Sunday, March 26, 2006
A Surprising Katrina Legacy: Just Say No to Public Service
The brutal fury of Hurricane Katrina will be remembered for generations. But the destructive power unleashed by the mighty storm is already overshadowed by the ripples that Katrina left in its wake. Loss of life, property damage, dislocation, crumbling infrastructure and exposure of inexcusable poverty are a few of the obvious ripples of Katrina that will have long lasting impact. I’m very confident in the ability of our country to appropriately mitigate the effects of the obvious ripples. No country in the world can match our responsiveness and resiliency in the face of disaster.
However, I’m not so confident we will even recognize the more subtle ripples of Katrina. I’m as blind as anyone when it comes to recognizing subtlety, but I am aware of one ripple that has serious long term consequences that will be very difficult to mitigate. It’s the ripple of blame that continues to flow from Katrina.
The blame game has been underway for more than six months. The original scapegoat for Katrina, Michael Brown, the publicly disgraced former head of FEMA, was recently given the opportunity to spread the blame around. His testimony in congressional hearings, amplified and embellished by the media, cast the spotlight of blame on his former boss, Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security. By all accounts, Chertoff now has his head on the chopping block and will likely be out of a job by the time this commentary is published.
It’s obvious to everyone that the response to Katrina was inadequate. But an inadequate response is not necessarily a willfully negligent response or even an incompetent response. The difference is a matter of context and perspective.
It’s not surprising that politicians have ignored the context to score political points. As shameful as it is, we’ve learned to expect that of politicians. But shame on broadcast and cable news programs for not putting the Katrina response in perspective. By any measure, this was a storm of biblical proportions. No government in the world has stand-by capability at the ready to deal with something like Katrina. No government should even be expected to have such resources in reserve and deployable anywhere along a very extensive coastline within the few days of warning available before a hurricane lands.
The truth is that our government and its employees have the assets and skills appropriate to manage the risk presented by hurricanes and other natural disasters. Just look at the track record. Year in and year out, federal, state and local agencies professionally and heroically assist communities preparing for and recovering from natural disasters. But once in a great while there is going to be a monster storm or event that no government is fully prepared to handle. Hurricane Katrina was just such an event.
Brown and Chertoff certainly made mistakes. And we should identify and learn from those mistakes. But such lessons can and should be learned through a thoughtful and professional review of the response in light of the unusual challenges presented by Katrina. The broadcast and cable news frenzy unleashed by Katrina is anything but thoughtful and professional. It is nothing more than an endless series of self-serving commercials to convince us that the media has our back when it comes to protecting us from politicians and government incompetence. Forget about fair and balanced reporting. Finding scapegoats is far more entertaining than reporting context and providing accurate and thoughtful perspective.
It might be great entertainment in the short run, but it will play out as a tragedy in the long run. It’s sad enough that a few public servants are publicly humiliated and will lose their jobs. It’s even sadder still that thousands of men and women who worked heroically in the face of insurmountable Katrina odds are also indirectly implicated as incompetent public servants. But the saddest legacy of all is that in the future good men and women who are desperately needed in public service will not heed the call to serve. When Uncle Sam comes calling, anyone who has witnessed this blame game would be well advised to just say no.