It continues to say that his personal judgement, after talking with several collegues in Europe and US, is that US wants to avoid a situation where it can not handle the relief offered. He speculates that the problem is that the relief will be stuck in the airport for several days, thus creating (comparatively more) criticism.

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    Umm, by ‘news here’ I mean local news, not on the topic as such.

  • spyder

    If one thought it couldn’t get any more insane: (AP) 3:02 pm PST

    NEW ORLEANS – Police shot eight people carrying guns on a New Orleans bridge Sunday, killing five or six, a deputy chief said. A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers said the victims were contractors on their way to repair a canal.

    The contractors were walking across a bridge on their way to launch barges into Lake Pontchartrain to fix the 17th Street Canal, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Corps.

    Earlier Sunday, New Orleans Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley said police shot at eight people, killing five or six.

    The shootings took place on the Danziger Bridge, which spans a canal connecting Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

  • Ross


    It wasn’t the contractors who were shot. The group of shooters were the ones who got deaded. Still your basic point is well taken. Yes it can get more insane (stay tuned and see).


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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