New Orleans has hosted the Super Bowl a record nine times. It's world renowned for jazz, gumbo, and its month-long citywide Mardi Gras party. But within hours last week, those images crumbled as a Category Four hurricane whipped through the area and, in its wake, left one of America's most colorful cities in lethal chaos.
In the place of parades and bead tossing, there were horrifying and unbelievable images. Survivors talked about bodies floating past their front doors. Thousands were without food and water. They looked as vacant and haunted as Sudanese or Rwandan refugees—an image that was underscored because the hardest hit victims have almost exclusively been poor, black residents.
Beyond emotional impact, those pictures also portray an incredibly dangerous gap between the Bush administrations' promises and the reality of public safety in America.
Of course, Bush's credibility (or lack thereof) is nothing new. Two years ago, Bush landed on an aircraft carrier to unravel a banner reading, "Mission Accomplished." Since that time, the war in Iraq has only intensified, with thousands more causalities and no real end in sight.
Likewise, since 9/11 the Bush administration has assured the American public the nation is secure and prepared to manage any disaster. These very promises were made in the face of criticism that the Iraq War has depleted resources and the ability of American forces to respond to natural disasters on American soil. And last week, the fear that Bush was unworthy of our trust came painfully true—and to a degree worse than anyone could imagine.
This reality should serve as a wake-up call to Oregonians. Earlier this summer, tsunami alarm bells rang along the Oregon coast. At the time, some coastal towns vacated, while others were completely uninformed. Yes, the warnings turned out to be a false alarm, but what remains true is that the federal protocols put in place to protect Oregon's coast simply did not work.
Or consider an exercise in Seattle two years ago when Homeland Security officials set off a mock dirty bomb to see how local and federal officials responded to the emergency. The result? An internal report by FEMA officials, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, called the response "unacceptable."
From tsunamis to terrorists, and earthquakes to forest fires, Portland and the entire Pacific Northwest has its share of potential disasters. Consider that at the beginning of this summer, Montana's governor warned that his state—and the entire region—was dangerously vulnerable to summer forest fires. With the bulk of the National Guard shipped off to Iraq, he warned, the traditional ranks used to fight fires were woefully thin. The Bush White House did not respond. Fortunately, it has been a relatively tame summer for forest fires.
But what last week's devastation in New Orleans makes acutely frightening is that decisions by the Bush administration are putting America directly in the path of danger on many fronts—the same policy decisions that consistently snub scientific information and relevant data.
As a below sea-level city, New Orleans has been shoring up their levies for decades. But sadly, the reason those preparations were not sufficient is because the White House began cutting funding to FEMA in the New Orleans area back in 2001. By this year, federal funding for New Orleans to prepare for a natural disaster had been sliced 44 percent—meanwhile, the Bush administration has been promising the public they've been increasing national security.
As if that were not dangerous enough, two years ago the White House ordered the EPA and Army Corp of Engineers to roll back protections on wetlands. Leading environmental groups in the southeast criticized that decision, informing President Bush that without the wetlands, the area would not be able to absorb rainstorms and that New Orleans risked massive flooding.
Yet last Thursday Bush boldly declared, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levies."
As New Orleans begins its long path towards rebuilding—and Oregonians chip in to shelter 1,000 displaced residents—we should also begin to prepare for our own potential threats. The first step is to stop believing the White House when they tell us we're prepared.
For more info about local efforts for hurricane victims, check out redcross-pdx.org.