Tuesday, September 06, 2005

More Katrina info

Here is an excellent analysis of the many problems the this country will have to deal with in a post-Katrina world - it's a little lengthy, but well worth the read (sorry about the formatting - I'll fix later):
First, a lot of the early media coverage focused on repeating the same
stock footage over and over of lootings. The looters were nearly all black,
and you could well imagine that many viewers were thinking, “How could
those people behave that way?” The image of black looters, harking to
riots in the past and “lawlessness”, may have sparked a temporary downturn
in American concern. From that moment the call was not for rescue, but for
“law and order”. We are only now returning to a serious rescue mode, in
light of public outcry regarding the estimated 20,000 people stranded
without food, water, medicine, or hygiene in the New Orleans Convention
Center. In our experience such shifts of external public opinion, however
transient they may be, have enormous outcomes on the ground, where minutes
may have life-and-death consequences.

Across the region we have some of the worst poverty in America, and most of
that poverty has a black face. Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana: these
are states that consistently, since the Civil War, have ranked in the
bottom five states in America for virtually every social achievement, from
education and infant mortality to police corruption. Government, for many
of the region’s poor, has had one of two faces: corruption or overt
neglect. New Orleans has had one of the highest murder rates in the nation
for decades and a notoriously corrupt police force. In our experience
dealing with catastrophes and epidemics overseas, there is a DIRECT
correlation between the historic relationship between government and its
people, and the willingness of the populace to believe in and correctly
respond to government instructions. Of course tens of thousands of people
failed to evacuate: why believe the government this time? And of course
those folks who are slowly starving and baking in New Orleans assume that
government has abandoned them.

I found myself recalling the way the Chinese people responded to the SARS
epidemic. Because they knew that their government had lied to them many
times in the past and had covered up cases in the capital, people turned
away from official government sources of information. Rumors spread like
wildfire via cell phone text messaging, spawning a mass exodus from Beijing
of tens of thousands of people. The medical system in China is notoriously
corrupt and the peasants stay away from hospitals unless it is a matter of
life and death. When government told the masses to go to the hospitals if
they had fevers, the Chinese refused. The SARS situation spiraled out of
control in large part because the people had long-standing, sound reasons
for distrusting their government. Public health collapses if the bond of
trust between government and its people breaks, or never exists. I saw the
same thing with plague in India in ’94.

Perhaps the single most crucial difference between New York’s response to
9/11 and New Orleans’ and the hurricane region’s response to the current
crisis is communication and its corollary, leadership. Though cell phones
were disrupted and emergency responders in Lower Manhattan lost contact
during the morning of 9/11, the people of New York knew immediately what
was going on. We did not lose electricity citywide, TVs, radios. Mayor
Giuliani rose to the occasion brilliantly, making full use of every press
conference and broadcast opportunity to honestly assess the situation,
telling New Yorkers what the government did, and did not, know. New
Yorkers were frightened, of course, but they knew what was going on and
they could see, minute by minute, what was being done in their behalf.

In contrast, none of the people now trapped in New Orleans or wandering
around in shock along the Mississippi/Alabama coastal communities have any
idea what is going on. They have no electricity, and therefore no
television or radio. Information is entirely rumors. When reporters
interview them, these desperate souls are grilling the journalists for
news. This means that the comfort of observed leadership is completely
absent. No matter what the Mayor of New Orleans says, his people cannot
hear him. They do not see the vast destruction. I doubt more than a handful
of the folks trapped inside New Orleans at this moment have any idea how
massive the damage to the Gulf Coast is.

Worse, there is real danger that the only overt sign of leadership will be
military, in the form of anti-looting enforcement and armed personnel.
While bringing law and order to the situation is essential, the absence of
obvious civilian leadership and information means many local refugees will
view themselves as an occupied or policed population. Given overtones of
racism, this could be explosive.

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