The Katrinagate scandal is already the worst PR disaster in American neo-conservative history. The Bush team's rhetoric may be all about God, but when it comes to helping people in dire straits, the devil takes the hindmost. The dam holding the media in servility has also broken, but my radar warns me to be wary. Too many administration hangers-on in the press are showing courage: Homer Bush is just too much of a big easy target, and the calamity is being portrayed as a spectacular failure rather than a system failure. In fact, Katrina is a sample of the perfect storms and judgment days that will visit this century often. Few jurisdictions have the tools, resilience or high ground to ride out the turbulence that is coming. And I'm including ours, so Canadian complacency about the bungling of this situation is unwarranted.
As always, pride goeth before a fall. On August 29, a senior news analyst for United Press International predicted "mercifully low casualties" from Katrina, "testimony to the superb efficiency of the high-tech, space-based early warning weather system, incomparably the best in the world."
But the best weathermen in the world didn't know which way the wind blew. The fact is, North American authorities never make policy or provide funding on the basis of the precautionary principle - imagining the worst-case scenario and then planning for it. Instead, that's considered wussy and an example of negative, doomsday thinking.
So it is that we endure a public security system that's often based on a gamble that the fates will be merciful.
How old-hat and alarmist was the article in Nature by MIT professor Kerry Emanuel earlier in August? The report tracked the 50 per cent increase in destructiveness of hurricanes over the past 50 years, likely the result of ocean waters' rising surface temperatures. But who gives media space to such nattering nabobs of negativism?
Other than green lawyer Robert Kennedy, few have noted the irony that Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, the man credited with giving George Bush his goofy lines about the lack of sound science behind the Kyoto Accords and global warming predictions, got swamped.
Who in the media has dissented from oil dependency and said that the last help America needs is more cheap oil released from world reserves? If you want to help, send solar photovoltaic cells and windmills, not oil. The long-overdue rising price of petroleum is a benefit of Katrina that few appreciate.
The pride that goeth before a flood also assumed that dykes and levees were as good at controlling water surges as stupid old wetlands. Way back in 2001, Scientific American exposed the destruction of Mississippi Delta marshes, just swamps to condo and marina developers, that are disappearing at the rate of 1 acre every 24 minutes, 25 to 30 square miles every year. So if we want to talk about "the worst natural disaster in American history," as Katrina is misdescribed, let us talk about disasters inflicted on wetlands and climate and the wanton destruction of natural capital.
The scope of the social disaster exposed by the hurricane is as revealing as the natural disaster. In the normal course of a day following the rich and shameless, the media come in contact with the underclass only when they avert their eyes from a face-to-face encounter with homeless people.
Katrina showed that the poor are the eye of a social storm created by a McJob and Wal-Martized economy, about as far from the much-ballyhooed knowledge economy as can be imagined. The steady jobs at union rates that underpinned the American dream of the 1950s and 60s are history, and the working people who once held those jobs are the bottom third of society. Their homes were the only remnant of that dream they had to cling to, and they thought they risked homelessness if they didn't risk the hurricane.
But to think that this trend is specific to New Orleans, rather than most marked in New Orleans, is to ignore the most fundamental social trend of the past 40 years. Currently, only 12.5 per cent of U.S. workers are unionized. And Canada, though faring better, is moving in the same direction. Organized labour has gone from 40 per cent of the workforce in the mid-80s to only 30 per cent today. There are already 70,000 Wal-Mart employees in Canada. Ignoring that trend is what taboos are all about, even if societies without the social capital of a stable working class are sunk when it comes to floods and other natural disasters.
The reality yet to be confronted by emergency planners anywhere is that almost all modern post-industrial humans are helpless and incompetent when it comes to looking after themselves. If you want to see people totally incapable of fending for themselves, it's said, go to a psychiatric hospital - or anywhere in North America.
We can't eat, drink, cook, work, play, sleep or shit without electricity or sewage pipes, which have become prerequisites of life itself. If we're to be resilient, we need people who've had St. John's Ambulance first-aid training and who've been taught survival skills, self-reliance and competence. We need natural spaces in which we can revert to older ways if services are gone. We also need community havens equipped with solar energy, water sterilization tools, composting toilets and common gardens.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists cruelly tried to expose the American empire's vulnerability by storming its imperial showpieces on New York's skyline. Bush's popularity rose dramatically. Four years later, Katrina stormed the waterline of one of the empire's biggest port cities, and stranded people shouting on their rooftops showed the world the rot in the superpower's foundations. This will break the back of neo-conservatism.
But it needs to be admitted that New Orleans is in everyone's future, coming sooner than anyone thinks to a community near you. Yet no government has put the first phase of natural, social or technical safeguards in place. This system challenge should be floodding the consciousness of serious planners just about now.