Sunday, September 04, 2005

Eyewitness in New Orleans

Walking among exhausted, shocked and worried refugees, many of whom have lost everything, I got my first close-up look at the devastating impact of Katrina. In this grim and teeming way station, the nation's incomprehensibly slow-footed rescue effort struck me as all the more staggering.

In a major city in the United States of America, it took days for food and medical supplies to be delivered, for guard troops to be brought in and for sick and elderly people to be rescued from rooftops.

Bodies lay in streets, floated in rivers, piled up at morgues in the Gulf states, and nobody seemed to know who was in charge of rescue efforts.

As lives hung in the balance, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert all but suggested that New Orleans should be bulldozed because of its precarious geography.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday on national radio that he was unaware of the chaos and suffering at the sweltering convention center, where thousands lived in unspeakable filth.

All of this is somewhat less surprising when you consider that it was the president who set the tone for so casual a response to death, a president more intent on saving face in Iraq than saving lives in the United States.

President Bush, who last year slashed an Army Corps of Engineers request for flood protection in New Orleans, waited four days to visit one of the deadliest disasters in American history.

When Bush finally arrived in the city where levees could have been bolstered with a few weeks' worth of the cost of the war in Iraq, he told the nation he'd had lots of fun in New Orleans in his day. He said he was satisfied with the hurricane response but not the results — decipher if you can — and then he boarded Air Force One and flew home without visiting the sick and suffering at an airport triage center.

Why the quick exit? There is work to be done back in Washington, where the agenda includes another round of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and gigantic cuts in benefits to the poor, many of whom we saw in the black neighborhoods of New Orleans for several days running, clinging to life and waiting for someone to throw them a line.

Steve Lopez

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